Mockingbirds on Trial

To-kill-a-mockingbirdI haven’t read Go Set a Watchman and I’m not sure I will. I did read the first chapter in The Guardian and was not particularly impressed. If Harper Lee did not want it published then she didn’t want it read.

But read it or not, it’s hard to miss all the controversy over the publication and the revelation of the saintly hero of To Kill a Mockingbird now shown as a segregationist bigot.

But should we be surprised?

Seems to me that the recent Atticus has the credibility and the honorable Atticus of the 1960 novel is a a wonderful crafted and comforting whitewash destined to set our minds at ease about the realities of black life in the south. They are works of fiction after all.

I was introduced to the book on a teaching practice visit to one of those outstanding English departments to be found in more than a handful of London comprehensive schools of the late 1960’s. I think it was Acland Burghley School. James Britton, Nancy Martin, Harold Rosen et al, the London Institute of Education and the LATE  (London Association of Teachers of English) etc. had made an impact: English teaching had broken free of the strait jackets of sentence diagramming, punctuation exercises and skill and drill. There was some amazing creative work happening in these schools and I was lucky enough to observe some of it at Abbey Wood, Kidbrooke and Crown Woods Schools

This particular set of teachers was working in an interdisciplinary team on filming aspects of the trial of Tom Robinson.  It was eye-opening and exciting  stuff to observe and nothing in my own education had prepared me for the possibilities it presented.

I went off and read the book. And then – as I began my career as an English teacher in another London school and then New York –  reread the book annually for almost two decades. To Kill a Mockingbird had entered the multi-cultural canon. It was a good book then. And it’s a good book now.

I always loved to read aloud in class whenever I could and so  the words of Harper Lee and the world of Jem and Scout and Maycomb became almost second nature.  I even went so far as to type out  a version of the trial written as a play that we performed in class. (This was long before word processing and – as I never have learned to type –  it was a most laborious task taking many evenings. Those pages churned out of the Gestetner machine served me several years. I may even still have a copy deep in the basement.)

And then in 1990 I read “Killing Mockingbirds: White Myth/ Black History in the journal of the National Association of Teachers of English and my perspective began to shift.

Lee embeds the moral dynamic of her narrative in the figure of Atticus Finch, father to Scout, and a liberal, decent, humane and heroic figure who is in effect a residual reflection of ‘The Old South’, that enduring lie which asserts that actually the slaves were far better off before the Civil War and Reconstruction. – Michael Williams in English Education Spring 1990.

That was a quarter of a century ago and I no longer follow the English teaching world with such attention.  But Michael Williams – then head of English at Gedling Comprehensive School in Nottinghamshire was onto something.

His essay challenges the  comforting story – to a white reader at least – that racism and racist violence are the isolated instances of individual behavior.  The peaceful slumber of Maycomb is disturbed by the rabid dog and the trial of Tom Robinson – falsely accused of rape by the disgraceful ‘white trash’ of the town.  Atticus dispatches the dog with an expert shot. He ably and earnestly – but unsuccessfully – defends Tom Robinson who is conveniently shot dead trying to ‘escape’.

The false accusation, the trial and the death are isolated instances of wrongs. They are not the face of ongoing and  systemic racism and segregation. We (white folks) are redeemed by noble efforts of Atticus to see the truth prevail.  He stands in the novel for decency and justice. He is the moral anchor in a world ruffled – but not riven by – institutionalized evil.  At the end of the novel the loose ends are tied. Boo Radley comes out and kills Bob Ewell as he tries to harm the children. Sheriff Heck Tate declines to prosecute the crime and declares justice is done.

Harper Lee wrote a wonderfully comforting book for the white spectator to southern injustice.  Her novel remains an extraordinary accomplishment. That the earlier version (now published as Go Set a Watchman – before all the careful editing and revision)  told a less varnished tale should not be a surprise.

That other Atticus Finch – the racist and segregationist Atticus that Scout  (now Jean Louise) has as her father –  was always there – hiding in plain sight.

A much broader perspective for teaching To Kill A Mockingbird is available to teachers these days. This video is in the teaching guide from Facing History and Ourselves.

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