Examining a Set Text-To Kill a Mockingbird Fifty Years On

By Peters, Mike | NATE Classroom, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

Examining a Set Text-To Kill a Mockingbird Fifty Years On


Peters, Mike, NATE Classroom


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New York, 1958. A woman in her early thirties scrabbles in the snow for the pages she has just thrown out of her apartment window in a moment of frustrated madness. Her name is Harper Lee, newly arrived to the city from a small Alabaman town, in order to work as an airline clerk for BOAC. Eventually, she manages to re-assemble the disorderly manuscript of what will turn out to be one of the most culturally and educationally influential books of recent times--To Kill a Mockingbird.

Initially entitled, Go Set a Watchman, the novel, published fifty years ago in July 1960 and never out of print since, will remain in the US bestseller lists for a record-breaking 80 weeks, will feature prominently in international surveys of people's favourite reading and become one of the most commonly taught texts in high schools across the world. Ranked ahead of the Bible in a 2006 UK librarians' survey as the one book every adult should read before they die and identified by Bill Clinton's campaign manager as the work that changed his views on race--'I just knew the minute I read it that she was right and I had been wrong'--Mockingbird, set in Lee's loosely fictionalised home town, is not an obvious candidate for literary stardom. Why this novel, with its small cast of simply drawn characters--both children and adults--and slow-moving plot built around a children's game involving the goal of making contact with a local recluse and an allegation of rape against a local black labourer, should have exerted such a strong and pervasive influence during the last half-century is an intriguing question.

Certainly, To Kill a Mockingbird hasn't always had an easy ride. Judged to be 'immoral' by a number of US school-boards in the 1960s and attacked more recently by educators in Illinois, Kansas City and Nova Scotia for its stereotypical depiction of black characters, some readers, at least, have felt intense antagonism. Yet, for the most part, in spite of the controversies, the book has continued to feature on examining boards' set-text lists and English teachers have, on the whole, remained faithful, recognising that its traditional values--'Christian', according to Harper Lee herself in a rare defence of the novel--and politically liberal, according to others, in its heroic depiction of the individual struggling against injustice, continues to resonate with contemporary teenagers.

'I've never had a class that didn't love it,' says one enthusiast. 'There are few books like it for raising issues surrounding responsibility within the community,' claims Caroline Sharpe, an English teacher from London's Lilian Baylis Technology School, who goes on to say that the character of Boo Radley and the court-case 'raise passionate views from students ... It's the best device I can think of for illustrating the atrocious treatment of black folk at the hands of a white only judicial system at that time in history.'

Even when there is a recognition of the problematic nature of certain aspects of the novel--for example, Atticus's willingness to tolerate the racism that surrounds him or the author's choice of a white child to tell the story of black oppression--few seem to doubt the novel's ability to speak to young readers. …

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