Led by Chaplain Mike
Welcome to our second Writers’ Roundtable. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, To Kill a Mockingbird, one of our greatest American novels. I thought it would be fun and enlightening to have our writers read TKAM again, and have a discussion about it.
I, Chaplain Mike (CM), will be asking the questions and moderating the discussion as we sip sweet tea and talk about this remarkable portrait of the American South in the 1930s. Joining us at the table today are:
- Jeff Dunn (JD): head honcho and frequent contributor here at IM; author, publisher, and originator of the Writers’ Roundtable series.
- Noel Spencer Cordle (NSC): Michael and Denise Spencer’s daughter, who teaches English to young people at a Christian boarding school.
- Damaris Zehner (DZ): teacher and IM contributor. Damaris has lived in many places around the world and brings a broad cultural perspective to our discussions.
- Joshua Bell (JB): 15-year old son of IM contributor Michael Bell. It’s great to have him at the table to give us a younger person’s point of view.
- Lisa Dye (LD): author and regular IM contributor, who I appreciate for her personal sensitivity and literary sense.
Pull up a chair, pour yourself some tea, and let’s get started.
CM: The first thing to be said to this table of authors is that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most beautifully written American novels. As a writer, what do you appreciate about this book and how it exemplifies for us the craft of writing?
DZ: It is a beautifully written book.Â It exemplifies the perfect union of style and substance.Â So many books are well written but have less than edifying content; others have great plots but have to be read with your teeth gritted to get through the clumsy prose and poor structure.Â To Kill a Mockingbird, though,Â shows usÂ a beautiful storyÂ through the window of clear, unobtrusive prose.Â Virginia Woolf called this kind of of writing “incandescent” — all impurities burned out, just pure light shining through.
NSC: I appreciate that nothing in this book is overdone. In fact, Lee’s style is very simplistic, yet she uses this simplistic style to weave such a beautiful and complex tale. I particularly appreciate her creation of the vivid setting of sleepy Maycomb, Alabama.
LD: I admire Lee’s use of similes and metaphors and the poetic sound of her sentences. (“We strolled silently down the sidewalk, listening to porch swings creaking with the weight of the neighborhood …” and ” … the town remained the same size for a hundred years, an island in a patchwork sea of cottonfields and timberland.”)
She manages her poetic prose without being excessive or flowery. In fact, she is often blunt and shocking, a fitting trait for a young and tomboyish storyteller brought up by a loving (albeit detached) single father who eschewed southern constraints on females.
JD: I would say that TKAM is the best American novel ever! But if asked to describe Lee’s style, I would be hard-pressed to come up with an answer. She doesn’t really have a distinctive style, and that is a good thing. Her writing doesn’t get in the way of her characters. The characters drive this story, and they come alive from page one. Too many writers try to craft a story rather than letting it tell itself. Lee was able to take herself as writer out of the way and let the characters do their thing.
JB: I think the best part of this book is how Harper Lee creates a completely believable world for her characters without going overboard. Harper Lee sets her stage perfectly, nothing seems out of place. By the end of the book Maycomb County takes on a life of its own as we see its many social classes and individual characters in the community and how they interact with each other. Even the characters that play the smallest parts, such as Dolphus Raymond the “town drunkâ€, never seem out of place.
LD: Furthermore, the pacing of Lee’s storytelling fits the time and place – a small, slow, southern town sweltering much of the time in summer heat.
NSC: I chose to do my 2010 re-read of this novel in the summer, and I found it to be an excellent choice because so much of the story takes place during the “dog days” of summer. Lee does not have to exert much effort or trump up her writing in order to beautifully capture these classic summer moments in a classic Southern town.
CM: Let’s talk about one particular aspect of the book’s styleâ€”One of the brilliant techniques Harper Lee used in this novel was to write it from the perspective of a child, the unforgettable Scout Finch. Why do you think she chose this approach, and why is it so effective? In what specific ways do you find it effective?
JD: Well, for one thing, Scout IS Harper Lee. Waycomb is Monroeville, Alabama where Lee grew up. She wrote from the perspective of Scout because she was basically narrating her childhood.
LD: Thatâ€™s right, Jeff. By using first person POV as Lee did, she closes the psychic distance and makes the reader feel what she, the storyteller, is feeling through thoughts and feelings of Scout Finch. And since the story is essentially autobiographical, she could tell it with authenticity through the eyes of the child she once was.
