Small World: Reading ‘Mockingbird’ up North

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Until recently, I had never read Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, although when published in 1960, it received high praise, including a Pulitzer Prize, and was made into a popular film, gaining an Oscar for Gregory Peck.

Before I retired, I rarely read fiction. I especially didn’t read Southern novels, say, Faulkner or Gone with the Wind. After all, I had spent a couple of decades living down there and didn’t need to learn about the region and its people. (I suppose it might be the same thing with New Englanders and Hawthorne or Melville.) Besides, it irritated me to have to plow through an author’s rendering of the Dixie dialect — all those peculiar spellings and abundance of apostrophes.

Then, four weeks ago, we went to dinner with old friends and it turned out that MaryLou had grown up in a small Alabama town next to Harper Lee’s, had gone to school with her and still remained a friend. She loaned me a copy of a biography of Lee (which the author had written without help from the subject who now eschews any self-publicity.) I read the novel and biography, saw the movie and then saw the film based on Truman Capote’s book, In Cold Blood. Explanation coming.)

I found the novel a compelling and instructive read. Easy to see why millions of high school and college students have been assigned to read it. The story is told by Harper Lee — called Nelle in life, “Scout” in the book — as a nine year old with an inquiring intelligence about her surroundings. After a series of adventures and observations, the plot reaches its main theme: The alleged rape of a poor white woman by a black man and his subsequent trial. Scout’s lawyer father is prevailed on to serve as defense attorney. The town turns against him, but he is dedicated to the rule of law and goes forward with an eloquent defense. The jury rejects his argument. Remember, this tale takes place in the deeply segregated South.

That’s the bare bones. I won’t go further lest some of you who didn’t have it assigned want to read it.

I grew up in a much larger town than Harper Lee’s, but life there was much as she described it. If you put aside the issue of race — a huge piece of life, to be sure — I have always thought that Southerners like Scout, her family and neighbors were much more tolerant than other Americans when it came to the eccentricities or quirks of those whites different from them. Whether they lacked social graces or were mentally deficient, we accepted them as they were — maintaining a respectful curiosity about their differences.

Scout’s father comes across as a type I never knew growing up — a liberal on race. There were plenty of whites, who treated individual blacks with charity and civility, but never as equals. My father, as chairman of a grand jury committee, reported the terrible condition of black schools and urged improvements be made. Nothing was done, of course. He did not go so far as to suggest integration with white schools.

The novel brings out something little discussed but also true of my South: the class division between lower and upper middle class whites on the one hand and those below them, the “poor white trash,” on the other. In many ways hard-working blacks garnered more respect than lazy, often alcoholic whites.

One of Harper Lee’s close friends in childhood was a boy her age who grew up to be Truman Capote, the successful author (though to his lasting embitterment, not a Pulitzer winner). Harper went to Kansas with him and, with her gentle manner, helped win the trust of locals who provided the material for In Cold Blood.

After exerting herself in the publicity for her book and its movie version, Harper returned to the writing life, spending her days between her hometown and New York. The public clamored for a second novel and apparently she worked hard at one. But, it never came and she has lived the passing years quietly back in Alabama.

Henry Precht is a summer Bridgtonian.

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