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Harper Lee and the death of moral certainty

  • 22 February 2016

Scout Finch, the kid heroine of To Kill a Mockingbird, was born colour blind. This is how she says it when she's 26 and goes by her adult name Jean Louise. She says it like this right after she's discovered that Atticus Finch, the rock of her life, is not the sturdy monolith she had counted on. He's frail and movable and, to his devoted daughter, suddenly, profoundly disappointing.

Flannery O'Connor was right when she said that To Kill a Mockingbird was a good novel — for children. 'When I was 15 I would have loved it,' she wrote to a friend.

O'Connor's own stories, steeped in the mud of a gothic, Catholic uncertainly, could never be classed as morally sure. Accordingly, her stories did not tap into the desires of the masses the way Mockingbird did. She didn't make it into the required reading lists set for every 15-year-old English student over the next 50 years.

My best friend Z and I sat side by side while we — at 15, of course — studied the novel. Now Z lives in Detroit and is rocked, she says, by the racial segregation she's exposed to there.

We talked about Harper Lee's death, how moved we were by it, having bonded as kids over the passionate conversations and letters the novel inspired. She said, 'I was in awe of Atticus and his relationship with his children. I remember how much of a hero he was to me, how desperately I wanted for him to save the accused black man.

'Maybe if I had read it at my age now, I'd substitute the black man for the hero.'

She articulated what I couldn't: that as gorgeous in its depiction of mid-century southern summers, as moving a piece of rhetoric it is, Mockingbird is no longer an adequate text. At least not adequate for studying the opacity of human entanglement. Its morality is too saccharine, too outrageously simple.

Now is not the time to invest the hopes for radical change in the hands of men who benefit from things staying more or less the same.

Mockingbird is a fable of benevolent white liberalism, and benevolent white liberalism, in real life, has not delivered on its utopian promise.

Sixty years on, racial equality has not been substantiated here or in the states, and the institutions that this worldview rests on, and which Atticus Finch epitomises — justice (the law), knowledge (education), pragmatism (capitalism), and