NSC: I believe Lee really had no choice but to write from a child’s perspective if she truly wanted to convey her message. It simply could not have been done from an adult’s point of view. First, the unfortunate truth of the world we live in is that often children see things that we adults are missing. Children are often the most poignantly honest and clear-headed individuals in the room. Scout (and even Jem and Dill) show us this numerous times throughout the novel. Everything from Scout’s common-sense assessment of the Maycomb social hierarchy to Dill’s unexplained tearful outburst during the trial shows us inequality in the world through the yet-untainted eyes of children.
DZ: Children take the existence of things for granted but are willing to ask “why” about everything that exists.Â This works perfectly for the novel form.Â The novelist, because of the child narrator’s perspective, can avoid over-explaining her world and can just swim through it like a fish through water.Â At the same time, though, she can question things — like why school has to be taught the way it is, or why some people are outsiders and some aren’t.Â Adults, it seems to me, are largely the opposite:Â They question the purpose, value, and existence of things but forget to ask whyÂ we should acceptÂ the status quo.
JB: I believe the reason that Harper Lee chose to write from the perspective of a child is simply because it allowed her to tell her audience how things should be. A child is someone who sees things as black or white, right or wrong.Â A great example of this is when Scout questions her teacherâ€™s hate of how Hitler is attacking Jews when her teacher treats black people in a similar way. A child’s strong sense of right and wrong is also shown by Atticus he says: â€œI don’t know [how they could convict Tom Robinson], but they did it.Â They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it seems that only children weep.â€
NSC: Also, one of the aspects of this novel related to the child’s perspective is the creation of Boo Radley. The children’s fascination with Boo drives much of the story’s action. While this could be done with an adult narrator, it would not have nearly the same element of mystery and fear. Where Jem, Scout, and Dill think of Boo as a supposed crazy psychopath who just wants a friend but still keeps them awake at night, an adult narrator would most likely view him as what he really is, and where’s the fun in that?
LD: Noel, youâ€™re right, there is something about being a child that makes all our experiences bigger and more impressive than if we experience them as an adult. The Radley house was scarier. Boo was more mysterious and Atticus more worthy of Scout’s and Jem’s growing admiration and desire to impress. The story would not have been the same told through the eyes of an adult.
JD: Going back to the earlier comments, I agree with others that we also needed to see the racial tension thru the eyes of a six year old rather than an adult to get a real clear picture of what was going on in the south at that time. But remember this is not a six year old speaking. This is a 33 year old Scout looking back on this particular time of her childhood. Six year olds don’t use the vocabulary that this narrator employs, not even a six year old as precocious as Scout. So we have an adult telling of her time as a first grader, seeing life as it was in 1936 but with the experience of one who was now living in 1959. Many times this point of view is very confused and confusing, but Lee pulls it off perfectly.
JB: The idea of Scout growing up and learning more about the world we live in is brilliantly effective. The reader learns more about Maycomb gradually, as Scout does, instead of being forced to learn everything about Maycomb at once. This book wasÂ published in 1960, three years before Martin Luther King Jr.â€™s famous â€œI Have A Dreamâ€ speech and five years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. Writing the book from the viewpoint of a child allowed Lee to give support to the civil rights cause while also avoiding any additional controversy.
CM: Talk with us about one of your favorite characters or favorite scenes from TKAM.
NSC: Boo Radley is one of my favorite characters because I pity and love him all at once. In many ways he is the true outsider of Maycombâ€”the one that hides behind closed doors and is gossiped about over ladies’ luncheons. Yet, as Jem aptly says, we can’t help but sympathize with him because, after all, who really wants to go outside when all that’s waiting for you is Maycomb and its residents? By the end of the novel, when Boo establishes himself as the hero, I can’t help but cheer. Although it becomes obvious early-on that nothing the children know about Boo is quite true, I always breathe a sigh of relief when I see him at the end, hiding behind the door and wanting to “pet” Jem before he leaves him.
JD: Thatâ€™s the scene I love best in the movie, when Boo steps out of the shadow in the corner and Scout takes his hand. This is the greatest non-speaking role in all of movie history. Robert Duvall supposedly walked around the set with a blank expression, not speaking to anyone for several days just to get ready for this short but incredibly moving scene.
