Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964, The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America."
Like J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" - which celebrates its 50th anniversary this Sunday - has become required reading in middle schools and high schools across the country. It has sold an estimated 30 million copies since it was first published in 1960, and it still sells 750,000 copies a year. The book is ranked No. 5 on the Reader's List of 100 best English-language novels sponsored by the Modern Library.
But it didn't make the Modern Library Board's top 100 list at all. And the book is routinely savaged by literary critics - one notable example, by Malcolm Gladwell, appeared in The New Yorker just last summer.
Most critics have taken at face value the charge by Lee's contemporary, the gifted Southern novelist Flannery O'Connor, that "To Kill a Mockingbird" is "a children's book." That's a pity. For there is nothing childlike, or even teenage, about "To Kill a Mockingbird."
The story is told by Scout Finch, looking back on events that happened when she was 9 years old and living in Maycomb, Ala., with her father and brother. The plot hinges on the decision of her father, Atticus Finch -- a widower and small-town, liberal lawyer -- to defend a local black man, Tom Robinson, from the false charge that he raped Mayella Ewell, a young white woman whose family lives next to the town dump.
The plot parallels that of William Faulkner's 1948 novel "Intruder in the Dust," in which a liberal Mississippi lawyer, Gavin Stevens, defends a black man falsely accused of murder. With the aid of his young nephew, Stevens exonerates his client. The difference is that in "To Kill a Mockingbird," Atticus loses his case with tragic results. Robinson doesn't believe the appeal Atticus has filed on his behalf will set him free, and he is killed trying to escape from prison.
To Harper Lee's many critics, this complicated and dark set of events isn't enough to make "To Kill a Mockingbird" a serious novel. They see Atticus as a Jim Crow liberal who gets along much too well with his bigoted neighbors, and they see Scout as nothing more than a naive narrator who has put her father on a pedestal.
But there's nothing simplistic about the narration or the racial thinking of "To Kill a Mockingbird." The tension between what Scout as a child understands and what the story she tells reveals is significant. The price she pays for adoring her father is that she never protests how his obsession with doing what is right often makes him emotionally distant. Nor does Scout truly grasp how isolated Atticus has become, as a result of his defense of Robinson. Lee leaves it up to the reader to fill in what Scout as a 9-year-old and fallible narrator cannot articulate.
Even greater complexity holds for the racial issues of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Robinson's case is reminiscent of the infamous 1931 Scottsboro case in which, on flimsy evidence, nine young black men were taken off a freight train in Alabama and charged with the rape of two white women who were riding in the same boxcar. Despite two Supreme Court hearings, five of the nine were convicted of rape by all-white juries and served lengthy prison terms.
In the case of Tom Robinson's rape trial, we are asked to see how Atticus balances his desire to provide Robinson with the strongest possible defense against his need to get the jury - and the other local juries he as a lawyer will face in the future - to listen to him. It's his failure to resolve this struggle cleanly that causes Lee's critics to label him a Jim Crow liberal. Never mind that he sits up all night in front of the Maycomb jail to make sure a lynch mob doesn't kill Robinson. In an era when separate-but-equal was the law of the land, Atticus' decision to risk his own life and expose his children to attack still isn't enough for Lee's critics.
Ironically, after reading "To Kill a Mockingbird," the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. saw nothing of the Jim Crow liberal in Atticus. He wrote in his 1964 book, "Why We Can't Wait": "To the Negro in 1963, as to Atticus Finch, it had become obvious that nonviolence could symbolize the gold badge of heroism rather than the white feather of cowardice."
That's high praise from someone who knew Alabama as well as King did. Today, as in 1964, it's hard to imagine King going out of his way to praise a book he thought sugarcoated the racism he was fighting against.