Harper Lee’s loving-kindness

The recent revelation of Harper Lee’s previously unpublished book Go Set a Watchman, and the news of its impending publication, cause Dalrymple to revisit To Kill a Mockingbird, the only book she was previously thought to have written. Writing for The New Criterion, he notes many admirable qualities in the work but ultimately can’t get past its lack of realism, exhibited mostly in its portrayal of both Atticus Finch and the black population of Maycomb as essentially morally perfect. One example:

…as portrayed in the book, blacks are all wise, friendly, God-fearing, generous, honest, uxorious, faithful folks. They live their Christianity, whereas the whites use it only as a stick to beat others with. They seem to be happy rather than unhappy: certainly not as unhappy as the poor whites… If the purpose of social and political arrangements is to bring about a happy contented existence for people of good character, any disturbance of those arrangements in Maycomb at least would seem more to the benefit of the whites, who live in a permanent state of petty irritation and conflict with one another, than to that of the blacks. On this view of the life of blacks in southern Alabama, it should have been the whites singing “Let My People Go.”

Now of course Harper Lee was writing in 1960, when racial equality had by no means been conceded, and when it was still perfectly acceptable in certain quarters to pronounce that blacks were all but a different species, at best hewers of wood and drawers of water, and inclined or condemned by their nature to depravity in need, therefore, of permanent repression. She must have wanted to counteract and shame the still widely held prejudice of the time, and this was a highly honorable thing to do.

But a novel is not a political speech or pamphlet, and so such sentimentality deforms the book and casts doubt on its reliability. For those alert to the implausibility of the portrayal of the black population, the suspicion of emotional manipulation arises. We are being told directly what to feel.

Although many pieces in The New Criterion require a subscription, this one appears not to. You can read it here.

One thought on “Harper Lee’s loving-kindness

  1. Doug

    Great, luminous piece; I expect this and more from Dalrymple, and once again, he delivers.

    He is entirely correct; the book has much merit, but the Dubose/courage thing always seemed odd, and the larger book, such a thing of wonderment on the first (adolescent) read, doesn’t hold up entirely well on the adult re-reread. The bits about the Finch family background and the colorful neighbors are continue to amuse, even amaze, but the preaching is heavy-handed, and the elevation of Lee’s real-life dad (Amasa Lee was a lawyer, but he was anything but a racial pioneer) to sainthood in the person of Atticus is simply too much for the even mildly cynical reader to bear. I would have actually preferred that she’d written more about Miss Maudie Atkinson, who, while somewhat peripheral, at least evoked an *Actual Living Adult* rather than some jackhammer-subtle personification of good or evil.


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