Few novels have had the sustained impact on American culture of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. One of the most widely read works of American fiction, and perhaps one of the most beloved, it reached the 50th anniversary of its publication this summer. The novel has sold over 30 million copies in at least 40 languages, and between 50 and 70 percent of U.S. school systems continue to require students to read it.
Why does To Kill a Mockingbird continue to enthrall us? Perhaps because it presents complex social, ethical, and moral issues in a beguilingly simple, beautifully narrated form. This tale of Southern white children coming of age amid racism, violence, and various forms of abuse introduces these issues in a manner that all readers, even the very young, recognize as simplistic; in fact Harper Lee’s first-person narrator, simultaneously knowledgeable and naïve, is one of her most compelling achievements. Jem and Scout Finch learn rudimentary lessons about courage and tolerance as they discover the ugliness just beneath the surface of their small Alabama town, and the message that most of us were enjoined to draw from the work when we were teenagers—that we must all learn to see things from another’s point of view—is the very one that Atticus Finch delivers to his children when they encounter situations or behaviors that are difficult to comprehend.
Judging from the many editorials, Web sites, and panel discussions that celebrated this American classic this summer, that message continues to circulate today. But such a message, while perhaps suitable for adolescents, is dangerously incomplete and unworthy of the complexity of Lee’s masterpiece. When embraced by adults it justifies abuses just as injurious as the intolerance and racial bigotry that the novel condemns. That’s because it suggests that good will is all that we require to understand how history and circumstances have created our and others’ identities, and that once we have acknowledged...
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