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Looking for Harper Lee

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Andrew O’Hagan in the LRB, 30 July 2015:

I’ve always had a soft spot for To Kill A Mockingbird. I like its prose and am easily persuaded by its gently nostalgic tone, its depiction of a sleepy Southern town and its nightly routines, neighbours who know one another, a parent who can make a richness of a child’s moral sense. The novel glows with soft light – too soft, some would say – but it yields a hard lesson. Time passes and bad things happen but decency and empathy draw you back. It’s a children’s story, really, not unlike The Railway Children and other daddy-obsessed narratives, but Mockingbird gains power by seeming so deeply hitched, as it might or might not have been, to a social upheaval and a time of change. Atticus Finch was the right everyman for the right time and Gregory Peck was his ideal embodiment.

A week after Labor Day in 1988, when I was twenty years old, I was with some fellow students in a Drive-Away car that we were supposed to be delivering to Los Angeles from Washington. We ignored the prescribed route, and instead drove south, entering Alabama just as Hurricane Florence was making landfall. We were on the 65 from Montgomery when the windscreen wipers started to fail and the radio was telling people in mobile homes to go to the community centres. I remember having a bad idea and a good idea in quick succession. The bad idea was that we stop at the next town for a drink – it turned out to be a dry county – but I made up for it by pointing the car in the direction of Monroeville, some distance away, feeling that Harper Lee’s original small town was sure to be a haven for the destitute and the generally luckless denizens of the earth.

The town was sleepy like the movie and I felt there must be a Boo Radley behind every peeling porch. We found beers and a place that sold things like gumbo and dishes of stew with black beans. And in the morning I went out looking for the mockingbirds and chinaberry trees and Aunt Sooks of legend, but nobody in the gas stations or the 7/11 knew much about writers. When I asked a man in the town square where a person would go if he wanted to call on Harper Lee, he smiled, and said she might be up around the golf club. There was still a lot of dust in the town, and, looking at the courthouse where Lee’s father had plied his trade, it occurred to me that the best characters in fiction are states of mind as much as human beings, and Atticus Finch was a small-town notion of democracy. I bought a hardback copy from a local store and asked the owner if there was anybody left in Monroeville who was like the man in the book. I can still see the bookseller handing me the package and looking out of the storefront window at the sky. ‘It’s like fine weather,’ he said. ‘Just when you think it’s gone you see it’s fixin’ to come back.


  1. Saffy says:

    Lovely story. Thank you.

  2. philip proust says:

    Andrew O’Hagan writes as if the most obvious and damning criticisms of To Kill a Mockingbird are not worth considering.

    Atticus Finch is a lawyer who reluctantly defends the innocent Tom Robinson, pointing out several times that he is doing so because the accused needs a defence and it is his turn to offer the required service. Atticus never espouses any commitment to the cause of extending civil rights to the black community. Indeed, though he is a member of Alabama’s state legislature, he does nothing to try to confront the problems that blacks like Tom face in Alabama. Atticus reads at home every night and doesn’t lift a finger to help the black cause. He appears quite comfortable with a social system in the Deep South that is racist to the core, except when it impinges on his own professional activities.

    The villains of the novel are the dirt poor racists like the Ewells. There is no hint in the novel that the Ewells are ignorantly mirroring the racist ideologies of the business, police and legal-political elite who rule Alabama. To this extent the novel is a Cold War text: it is the brutal workers who are shown to be the problem, not the key figures and institutions that keep the wheels of racism turning. Educated middle-America and their counterparts in the Anglosphere love the novel because it tells them that they are basically upstanding in contrast to the ‘white trash’ who are carriers of the bigotry germ. Atticus Finch is shown on one occasion to leave his late night reading to prevent Tom’s lynching, as if there was something typical about such an outcome. Although thousands of lynchings have been perpetrated in the South, there is apparently not one recorded case of white men successfully intervening.

    Atticus’s racism becomes explicit in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, that was published in July last year. The sequel produced howls of indignation because it tears the veil off the illusions that TKAM lovers had wallowed in for half a century.

  3. philip proust says:

    There is also a nice little vignette in the novel to appeal to the army of freedom-loving Americans, who are active to this day. Atticus is shown to be a dead-eye Dick with a rifle, who is able to rid Maycomb of the existential threat posed by a rabid dog. Atticus was the Jeb Bush of 1960.

    Harper Lee, one supposes, skillfully wrote the lion’s share of the novel; however, she was aided it seems by some canny little elves at Warner Books, who had an eagle eye for the market and the times.

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