(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on October 25, 2019.)
Almost 60 years ago, Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published and drew immediate and sustained acclaim from both critics and the public. In 1961, it won the Pulitzer Prize, and over the decades it has maintained its position at the top of America’s most beloved books.
The story takes place in the Depression Era, 1932-35, in the mythical town of Maycomb, Maycomb County, Alabama. It is told through the voice of a young girl, Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout, who is six at the outset of the book. The other main characters include her older brother Jeremy (Jem), their friend Charles Baker Harris (Dill), their heroic father Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, a reclusive man who lives nearby, and Tom Robinson, an African American farm hand wrongfully accused of raping a white woman.
The story is back in the news today for several reasons. In December, 2018, the play, To Kill a Mockingbird, starring Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, opened on Broadway. It is based on the book and was adapted for stage by award-winning Aaron Sorkin. Second, our country is commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves to British North America. With its “Project 1619,” the New York Times is giving special coverage to slavery and racism in America, past and present.
Here in Rhode Island, two organizations are spear-heading drives to increase public awareness of the large role of slavery in the state’s history and to give the enslaved a measure of appreciation and dignity, denied them while living: the Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project (www.Newportmiddlepassageproject.org ) and the Rhode Island Slave History Medallions organization (RISHM.org).
The novel deals with many issues on many levels. The most notable is racism/discrimination/segregation. While racism in the North is touched on, its focus is mainly racism in the Deep South in the 1930s.
A second theme is “other-ness.” In addition to “Negroes” as “others,” additional groups include women who do not conform, girls—such as Scout—who do not conform, lower class whites (“white trash”), and poor families (the Cunninghams). Even the persecuted Jews in Nazi Germany have a presence in the book. “Other,” non-conforming individuals include Boo Radley, Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, and Mr. Dolphus Raymond.
A third theme is moral courage and heroism, most visibly in Atticus Finch who is the court-appointed lawyer defending Tom Robinson. While he stands out as a hero, he is not the only one. The heroism of others, including children, also emerges in several parts of the book.
A fourth theme is the unwritten codes of conduct we all follow. The book portrays several, both individual and group: that of Atticus Finch, of children, of gossipy women, of dominant whites, of oppressed blacks.
A final important theme is blatant hypocrisy, especially that of Christians behaving very un-Christ-like.
A few years after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Harper Lee stated: “I never expected any sort of success with ‘Mockingbird.’ … I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement.”
The novel has been translated into more than 40 languages and has sold more than 40 million copies. Last year, PBS aired a program called “The Great American Read,” an eight-part series exploring America’s 100 best-loved books, based on public votes. To Kill a Mockingbird took the top spot.
In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Harper Lee the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 1962, the film adaptation of the book was released, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus. It garnered three Oscars, including Best Actor for Peck. I invite you to a screening of the movie this Sunday, October 27, at 1:00 pm, at the Jane Pickens Theater. I shall be hosting the movie and offering commentary.
This movie can be the beginning of a great family discussion on some very important and still timely subjects. Take, for example, my favorite quote from the book and movie, stated by Atticus Finch: “…you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI, and a monthly columnist.