One-Hit Super-Wonder

Name the writer whose career can be summed up as follows:

They publish one novel, and one novel only.  Over the next half-century, that novel sells in excess of thirty million copies and wins the Pulitzer Prize.  The author refuses almost every opportunity to be interviewed.  They have to be bullied by friends into accepting the awards and honours they so richly deserve.  On the rare occasions that they make public statements they exhibit a hard-headed sense that never looks like wavering.  They are adored by millions but intimately known by very, very few.

But you know already that I’m talking about Harper Lee.

If To Kill a Mockingbird were simply a neat unpicking of certain racial tensions in the US, it would be valuable, but not necessarily a classic.  It’s a classic because of Scout.

Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch is, of course, the narrator of Mockingbird, and for sheer lovability as a fictional character she’s a serious rival to Elizabeth Bennet.  Never mind that Scout and Lizzie have absolutely and positively nothing in common other than gender and intelligence.  Smart, observant, tough as nails and feisty as a fractious ferret, Scout would steal the book if she were only a minor character.  Since she’s the narrator, no-one else has a chance.

Here’s a description of Scout’s home town:

‘Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it.  In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the court-house sagged in the square.  Somehow, it was hotter then; a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square.  Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning.  Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft tea-cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.’

Alliteration and sibilance are rather overdone in this paragraph, but at this early stage of the novel Lee is just getting into her stride.  In any case a couple of moments save it: ‘a black dog suffered on a summer’s day’ is fabulous, and the simile in the last sentence is just about perfect: the ladies and the tea-cakes form a beautifully compatible pair of vivid images.

Despite Scout’s utter dominance of the novel, it teems with characters minor and major – it’s impossible to forget Dolphus Raymond, who panders to Maycomb’s bigots by feigning alcoholism, or Mrs Dubois, who overcomes a morphine addiction in her last weeks of life so that she can die in a state ‘beholden to nothing and nobody.’

You’re not likely to forget Atticus, Calpurnia, Uncle Jack or Maudie Atkinson either – and if you can forget the Ewells, you’re not far off dementia.

Lee’s deftly interwoven double plot (the first concerning the mysterious figure Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley and the second the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of rape) is as neat an indictment of prejudice as any I’ve read.  It exposes the fundamentally unreflective basis of racism while acknowledging its tenacity.  Lee is aware of just how radical a shift the racist must make in order to shed their convictions: she is realistic without being despairing.

Right at the heart of Mockingbird is Lee’s dissection of the ways in which America’s justice system failed black defendants in the early part of the twentieth century.  Alas, at the dawn of the twenty-first, it seems that all is still not well.

Did you know, for example, that 10.3 per cent of the entire American population of black males aged between twenty-five and twenty-nine were in gaol in 2002, compared to 1.2 per cent of white males of the same age?  Or that of the entire prison population in 2002 (somewhat over 1.38 million people) it was estimated that four hundred and forty-two thousand and three hundred of them were black?  I was too scared to work out that percentage.

I hasten to add, of course, that such contemporary figures must of course reflect social factors far more complicated than good old-fashioned Southern bigotry of the sort that Lee described.  It is also possible that the last eight years have seen some improvement in such matters, although I’m inclined to doubt it.  I also recall Disraeli’s contemptuous dismissal of ‘Lies, damned lies and statistics.’  But these qualifications cannot entirely dispel the feeling that the shortcomings Lee threw so acutely into relief have not yet comprehensively been redressed.

The anti-bigotry maxim that everyone remembers from Mockingbird is Atticus’, of course: ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’  It’s a shame, in a way, that this piece of home-spun dross tends to be so resonant: it’s the weakest, and most obviously inherited of Lee’s messages.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the complete Bildungsroman of Scout and the first chapter of one of the United States.  Harper Lee, having written a novel as good as this as her debut, needed to prove to us exactly nothing more.  And if she’s done nothing in the last fifty years but calculate her royalties as the sales mounted, it’s hard to begrudge her the total or her right to.

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