Thursday, June 11, 2015

To Kill a Classic

Next month, Harper Lee will release her second novel.  Until now, Lee was arguably the greatest "one-hit wonder" in American literary history, as her previous To Kill a Mockingbird is hailed as one of the greatest books of the 20th Century.  Mockingbird used to be a fixture on reading lists for children as a lesson on racial inequality and injustice.  (I say "used to be" as I'm not sure schools require it anymore, given that white people in the book say the "N-word" repeatedly and children should only hear that type of language from hip-hop artists and black actors.  Plus, it was written from the vantage point of "while privilege" and there are plenty of other books on racial inequality and injustice written by African-Americans that kids should read instead.)

But I wonder what the reception to the book would be if Harper Lee had published To Kill a Mockingbird today--instead of in the "less enlightened" days of the 1960's.  Would it still be considered a "must read classic"?  Especially when you consider that the seminal action in the book involves a false accusation of rape.

There wouldn't be much of a plot line if Mayella Ewell didn't accuse Tom Robinson of forcing her to have sex with him.  However, as we are told today, the mere mention of the possibility that a rape accusation may be false attacks the credibility of ALL women.  And to portray such an act in a public venue as a bestselling novel will only "make it harder for victims to come forward".

What's more, Atticus Finch is hailed as one of the most "moral and just characters in fictional history" for his legal defense of Robinson.  Many lawyers say it was Finch in Mockingbird that inspired them to consider a legal career and to fight for justice.  Yet, Atticus Finch builds that defense around tearing down the accusations made by Mayella Ewell with dramatic courtroom questioning.  He even insinuates that Mayella led Robinson on--a practice described today as "slut shaming".

Instead of glorious reviews, Harper Lee today would be assailed by women's groups as "hurting the cause".  Discussions of the book on college campuses would have to include "safe rooms" for those too upset by the subject matter to continue listening.  And Lee herself would likely be banned from most universities as well.  The New York Times and would feature long opinion pieces wondering why Lee could not have "sanitized" the novel by just having Tom Robinson falsely accused of killing Mayella Ewell instead.  That's a fight for justice we could all believe in.

If To Kill a Mockingbird was published in today's culture, Harper Lee wouldn't consider writing another book--even after another 55-years.

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