To shelve a ‘Mockingbird’: Is it time for Scout and Atticus to retire?

Why We Wrote This

As society evolves, should classic novels with outdated racial and cultural references be retired – or adapted? A resurgence of interest in To Kill a Mockingbird in North America brings arguments for both to the fore.

Courtesy of David Hou/Stratford Festival
Jonathan Goad (c.) plays Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Stratford Festival in Canada in 2018. That production, and the record-breaking one on Broadway in the US written by Aaron Sorkin, adapted the story to include larger roles for African-American characters.

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“To Kill a Mockingbird” recently topped a best-loved book list, and a stage version is breaking records on Broadway. But the story about racism in Depression-era Alabama is also being phased out of some classrooms across North America. And in both the United States and Canada, recent theater versions have been updated to give African-American characters more say.

Those changes have some observers asking if a time comes when a book should be retired despite the impression it made on generations of students and the genuine affection many still have for it.

When is all the tinkering and adapting, including publishing versions of books with words deemed offensive omitted, too much, they wonder. Carl James, a professor at York University, suggests that there is debate to be had about reading certain literary works simply because they’ve always been read. “There might be a point,” he says, “in which they have lost that status of classic after all.”

Last fall it was voted America’s best-loved book. This winter it made it to Broadway, grossing more at the box office in its first full week than any other play in history.

Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” became a classic the moment it was published in 1960 – a tale of racial injustice set in Depression-era Alabama told through the eyes of 6-year-old Scout. It garnered the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and its movie adaptation won three Oscars in 1963. That it has smashed theater records and risen to the top of a PBS nationwide popularity poll of American literature nearly 60 years later speaks to the lasting power of the narrative of a little girl making sense of racism and hypocrisy around her, as her father Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.

But its endurance is not just its clear-eyed depiction of a moment in time in the American South. It is the book’s evolution itself, from a groundbreaking text in its time to one today that raises complex questions about how the story is told – who tells it and, notably for some, who doesn’t. As “To Kill a Mockingbird” gets adapted for the stage, giving more voice to the black characters that were secondary or silent in the original novel, and gets re-examined in classrooms across North America, some are asking if a time comes when a book should be retired despite the impression it made on generations of students and the nostalgia many still feel about the work. That discussion gives it even more staying power.

“We all know that it’s a book that is beloved,” says Lois Adamson, the education director at Canada’s renowned Stratford Festival, which staged a new production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” last year. “But I think it’s also, and rightly so, a controversial text that educators, parents, artists, and community members are talking about – whether or not it is the right story to keep telling and about maybe what other stories or perspectives we might want to be looking at.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” has faced controversy since it was published and remains one of America’s most challenged texts, says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. The most recent challenge came from Biloxi, Miss., in 2017, when parents complained about its problematic language, particularly the use of the “N-word.” Other challenges have arisen from its allusions to rape and assault and how the African-American characters have little agency in a story about the injustices they face.

Debate across North America

It’s part of a long struggle with how to deal with literature, written in a time of different norms and paradigms, that is problematic in the 21st century. In 2011, for example, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was released in the United States with a new edition that replaced the “N-word” with “slave,” kicking up a storm of criticism. Others have stopped teaching texts like it or “To Kill a Mockingbird” altogether.

Recent debate in Canada is indicative of new thinking surrounding the text wherever it’s being taught.

For one school board near Toronto, the answer lies in a new dictate: a memo sent to schools ahead of this school year requiring that the book be taught only if done through an “anti-oppression lens,” says Peel’s Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, Adrian Graham.

That means additional resources, including help from a literary coordinator, for teachers to question the book’s white perspective on the civil rights struggle and grapple with offensive language peppered throughout.

The decision was panned in a Toronto Star column this fall that characterized it as evidence of a “culture of fear.” “Because apparently teachers in 2018 can’t be trusted to discuss the novel sensitively, within a modern context, alive to the feelings of racialized students,” Rosie DiManno wrote.

Mr. Graham says the new approach is not about restriction or censorship but is intended to be an empowerment tool in a multicultural context. “We’re not interested philosophically in banning books,” he says.

The change came after complaints about the book, which Graham says have grown in the past five years, were addressed by a committee of an initiative called We Rise Together in the district. That initiative seeks to empower black male students specifically and is part of a larger effort to be culturally responsive to minority representation in the curriculum.

Carl James, a professor at York University in Toronto who has worked as a researcher with We Rise Together, says the board’s decision is a responsible one. “It would seem contradictory that we’re saying, ‘We're looking at the issues of black students and concerned about their social and educational well-being,’ and at the same time working with a book that might be hurtful to them,” he says.

On stage, more adapting

In some ways new stage productions have been better able to respond to such issues. Although the Broadway production by Aaron Sorkin initially faced a legal dispute for a script that veered too far from the original text, ultimately the sides settled. The re-adaptation gives more agency to some of the black characters and has received rave reviews. Lead producer Scott Rudin said in an interview with The New York Times: “I can’t and won’t present a play that feels like it was written in the year the book was written in terms of its racial politics.... The world has changed since then.” 

For the production in Stratford, a character named Jesse, who appears in the novel but not the original play, was written in to bring more black presence to the stage. The festival also provided online study guides for teachers and offered hourlong interactive workshops facilitated by the play’s actors for student groups before the show. That included history of the civil rights era and the exploration around representation and who controls the narrative. “Certainly it’s a coming-of-age story for Scout, but the violence and the racism that’s in the book is horrifying,” says Ms. Adamson. “If things live nostalgically for us, then we forget that, and I think it’s important to key into how it will land with people who are experiencing it for the first time.”

Amid some of the brouhaha are questions about whether it’s the right text today. George Elliott Clarke, who was Canada’s parliamentary poet laureate, calls Lee’s debut novel “a great book.” But he questions its role in classrooms in Canada, where lessons about racial injustice are too often considered an “American” problem, when there are plenty of struggles to focus on at home. He also worries the narrative might send a message to minority students, including Asian and indigenous pupils, of passivity: “that the proper response from them toward white supremacy, towards anti-black, anti-brown, and anti-indigenous racism is to be silent sufferers, to be quiet victims,” he says.

Professor James and colleagues have debated whether there needs to be a bigger conversation on what they have called “disrupting the canon,” James says, which challenges reflexively reading certain literature simply because it’s always been read, without thinking about who is making those choices. “There might be a point in which they have lost that status of classic after all,” he says.

In Peel, out of 37 high schools, seven are teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird” this academic year. Five years ago, Graham estimates that it would have been closer to 25 schools.

Once an English teacher, he says he would never presume that a book ever “runs its course.” But new realities demand a rethink all the same. “I think right across North America we are slow to change up the books that we read, but at some point To Kill a Mockingbird replaced another book,” he says. “We tend to [choose] classics often because of themes that we like, but I think we also have to honor the fact that there’s been a lot of good literature written in the last few years. There are other books out there that offer the same themes.”

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