For those readers in need of a refresher for To Kill a Mockingbird, follow the link to a Sparks Notebook Study Guide: https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/mocking/summary/
Harper Lee is a most complicated author. Understanding her and the politics of her two best known public works presented a unique problem. Those books, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Go Set a Watchman are vastly different books. This has been commented on many times, but from a literary and biographical standpoint.
Here, we are going to investigate Watchman and Mockingbird as being quite different politically, very nearly to the point of being politically opposite. Rather than take a contrast and compare position throughout a single article, we will investigate the books both individually and hermetically, allowing the reader to independently arrive more easily at a comparative analysis.
Mockingbird is by far the easier of the two books to explore politically, and the one we will discuss here. The hero Atticus Finch is a lawyer in Maycomb, a sleepy Alabama town peopled with a wide range of colorful characters. Atticus is the man Lee sets up to defend a Negro (Tom Robinson) accused of raping a white woman. This scenario is of deliberate design, intended it would seem to offer its weight to the side of a growing, progressive movement in the America of the 1960s. But before dismissing Mockingbird as merely a progressive, formula slam-dunk, we need to look throughout the work to highlight episodes that will contrast sharply with a read of Watchman.
First should be noted that Lee intends for Maycomb to be more than a dot pinned to a map of the Deep South. It should be clear that Lee intends for Maycomb, this sleepy Southern town, to represent a bigger picture: The American social world of the nineteen-fifties writ large. The daughter of Atticus Finch, Jean Louise (aka Scout) states several times that Maycomb, not New York, is her real world. This devise of universality alone sets the book up as underwriting a broader social and philosophical picture than would otherwise be the case.
At numerous points in the book, Lee states without equivocation that racial thinking is abnormal, referring to racism as a thing which drives people mad. As the trial of Tom Robinson approaches, Atticus expresses the hope that his children can survive the trial “without catching Maycomb’s usual disease. Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand . . .” (p. 117.) Here in identifying racism as a disease, Lee intends for the reader to understand that racism is not a natural part of the human spiritual genome. “Maycomb’s usual disease,” as Lee wants you to see it, is an environmental, even cultural affliction that erupts in the human condition as a malignant disease and does not emerge from the well-spring of human nature.
Lee also makes clear that the dichotomy or contradiction, between the environment and human nature is both a feature of racism and a provoker of the violence it spawns There is a point in the story when the towns’ people in a mob, prepare to seize Tom and are stopped by Attius and his young daughter Scout. Later, when explaining this success Atticus proclaims “A mob’s always made up of people, no matter what. Mr. Cunningham [as a spokesperson for the town] was part of a mob last night, but he was still a man. . . That proves something – that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human. . . .” (P. 210.) Again according to Lee, human nature is basically a profound force for good and can always muster the gumption to trump moral turpitude.
There is a point in Mockingbird when the reader encounters one Dolphus Raymond, a local reprobate and ne’er-do-well, who is challenged by Scout: Why does he live like he does, pretending to be an unwashed drunkard? Into the mouth of this unlikely, low-life character, Lee puts some especially important words. Dolphus lives this life; he informs Scout and Dill, because he wants to be left alone. Scout is puzzled. Why tell her and her childhood friend, Dill, this dark secret? Dolphus explains: “Because you’re children and you can understand it.” Then further, this apparent degenerate, representing the dregs of Maycomb’s (i.e., the world’s) social order, offers an important and valuable insight. Dolphus reveals that the positive moral value of the human spirit gets hammered by the world until its innocence is demolished and evil accepted as a normal condition of life.
Commenting on Dill’s (Scout’s side-kick throughout the story) upset and his crying about the way people treat each other, especially the way white people treat black people, Dolphus explains: “Things haven’t caught up with that one’s [i.e. Dill] instinct yet. Let him get a little older and he won’t get sick and cry. Maybe things’ll strike him as being – not quite right, say, but he won’t cry, not when he gets a few years on him. . . . Cry about the simple hell people give other people —without even thinking. Cry about the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people too” (p. 269.) A keyword in this diagnosis is instinct. Dolphus reveals to all who will listen, that a child’s instinct is the opposite of racial animas; the child’s instinct naturally leans toward balance and fairness. That the natural bent of human instinct is toward justice and rectitude, and is only corrupted by the evil accumulated by history and sown into the fabric of society.
It is no mistake that Lee puts these most profound words – especially in the context of the 1950s – into the mouth of the town’s unflappable low-life, a man who had sired children of mixed race and shuns “polite,” Southern society – a man who stands outside the social order. Writers do not make mistakes in this regard. It is quite deliberate that from the underbelly of the town comes the forceful claim that innocent children are twisted into cynical adults by witnessing and swallowing whole the world’s suffering and pain. And who would know better than the charlatan bum, the flip side of “decent” society, Dolphus Raymond.
While there are many more examples of progressive sentiments in Mockingbird, and no noticeable contravening, so let us close with a commanding statement ultra-revealing of the progressive perspective that defines this book. Toward the end of Mockingbird, Scout nails it. In a debate with her brother (Jem) concerning a local boy, Walter, who is illiterate because his father keeps him out of school to work the farm. Scout says to Jem: “Everybody’s gotta learn, nobody’s born knowin.' That Walter’s as smart as he can be, he just gets held back sometimes because he has to stay out and help his daddy. Nothing’s wrong with him. Naw, Jem, I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” (p. 304) Here, Lee clearly puts the onus for key human failings on social and environmental factors. Not only that, for good measure Lee affirms the equality of people. In fact, it is tempting to read this statement as a rejection of race itself, viz., “There’s only one kind of race. The human race.”
From even a casual perusal of Mockingbird, as we have done, the progressive sentiments expressed by Harper Lee are abundant. Faith in the underlying goodness of human nature, the rejection of ignorance and injustice, the rejection of evil as endemic to society, all speak loudly to the legs driving all progressive philosophy. Mockingbird is a classic of forward-looking literature, a book richly deserving of acclaim, especially give the time it was written, when such art flew in the face of convention and offered moral sustenance and support to progressive dreamers and warriors.
It is vital to keep these progressive points in mind as we explore Lee’s other work, Go Set a Watchman, a book of a quite different orientation. The next essay, one that will analyze Watchman in much the same way as we have explored Mockingbird, will reveal not only a different philosophy, but a sharply contrasting Harper Lee herself. Following that analysis of Watchman, we will conclude with some speculation as to why the two disparate Lees and the two remarkably different viewpoints on race and human nature are to be found in the two different books.