The Subtle Strength of To Kill a Mockingbird

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Harper Lee, who died earlier this year, would have been 90 years old today. She’s best remembered as the author of a single novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, whose standing in American culture is so great that it has become, over the years, much more than a book. As Megan put it:

The elements of To Kill a Mockingbird—“our national novel,” Oprah Winfrey called it—have been varnished by time. And polished, by the equal forces of memory and forgetfulness, into symbols of some of the things the current culture holds most dear, or tries to: justice, wisdom, decency, bravery, empathy. You never really understand a person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. The names Scout and Atticus—and, perhaps above all, the name Harper—reflect a respect not just for the arc of history, but for the hope that it does indeed bend toward justice.

In the August 1960 issue of The Atlantic, Phoebe Adams described the novel as “respectable hammock-reading”—i.e. the kind of thing you can read on the subway without embarrassment, rave about over cocktails with impunity, but maybe not mention in a job interview or list on OkCupid. She continues:

Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is sugar-water served with humor. … It is frankly and completely impossible, being told in the first person by a six-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult. … A variety of adults, mostly eccentric in Scout’s judgment, and a continual bubble of incident make To Kill A Mockingbird pleasant, undemanding reading.

I love To Kill a Mockingbird. But that description strikes a chord with me.

I read it when I was 12 and promptly designated it my favorite book. (I also developed a serious crush on Jem.) It remained my favorite throughout high school, through rereadings and group projects, and into the first-year college lit class where two other people, during icebreakers, announced it was also their favorite. It was still my favorite when I went to class with Ivy-League English majors who loved Anne Carson and David Foster Wallace, and when I interned at a literary magazine beside people newly obsessed with Karl Ove Knausgaard and Tao Lin.

It was my favorite book, that is, long after I became embarrassed to admit it was—long after I began to wonder if I should love something more challenging, more obscure, and less widely beloved.

It was still my official favorite when I confessed to a friend that my slightly-cheesy life goal was to write someone else’s favorite book. I wanted to inspire that kind of mind-shaping love in someone. I wanted my words to get stuck in people’s heads. That’s sweet, he said, but it was proof that I didn’t really get art. Didn’t I think I was being a little too populist? Shouldn’t I be aiming a little higher?

I may or may not owe my friend an apology for shouting at him so inarticulately. But we can’t all think on our feet.

Today I’d argue that To Kill a Mockingbird shows the value of popular literature; that some of the power of that pleasant, undemanding, multifaceted book of humor and tragedy lies in its very undemanding nature; that its enormous footprint in American culture comes in part from how easy it is for people to love it, and identify with it, and strive to honor its good parts. Here’s how Harper Lee’s literary agent described her strengths to another author:

She has the same ability you have to create living characters, from kids to old folks, so real that people from totally different environments immediately believe in them … the same gentle underlying humor which adds charm to the telling. I remember telling her, when trying to persuade her to go on and keep working at the Mockingbird, how well you had succeeded with similar material. I remember showing her that section of SO LONG AT THE FAIR where the boy is listening to the sounds of the gin whistles, near and distant, and how much she loved it.

That’s the power of sugar water served with humor: to charm, to win people over, and in that gentle winning-over to inspire a deeper belief.

And after all, sweetness can conceal a subtle strength. One of the most striking scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird is the missionary society tea party where Scout learns that Tom Robinson, the black man whom Atticus defended in court, has been shot. Atticus pulls aside Scout, her aunt, and their housekeeper, Calpurnia, to tell them the news.

The scene is a masterpiece of dissonance: characters professing altruism and racism in the same breath; cups clinking and small talk gently humming over the news of a man’s brutal killing. Scout, who absorbs the news only slowly, “found myself shaking and couldn’t stop.” She’s a child, frightened not only by the tragedy but also by seeing the adults in her life at such a loss. Then, her neighbor, Miss Maudie, quiets her. The women go back to the party:

And so they went, down the row of laughing women, around the diningroom, refilling coffee cups, dishing out goodies as though their only regret was the temporary domestic disaster of losing Calpurnia. … Aunt Alexandra looked across the room at me and smiled. She looked at a tray of cookies on the table and nodded to them. I carefully picked up the tray and watched myself walk to Mrs. Merriweather. With my very best company manners, I asked her if she would have some. After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I.

It’s not callousness that drives them to return, but something more human and complicated: the fact that life and all its banalities go on in spite of tragedy, that deep feelings and grave events are bound to have humor and hypocrisy, sweetness and absurdity mixed in. That’s the knowledge that brings Scout one step closer to adulthood—and it’s the quality that makes Lee’s writing seem real.

I’ll admit it: To Kill a Mockingbird is still my favorite book.