Last month, Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” opened on Broadway. Based on the reviews, and perhaps more importantly the ticket sales, it is a resounding success.
The play is largely faithful to the 1960 novel. The one glaring exception is that the Finches’ housekeeper, Calpurnia, has a more outspoken role. This is particularly apparent during her dialogues with protagonist Atticus Finch about race relations in Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s.
As with many works of American literature, I never fully appreciated them until my adult years. In high school and college, we were assigned books like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Scarlet Letter,” etc. They were often accompanied by essays and other box-checking activities that showed we as students were at least exposed to these works — and for a lot of us, likely through CliffsNotes.
Then, life goes on and most of us never think about them again.
For me, the renewal of interest in Harper Lee’s works came from a goal to understand how everything fits together in Alabama.
Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and its companion, “Go Set a Watchman,” are important historical documents for the Yellowhammer State. They are the best offerings detailing of life in rural 1930s and 1940s Alabama: How people who live in town and the county “folk” co-exist, the peculiarities of surnames like the Coninghams and the Cunninghams, old customs such as pouring molasses over your meal, the importance of daily newspapers in rural Maycomb County before television and radio.
Where I begin to depart from conventional wisdom on “To Kill a Mockingbird” are the moral lessons about race it thrusts upon us.
In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus Finch is a heroic character. His aims are noble. He faces the insurmountable odds of the times, yet still gives an honorable effort. He stands for what he believes is right, even if that violates the racist cultural norms of the time. He bestows those values on the children he is raising.
Here’s the problem with trying to make those lessons universally applicable to that 1930s era: It’s all too simplistic.
The modern takeaway is idealistic: “If they just followed the fictitious Atticus Finch’s lead of the time, the world would have been a better place.”
Perhaps that is true, but “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a story told through the eyes of a child. Atticus Finch is a role for Gregory Peck in a movie.
Scout Finch’s account of Alabama during that era on the surface was spot on. It was racially ugly, but under the surface the story was more complicated. Things were the way they were not just for the sake of oppressing an entire race, but to prevent the bitterness of the time from boiling over.
Racial demagoguery was the norm. The social achievements of the New Deal had not yet taken effect and poverty was still rampant. There was a lot of finger-pointing. Local governments were democratically elected, and elected leaders feared not being re-elected.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
It is not an excuse for the double standard of justice of the time. But as even Atticus Finch said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Lee’s second book “Go Set a Watchman,” published in 2015, acknowledges the simplified views of “Mockingbird.” Atticus Finch dabbles in the segregationist Citizens’ Council and isn’t quite as heroic as we remembered him. He had his reasons; for one, the South was unprepared for the radical change the Supreme Court dictated in Brown v. Board of Education.
Fans of “To Kill a Mockingbird” have rejected “Go Set a Watchman,” finding it distasteful, believing it tainted the book’s legacy. They have every right to do this. However, to flat-out ignore “Watchman,” is to refuse to acknowledge “Mockingbird’s” relatively simplistic and idealistic view of the culture of the time. “Mockingbird” can be an applicable lesson for younger readers, but as adults we have to understand society is complex.
There are shades of gray. Historical hindsight is 20/20. The characters in “Mockingbird” who approved or shrugged off the guilty verdict of Tom Robinson didn’t have that luxury.
Sorkin’s Broadway play will likely breathe new life into discussions about Harper Lee’s legacy. It is worth seeing if you make your way to New York City, because Sorkin proves you can still appreciate the story of “To Kill a Mockingbird” even with the liberties he took with some of the characters.
Don’t discount the relevance of Lee’s second book, however, especially as it pertains to Alabama’s history.
Humanity is messy. Things are not as simple as they are in the eyes of a child. Maybe that was Harper Lee’s point all along.