By Laksiri Fernando –
“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” – From ‘Mockingbird’
Harper Lee, the celebrated author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has peacefully died on the 19th February, two days ago, at the age of 89, at a nursing home not so far from the house where she had grown up, in Monroeville, Alabama, and also the impressive setting for her passionate novel, the fictional Maycomb. I don’t know about Monroeville, but know quite well of Maycomb and its surroundings.
I first came across this novel along with another interesting but obscure one, “Rugged-Trousered Philanthropists,” at the Harriet Irving Library of the University of New Brunswick, Canada, somewhere in 1976. I was temporarily working as a (student) library assistant during the summer, mainly stacking books hopefully at right places, using the Dewey decimal index, to earn some cash during my master’s studies. It was Mrs. A. Jayeratnam Wilson who fixed me that job who was a Librarian.
Quite fresh from Sinhala education in Sri Lanka, I don’t think I could fully well understand the meaning of the novel or its significance for racial/ethnic or social reconciliation, although I believe racial/ethnic amity was ingrained in me from my childhood or family even at that time. Otherwise, the Sinhala novels of that time particularly of Gunadasa Amarasekera genre were supposed to give a ‘unitary perspective’ on culture or civilization, on his own admission.
What impressed me of ‘Mockingbird’ first were the characters. Scout, the tomboy who relates the story, Atticus her sober and wise father, and Scout’s older brother and protector, Jem or Jeremy, were my immediate acquantances. Of course Calpurnia made me think little deeper about race relations, who was the African American (or Negro) housemaid at Finchs’ household. She was the closest thing to a mother to Scout and Jeremy, as the actual mother had died very early in their lives.
The mysterious character, Boo Radley, their neighbour was intriguing, reminding many childhood dreads or prejudices of anyone with different abilities or disabilities.
Harper Lee or ‘Mockingbird’ came again to my sharp attention in recent times because of two main reasons. Lee’s lawyer two years back in 2014 found a missing manuscript of another novel of Lee, when she was looking for some other documents in the basement of Lee’s old home in Monroeville. The house reportedly is still there with antique furniture and lots and lots of books. Lee who had become feeble with bad eyesight and hearing problems for some time was living in a nursing home nearby where she peacefully passed away two days ago. She was also a person who valued ‘privacy’ very much, and who wanted to live a quiet life without much public attention.
The newfound novel was published last year in July by Harper Collins titled “Go Set a Watchman.” This was after 55 years of the ‘Mockingbird,’ reportedly written before, and a companion novel for the same. The reasons for the ‘loss’ of this manuscript for such a long time was not very clear. Before, Lee consistently insisted that she had no intention of publishing any other after ‘Mockingbird’ and she was a one book literary celebrity until last year. Anyway, I am not commenting at all on this new novel, as I still didn’t get a chance to read it carefully due to election fever in Sri Lanka at that time, and for some other reasons thereafter.
Second reason, however, is more profound in the context of the need for ‘reconciliation’ in Sri Lanka or any other country for that matter. ‘Mockingbird’ is a novel which can inculcate values and attitudes among young children, or even on some otherwise incorrigible adults, to make them understand human diversity and the need to tolerate ‘the other’ in a multi-diverse society with a sharp sense of justice. This is a novel used in many English speaking countries for secondary school children for that purpose.
This is not to say that this novel should be used in Sri Lankan schools but the writers, novelists, journalists, education planners and teachers could take many inspirations or lessons from this novel if they are of course committed to promoting reconciliation and social harmony through education. Moreover, ‘Mockingbird’ can be enjoyed merely as a novel, for its story, characters, prose and creativity.
I understand that there is a translation by Indrani Karunaratne titled “Payata Pagena Duwili” (2003), somewhat meaning ‘dust under the feet,’ which I have not seen and therefore not capable of commenting on its veracity. However, the metaphor seems fitting because it means the neglect or even contempt of ‘the other.’
I have come across another rather personal reason for my attention recently. Harper Lee has been an admirer of Thomas More and his “Utopia” like me (“Thomas More’s Socialist Utopia and (Ceylon) Sri Lanka,” CreateSpace, 2015). However, there is one difference! She obviously differed fundamentally from More’s contemptuous attitude towards lawyers, while I stand by More.
‘Mockingbird’ is considered the most read English novel during the last fifty five years with over 40 million copies sold. The novel was first published in 1960 by Lippincott, New York, and won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize the following year. It was made into an impressive movie in 1962.
When it was first published, reportedly it had an immediate effect during the battle for civil and equal rights in America in the 1960s. It was an inspiration for the black activists, Atticus Finch, the lawyer father of the tomboy Scout as a Hero. The novel’s social setting however was 1930s in Alabama, where the discriminated blacks were not in a position to resist or protest. It was a time of deep prejudice and also mistrust on both sides. That is how Atticus stand as an exemplary character and a true hero; a lawyer and an elected council member.
Are there fathers, or will there be lawyers or public representatives of Atticus’ calibre in Sri Lanka to take up the cause of justice, human rights and social equality? These are the questions that come to my mind when I try to celebrate the life of Harper Lee and her important novel, ‘Mockingbird.’
Atticus defended Tom Robinson, a black labourer, in a difficult case, under difficult circumstances, who was accused of raping a middle class (but wavered) white woman. He took the responsibility of saving the black man’s life at the risk of his professional standing (defined primarily by the white society) and personal safety under mob threats and protest.
He was a hero not only on that account. He had, from the beginning of the novel, personal and professional traits as an Ethical Man. He was a kind and a loving single father who cared for his two children and for their equally ethical upbringing. He thus manged to raise two bright, independent and open-minded children and the ‘tomboy’ Scout always was his Conscience.
At all odds, he stood against the ‘white majority rule in Maycomb because of his Conscience.’
The impact of ‘Mockingbird’ was not or cannot be limited to the 1960s or America alone. It is a universal message and a theme. Mockingbird perhaps is the most innocent of all birds. Only ‘fault’ is to mimic ‘sounds and music’ of other birds like our children do. To kill a mockingbird is to kill innocence. This is what Atticus prevented doing at all odds, of his children – Scout and Jem. The book is a lesson for all parents. Children by nature are open, fair minded and mostly look for ‘justice’ as they understand. This is something that the parents should protect and cultivate.
The best educational commentary that I have seen on ‘Mockingbird’ is by Claudia Johnson (“Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird,” GreenWood Press, London, 1994), which can easily be used for educational programs on reconciliation and/or social justice. The following is what Johnson said about the novel’s lasting impact after referring to the influence in the 1960s.
“But the novel’s impact has been enduring because it allows the reader, through the lives of children, ‘to walk around in the shoes’ (as its main character says) of people who are different from ourselves. The novel challenges our stereotypes – of the Southerner, the African-American, the eccentric, the child, the young lady. At the same time that many people see characters and social situations in different ways after reading the novel, they also recapture some part of their own youth in the story of its characters.”
As a novel for social-harmony and justice ‘Mockingbird’ has several merits. It is about discrimination, racism, cruelty and particularly suitable for growing ups to understand these vicissitudes. If you have a daughter or a son (or many, or grand ones) of that age, and if you are of course geared to promote them reading in English, ‘Mockingbird’ can be recommended unreservedly. Indrani Karunaratne’s Sinhala translation, “Payate Pagene Duwili” might be equally good. There should be a Tamil one soon, if it is not there already.
Harper Lee, the celebrated author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is no more. But her name, example, mission and the resolve to talk about social justice, equality and fair play should and will prevail.