My first copy was dog-eared and sunbaked, the pages brittle and brown, as if the paperback had rested in the back window of an old Pontiac instead of on a library shelf. Some kind of pestilence—water bugs, I believe—had gotten to it before I did, and it was hard to tell, as I turned to that first page, which of us would get more from it. I was an ignorant teenage schoolboy and read it because a teacher told me to, prodded as if by pitchfork down the hot, dull streets of a town called Maycomb in the desolate 1930s, and pressed into the company of a boy named Jem, a mouthy girl named Scout, and an odd little chucklehead named Dill whom, I am fairly sure, I would have beaten up and relieved of his milk money. I would have preferred the Hardy Boys, preferred to gallop alongside the Riders of the Purple Sage, but I was afraid of teachers then, and so I read. “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town … Somehow, it was hotter then … There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go …” I missed a few words, bug-eaten or besmirched, but I read on, to a shot-down rabid dog, and a neighbor, Boo Radley, in hiding, and a young black man named Tom Robinson who is wrongly accused of raping a young white woman. And, of course, there is Atticus Finch, the lawyer who offers reason, and kindness, and some thin hope. He tries to save Robinson, but, as the pages turned, I saw that it would take more than one good Alabama man to make this sorry world all right.
To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, but it was the middle 1970s before it reached the Roy Webb Road in Calhoun County, Alabama, and me. I began reading Harper Lee’s novel in the skimpy shade of a pine outside my grandmother’s house, fat beagles pressing against me, begging for attention, ignored. At dark, I kept reading, first on the couch, a bologna sandwich in one hand, then in my bed, by the light of a 60-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling on an orange drop cord. When my mother came in from her job as a maid and unplugged my chandelier, I replayed the story in my head until it was crowded out by dreams. I woke the next morning, smelling biscuits, and reached for the book again.
I remember this, some 35 years later, the same way I remember where I was when Elvis died or the first time I saw Paul “Bear” Bryant walk a sideline on a Saturday in fall. Some things are just important. And as the pages fluttered by, the ragged 50-cent paperback shook my conscience, broke my heart, and took me into its landscape forever. I believed, at the time, I was the only person in the whole world who felt like that.
It was my first grown-up book, a story not pat or perfect, about children coming of age in a time when reality falls wretchedly short of ideals. Even as a lynch mob threatens Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch refuses to condemn the cruel conventions of his community and is willing to absorb the mob’s hatred himself, stoic, till a villain named Robert E. Lee Ewell strikes at his own children. Atticus is not the book’s only hero. Another steps from the closet, the shadows.
Many people see To Kill a Mockingbird as a civil rights novel, but it transcends that issue. It is a novel about right and wrong, about kindness and meanness. As a child in rural Alabama in the 1960s, I had seen such stories burn past me, somehow unreal and distant, as buses were overturned, as civil rights workers were beaten or shot from speeding cars. I did not truly feel those hatreds, or understand them, until I read that book.
Now that I know this novel’s place in history, I wonder: How many readers have gone with me into those pages and returned in some way different, in some way changed?
I am not talking of book sales, although Lee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is one of the most popular books of all time. It has sold an estimated 40 million copies, is a staple of school curricula, and has been translated into some 40 languages. It also made a glorious transition to screen in 1962 in the Academy Award–winning adaptation written by the great Horton Foote and starring Gregory Peck. Lee, who never wrote another novel, has been covered up to her chin in awards and citations and presented with every trophy short of a gold monkey.
But her novel’s finest, most profound legacy is quieter, almost private, something between Lee and one reader at a time.
You get to know readers, a little bit, if you write books for a living. You get to see the depth to which they love a book. To Kill a Mockingbird is not just the kind of book people hold in their hearts; it’s the kind people hold to their hearts, wrapping their arms around it and pressing it against their breasts as if they could feel a heartbeat in its paper. I have seen people do that to copies signed and unsigned.
We writers should all be so lucky, to write a book people actually hug.
Don Brown, a retired newspaper editor who works across the hall from me at the University of Alabama, told me he has picked up countless books in his life, but this one he never really put down.
“I don’t think you do,” said Brown, now 73, who has a signed copy. “And I am so proud of it.”
It is not a complicated book, to him.
“It is a sermon,” he said, “on courage as much as anything else.”
In the collected essays Critical Insights: To Kill a Mockingbird, author and English professor Edythe M. McGovern notes that a 1991 survey by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress Center for the Book found the novel was one of three books ‘most often cited as making a difference in people’s lives,’ after the Bible.”
For Southerners, especially those who were alive in the segregated South, it was a reminder of our finer nature. As so much poison spewed from so many courthouses, statehouses, political platforms, and Klan picnics, it was a kind of poultice, a story set in the 1930s that should have drawn out that meanness, and shamed the wrongdoers of the 1960s into doing the right thing.
It did not. But it was, I guess, the closest thing to an antidote we, as a region, would have for a long, long time.
We were not political, my family and me. My people swung hammers, poured steel, heaved sticks of pulpwood onto ragged trucks, and made a little liquor deep in the pines along the Alabama-Georgia line. The women worked hunched over the spinning frames in the mill, breathing air that was thick with cotton. Men broke down truck tires in dirt-floor garages, their sledges ringing through the trees, and broke each other’s bones, now and then, over a woman, or an insult, or an open jug. They sinned and got saved, backslid, then did it all over again, jerking in the grip of the Holy Ghost as if they had grabbed hold of a naked wire. They did a little time, some of them, till their mamas bailed them out, but most of them just punched a time clock, fed their babies, and watched wrestling live from Birmingham on their black-and-white TVs. In late summer and early fall, they picked cotton in the fields beside black men and women, and if there was ever a conflict there, I was too dumb to see it. My mother worked on her knees cleaning the homes of the better-off white ladies in town and took in laundry. If anyone needed a prophet to tell us we were better than someone, better than anyone, I guess it was us.
He came to us from Barbour County, a pugnacious little man named George Wallace who promised to protect us from the outside agitators who were coming down here to destroy our way of life.
It made no sense to me as I started school in Calhoun County in 1965. Were they going to take away our sledges? Were they going to unplug my mother’s iron? Were they going to stop us from digging a ditch?
But still, we went to see him, to see the show. I remember a rally in Anniston, the county seat, remember a band playing “Dixie,” and an undulating canopy of Confederate battle flags, a whole auditorium of Stars and Bars and fluttering red. The little man got everyone all worked up. The guv’ment in Washington would not force us to go to school or otherwise have unwanted close association with colored people, he promised. I did not really understand it much. It was, though, quite a show.
Not long after that, our daddy got fairly well drunk and ran off. Things got bad for a while, till the black family that lived down the road brought my mother some food, including some good corn. I liked corn, so I liked them. I was six, I believe.
I did not need Harper Lee to tell me it was wrong to treat people badly because of color. I was raised right that way by my gentle mother. What Lee did was make me think about it, longer, deeper, as a man. I would not stand in the company of men who spouted meanness, or be a go-along, come-along racist for the sake of so-called good manners or peace in the family.
It is not much, maybe, to say, to claim.
But there was more to me after reading that book than before.
I hear it from people my age over and over again.