There were big plans for To Kill a Mockingbird this year. In Monroeville, Alabama, the inspiration for the book's fictional Maycomb and where Harper Lee lived for most of her life, the traditional theatrical staging of the book would be taking place. Citizens do so every year to celebrate the late author's birthday – which is today, 28 April. In London, another theatrical adaptation was due to take to the West End this summer. And the novel itself turns 60 this summer.
The limitations of lockdown have seen to many of these celebrations. But re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, the first classic I’d picked up during lockdown, I was surprised to find it had gained unexpected meaning.
The book may be famed, of course, for its portrayal of race relations and justice in the Depression-era Deep South, but against this strange new spring of 2020, I found renewed resonance with Scout, and the sleepy, stilled world she feels confined in. Lee’s autobiographical character is the kind of precocious tomboy who learned how to read before she got to primary school, much to her teacher’s umbrage. But it is Maycomb that feels pertinent at a time when we are all being confronted by new and unexpected limitations.
Scout’s unconventional childhood is nevertheless one of boundaries. When the book opens, and she is six, the territory occupied by Scout and her brother Jem is defined by the ‘calling distance’ of Calpurnia, their ersatz mother and family maid: ‘two doors to the north of us, and the Radley Place three doors to the south’. As the years roll on (the seasons, we learn, barely change in South Alabama), the children’s domain expands geographically but contracts in other ways. At 8, Scout’s hated – and hateful – aunt comes to instil some femininity in her, and Scout explains how she ‘felt the starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary closing in on me’.
Writing from adulthood, Lee has long been praised for her ability to capture Scout’s childish insight, not least when it comes to the nuances of boredom and frustration of youth. Talking to her tedious cousin Francis gave Scout ‘the sensation of settling slowly to the bottom of the ocean’. Summer with her beloved friend Dill (the alias of Lee’s real childhood friend, Truman Capote) was ‘the longings we sometimes felt each other feel’. When he writes to say he won’t be returning that year, Scout tells us: ‘with him, life was routine; without him, life was unbearable.’
Reading To Kill a Mockingbird in lockdown, as an adult kept away from loved ones and made conscious of the weight of each hour, I gained a new understanding of Maycomb, a place, where Scout tells us ‘a day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer.’ Maycomb’s geography kept it small and remote, we later learn, and thus the town becomes Scout’s world and our understanding of it: neighbours, local politics, community, the value of a life.
I’ve not felt that smallness since my own village childhood. But right now, kept in our pockets of the country and more reliant on our communities than ever before, the minute complexities of Maycomb – its claustrophobia – feel particularly present. It is the Great Depression that keeps the people of Maycomb slow, maintains ‘nothing to buy and no money to buy it with’. Nevertheless, when Scout tells us, ‘there was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go… nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County’, that feels true – and strangely comforting.
'Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.'
A lawyer's advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of Harper Lee's classic novel - a black man falsely charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with exuberant humour the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s.
The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina of one man's struggle for justice. But the weight of history will only tolerate so much.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story, an anti-racist novel, a historical drama of the Great Depression and a sublime example of the Southern writing tradition.