NSC: On a related note, one of the finest scenes is the very last one, when Scout walks Boo home and then takes in the view from his porchâ€”a view she had never had before. From Boo’s porch, the entire neighborhood looked different. This part brings tears to my eyes because of its oh-so-simple beauty and truth. It’s a clear-cut illustration of Atticus’ earlier reprimand to Scout to walk in someone else’s shoes before coming to conclusions about them. I love that Lee gives us this tangible lesson at the end of the book.
LD: I love the portrayal of Scout’s, Jem’s and Dill’s earlier foray onto the Radley property. When Mr. Radley fires his shotgun in the direction of the intruders, the children must face the congregating neighbors with nonchalance and Jem in a pantsless state (said pants having stayed stuck on the Radley’s garden fence.) Dill comes to the rescue by concocting a big windy and explains that Jem experienced his loss in a game of strip poker near Miss Rachel’s fish pond. However, the scandal of losing pants in a game of gambling is as bad as losing them trespassing on the Radley property! Jem quickly assures the adults that no cards were involved, only matches. Scout observes, “I admired my brother. Matches were dangerous, but cards were fatal.”
JB: My favorite scene isâ€”easilyâ€”when Atticus reveals in court that Tom Robinson canâ€™t use his left hand. Lee builds the tension beautifully. When Atticus examines the witnesses he asks questions that seemingly have nothing to do with the case. He shows that Bob Ewell is left-handed and he paints a vivid picture of the Ewells’ daily life. He plants a seed in the juryâ€™s minds that Bob Ewell is often drunk and abusive and we learn that Mayellaâ€™s injuries are on the right side of her body. The reader is left wondering where Atticus is going with his questions. When Tom Robinson stands up however, everything becomes clear.
JD: In the book, my favorite scene is just after the jury has handed down the guilty sentence. Scout and Jem are seated in the balcony watching the proceedings. As the courtroom is emptying below them, Rev. Sykes pokes at Scout and says, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” For some reason that scene moves me to tears every time I read it…
DZ: I too love the scene of “Stand up, your father’s passin’.” That, and the shocking revelation of Tom Robinson’s pity for the white girl, both shake me to my foundations.
CM: This book was published at a critical time in American history, especially with regard to the civil rights movement. Its depictions of small town southern life in the 1930′s can be painful to read today. Nevertheless, TKAM offers glimmers of hope. What is your take on how this book handles important social issues such as race, class, justice, and religion?
NSC: One of the biggest frustrations in teaching this book to my students is that upon merely glancing at a few pages they will announce, “I don’t want to read this bookâ€”it’s racist!” My standard answer is, “There are racist words in the book, and that’s the point.” Harper Lee does not hold back in showing us the blatant racism of the 1930′s South, but I do believe it is to make a point.
LD: Exactly. Depicting life in a small southern town in the 1930′s is a far cry from endorsing it. While Lee is bold and brutal in her depiction of racism, the truth she writes does much to expose the ugliness of societal reality. Knowing truth, however painful, is essential to becoming free.
JD: Well, my take on it is different from that of Malcolm Gladwell. Â He’s upset that Atticus didn’t rail against social injustice and racial inequity as a whole. He thinks it was way too little what Atticus did: Defend one black man against trumped-up charges and then see him be found guilty. But Harper Lee wasn’t trying to preach a message about racism or injustice. She wasn’t preaching any message at all. Lee was simply using the case against Tom Robinson to illuminate what was the common life for the poor blacks in the south at the time. She then allows the reader to make his own conclusion and deal with his feelings in his own way. Brilliant, if you ask me.
JB: Harper Lee also makes it more than obvious that racism is wrong, as almost every character says at one point or another that either a) racism is wrong or b) Tom was treated unfairly. I could fill up a few pages of quotes about this: Aunt Alexandria, Atticus, Dolphus Raymond, Braxton Underwood’s editorialâ€“the list goes on and on.
NSC: I think that we merely need to look at some of Atticus’ own words to find glimmers of hope. When he explains to the children about the Tom Robinson case, he makes it plain to them that he knows he won’t win, yet he is excited when the jury takes hours to reach its verdict. Why? Because, to him, it’s a sign of progress. He explains that the jury actually deliberated and didn’t just immediately decide to convict the black man. There was even one manâ€”a Cunninghamâ€”who had to be talked out of Tom’s innocence. To Atticus, these are steps in the right direction.
JB: I have to agree with Noel on this question, this is not a book with a nice happy ending. In fact, it is one of the few books I know where the protagonist fails in his â€œquest.â€ Atticusâ€™s fight against racism is about evolution, not revolution. The fact that the jury took hours to deliver a sentence was a huge step in the right direction.
