“Mockingbird” turns 50 with grace

This summer is the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s poignant, powerful Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Today is, in fact, the 50-year anniversary. The book was published July 11, 1960.

I own a first edition hardcover, which might be worth serious money if it still had the dust jacket. It doesn’t because in 1966 or 1967, I took my crayons and added colorful birds to the muted leaves on the tree that adorns the cover. They weren’t very good because I was talentless as a visual artist. Just for the record, I also added birds — and the starship Enterprise — to my mother’s first edition dust jacket of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” Those covers disappeared in the family moves between Connecticut, Florida and New York.

I first read “To Kill a Mockingbird” when I was in eighth grade. It wasn’t a class assignment: Somehow I made it through middle school and high school without ever reading the novel for an English class, which makes me a demographic anomaly among people my age. Despite the occasional attempts to censor the novel — rape and racism being deemed unfit topics for growing minds — it was required reading in a lot of high schools throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. I have always presumed that a part of the novel’s mystique is that it remains the only book Lee ever wrote.

I read a copy I found in the Hialeah Miami Lakes Public Library. When I was 13, my family moved from a suburb of Manhattan to Miami, Fla., and we moved there the Friday before Labor Day Weekend. I started school the following Tuesday, and then visited my new orthodontist — a sadist, it would turn out, if ever there was one. He gave me some orthodontic headgear that looked like the business end of a backhoe, and I had to wear the device four hours a day. I certainly wasn’t going to wear it to school, given that immortality as the biggest geek at Palm Springs Junior High wasn’t chief among my aspirations. So I waited until school was out, and then my headgear and I went to the public library … where I read.

In addition to “Mockingbird,” that year I read William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist” and Peter Benchley’s “Jaws.” But “To Kill a Mockingbird” might be the story that fueled my desire to be a novelist. It would be the book that would teach me that a narrator in a first-person novel is as made-up as the fictional constructs around him or her. It would be among the tales that would drive home the importance of linear momentum in a plot.

Perhaps it was inevitable, but eventually there was a small “Mockingbird” backlash. Not whopping, mind you. To wit, there are nearly 700,000 fans of the book and movie in various Facebook groups. Even before the gold anniversary hoopla, it had been among USA Today’s 150 bestselling books for a staggering 724 weeks (this week it was No. 56). But it has become more common for readers to dismiss the book for its obvious moralizing and simplicity, or to roll their eyes at Atticus Finch’s homilies. As Allen Barra put it so well last month in the Wall Street Journal, “Atticus speaks in snatches of dialogue that seem written to be quoted in high-school English papers.”

Rob Brown has been teaching English at Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington for 30 years and is head of the department. “‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is an off-and-on feature of Rice’s ninth grade English curriculum,” he told me. “At various times, it’s been nudged aside by other works, such as ‘The Secret Life of Bees.’ Like ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ the book is a warm memory for a lot of aging boomers that may not always be as cuttingly relevant in the minds of today’s teens.” On the other hand, Brown does see students exploring the novel in their Advanced Placement literature essays, and he takes comfort in this.

I do, too. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Atticus, Scout and Jem changed my life. Maybe the book isn’t timely. But it is timeless.

Thank you, Harper Lee. Happy anniversary.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 11, 2010.)
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.