Even before Harper Lee’s recent death brought renewed and much-deserved attention to her work, my 15-year-old son was already getting a little tired of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
He’s a sensitive teen who’s an avid reader, and he’s aware that expressing any reservations about Lee’s classic novel is – especially in the wake of Lee’s passing – a little bit blasphemous.
But after being assigned to read “Mockingbird” not once, nor twice, but three times in his academic career so far, my son has come to see Lee’s most celebrated story as something you read because you have to, not because you want to.
All of which has made me wonder, as we contemplate Lee’s legacy, whether there’s an inevitable complication in the stature of “Mockingbird” as a cherished part of middle and high school curriculums. Maybe we’ve taken at least some joy out of Lee’s novel by making it into homework for generations of youngsters.
My own experience with “Mockingbird” informs my thinking on this question. I first encountered Lee’s tale sometime in the early 1970s, as a paperback on the coffee table of my godmother, Beverly Davies. Beverly frequently worked as a substitute teacher, and she thought it important to read a novel that so many of her students had been asked to study.
That’s what made me instantly dismiss “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a creature of the classroom – as something strictly educational. It was good for you, I assumed, but only in the way that spinach or carrots might be good for you. I came to equate “Mockingbird” with grudging obligation – an obligation I’d prefer to avoid.
Circumstances allowed me to do that for decades. Somehow, my own elementary and secondary teachers opted not to assign “Mockingbird.” In college, my professors assumed I’d already read it. I grew into adulthood, then middle age, making part of my living – as I still do – writing about books. “Mockingbird” remained on my list of titles I perhaps should have read, yet never got around to.
Then just a few years ago, because of my professional background in books, my local library asked me to speak on a panel about “Mockingbird.” I readily agreed, not wanting to reveal the truth: that an ostensibly educated man living in the Deep South had never cracked the covers of a book hailed as a regional masterpiece.
Chastened, I got my own copy, sat in my reading chair, and prepared to take my medicine. But I was quickly relieved to discover that “To Kill a Mockingbird” isn’t a chore at all. Despite its heavy themes, race and justice in the Jim Crow South, “Mockingbird” is – dare I say it? – a great deal of fun.
There’s so much humor in it, and whimsy, and poetry, too. Lee painted lovely word pictures, as in my favorite passage, about the little Alabama town of the novel’s setting:
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks in the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
I’ve reread those sentences dozens of times since my Johnny-come-lately connection with “Mockingbird,” and they never lose their charm.
I’m aware, of course, of an abiding contradiction. I resisted “To Kill a Mockingbird” for years because I associated it with assigned reading. Yet I probably never would have fallen in love with it if someone hadn’t forced me – in this case, as a professional requirement – to finally read the book.
So maybe there’s something to be said for retaining “Mockingbird” as part of the educational canon. But let’s not forget why Lee’s novel is a classic. Yes, it teaches, edifies, elevates the human spirit.
But it’s also one of the great pleasure-givers of American literature, and no doubt will continue to be long after all of us have followed Miss Lee to the grave.
– Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”