NSC: Lee makes a point to end her novel on several positive notes. One of these comes in the form of tying up the loose end of Helen Robinson. Scout explains that even though he really didn’t have a job for her, Link Deas found a job for Helen so that she could support her family. When Bob Ewell began following her to work and harassing her, Link immediately stopped the problem. Lee provides us with hope that there are other people like Atticus and Link Deas in the world who value equality and helping their fellow man. And, of course, the true ending of the novel, with Scout taking in her world from a different point of viewâ€”that of Boo Radleyâ€”gives us the supreme hope that maybe someday we can all walk a mile in someone else’s shoes with such childlike innocence.
DZ: What I love about this book is also reflected in many areas of the popular media nowadays, though not so well:Â Black people are people, not just black people.Â Calpurnia was a good woman, and my husband and I often quote her to our children when they’re misbehaving.Â Tom Robinson was a human being who felt pity for an abused girl.Â Most media portrayals of black people, up until recently, showed them as black first, human second. To Kill a Mockingbird was maybe the first shining example of an excellent trend in a different direction.
CM: What can followers of Jesus take from a book like TKAM to help us in our faith, and in living out our faith?
LD: To me, Atticus is the character that depicts a Christ-like regard for the suffering. His attitude toward the mean old Mrs. Dubose, the reclusive Radleys and Tom Robinson, a black man presumed guilty of rape by the town’s white population, reflects adherence to his own adviceâ€”that his children should try to walking around in another’s shoes to gain understanding.
Atticus knew what taking Tom Robinson’s case would do to his reputation and what it would cost his family, yet his conscience would let him do nothing else. He refused to be conformed to Maycomb’s racism, yet he never became hardened or cynical toward the townsfolk. It was his integrity in the face of personal attacks that made his children want to please and protect him. It’s his willingness to lay down his life that ultimately preserves it in the eyes of the witnesses surrounding him. “Stand up Miss Jean Louise, your father’s passin’.”
DZ: I’m going to go back to the scene at the trial when Tom Robinson admits that he pitied a white girl.Â That was what did him in.Â With his pity he attacked the root of their racial superiority and their pride, and they couldn’t take it.Â The pity he showed was Christ-like, and the reaction he got was the same one Christ gotâ€”violent rejection.Â This is a tragic reminder of the Cross thatÂ stands at the intersection of God’s love and the sin of the world.
JB: I think the most obvious thing to take away from TKAM is simply seeing the book as a reinforcement of the golden ruleâ€”treat others as you would like to be treated. The book is a call to throw away grudges and prejudices and learn to live together.
NSC: Harper Lee is echoing a message laid out by Jesus when he said in Matthew 18:2 “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” I believe Lee is trying to tell us all to lay down our prejudices, lay down our social circles, lay down our comfort zones and simply love one another. I don’t know anyone who should embrace that message more heartily than we as Christ-followers.
JB: Another verse talks about that too. Matthew 11:25 says: “At that time Jesus said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.’” In many ways we should try to think like children. It’s not quite socially proper to spend time in shady areas in town, but as Christians we should be going there to help those less fortunate.
JD: I could find illustrations and connect them to verses, but let me take another tack. Great art glorifies God simply by being beautiful. This is a beautifully written book (and a beautifully made film). This glorifies God just by being great art. Writers who can use the language in a way that evokes emotion on just about every page are great artists.
NSC: Harper Lee does give us such a beautiful story, as told by a child who is able to see injustice in the world and call the world out on it! We should not let these childlike eyes stay within the confines of the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird, but instead challenge ourselves to apply them to daily lives. Jesus challenges us to adopt the attitude of children, and I think Lee does so as well.
JB: At the same time, we can also look at Atticus’ example as a reminder to stay strong in our faith. He had to struggle to do what he believed in, and even then he didnâ€™t quite succeed. Did he stop because of that failure? No, and we should think about our faith in a similar way.Â Being a Christian can be tough and hardships may come. At the same time, we need to be able to persevere and stay strong in faith.
JD: One last story. Pat Dye, the former Alabama football coach, got a chance to meet Harper Lee not long ago. As they were talking, he said to her, “You’re not smart enough to have written a book like this. No one is. This book had to come from your heart.” Lee looked at him for a minute, nodded and said, “I suppose you’re right. It did come from my heart.”