July 11, 2020, marked the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. In October 2019, Humanities Texas held "Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird," a teacher workshop in Houston focusing on the classic novel as well as contemporaneous writings from the civil rights movement. At the workshop, Thomas DiPiero presented this lecture examining the lessons To Kill a Mockingbird teaches. DiPiero is the dean of Southern Methodist University's Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, a professor in SMU’s Departments of English and World Languages and Literatures, and a member of the Humanities Texas Board of Directors.
When I was in high school, my English teacher, Mrs. Light, would often find things in a text as though she were pulling a rabbit out of a hat. All of a sudden something or other symbolized world peace, or something else symbolized courage, and it all seemed really random. That used to frustrate me because it made me think that there wasn't any method or formal way of understanding literature. What I think we need to do, what I want to try to do, is to make clear to students what is going on when we interpret, what the mechanisms are by which meaning is produced, and how you can make sure that a reading is valid: what is it based on?
I am going to start by saying that I am a huge fan of Mockingbird. I would be holding my lighter up if Harper Lee were speaking. I think it really is the great American novel of the twentieth century, in part because it is such a complex work of literature. Yesterday evening, I was at a fundraiser, and, when people asked why I was in town, I explained what I was going to be doing today, and it provoked this kind of spontaneous discussion of the novel. It is one of those books that everybody has tremendously fond memories of. The problem is most people do not read it as adults. To this day, To Kill A Mockingbird is the number one book read by kids in ninth through twelfth grades, which is kind of extraordinary. There are thirty million copies in print, and it has been translated into forty different languages. Is this the great American novel? Sometimes I wonder, could you understand Mockingbird if you are not an American? All of the things that it is about are interests and vectors that crisscross what American culture is, both the good and the bad, and I suspect it genuinely is prototypically American. In some respects, it seems more relevant now than ever.
[. . .]
To Kill a Mockingbird came out in 1960. Just a few years prior to that was Brown v. Board of Education, which was responsible for desegregating the schools. Just after that, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 passed in an attempt to get more voter registration at a time when only 20 percent of African Americans were registered to vote. A similar civil rights act hit in 1959. This is what was going on at the time Harper Lee was writing Mockingbird, and it would frame the way in which readers greeted the novel. And what makes it a work of genius—as I mentioned, I think this is the great American novel of the twentieth century—is that it hits all of the things that crisscross and contradict our culture. This is a novel about neighbors and neighborhoods. It is about families. It is about small-town familiarity (and small towns are very much American). It is about ancestry and who we are. It is about identity. It is about kids playing. It is about values. It is about justice and the law. But every single one of the things this novel is about is perverted in this novel. Every single one of those things is either knocked on its head or made into something nearly unrecognizable.
One of the things that good literature does especially well is to provide a fresh perspective. In the early twentieth century, the Russian formalists called that "defamiliarization." What a work of literature does, what a work of imagination does, is ask you to consider something that you have seen a million times before from a different perspective. What Harper Lee is doing in Mockingbird is giving you all of these things with which you are implicitly familiar and giving them a spin that makes them different in a way that causes you to see them like you've never seen them before. The way that she brings them all together is what constitutes the masterful narrative of To Kill a Mockingbird.
So, think of some of the perverted things—perverted, by the way, does not always have a sexual connotation. It just means moving away. (That's the origin of the word.) So many of the things that you might think you understand turn out not to be at all what they at first appear to be. The novel challenges you to look beneath the surface of what you think you know. The old lady down the street, Mrs. Dubose, is a drug addict. Inside the Ewell family's home, the people who live on the town dump, there's incestuous child abuse. The children build a snowman that is hermaphroditic. Someone who is obviously innocent is found guilty. And then there is the Radley family, who keeps their son cooped up in the house and out of sight, the son who is rumored to eat squirrels and to look in your window at night, the father of whom is described as "the meanest man God ever blew breath into." Well, it turns out that that twisted family is the only traditional nuclear family on the street where the Finches live. In fact, there is no mother in the novel except Mrs. Radley. Harper Lee is giving us some twisted versions of typical and traditional American values. And that all comes to a head when Atticus, who is the staunchest supporter of the law, who lives his life according to logic and the text of the law, in the end breaks the law. And Atticus' decision to break the law is the last thing that happens in the novel.
With all of those things in mind—drug addiction, rape, incest—why do we have our kids read this? Probably because we don't often consider that the novel's message is vastly more complex than the anodyne one we often see: if we learn to adopt each other's perspectives we'll all be able to get along. That's nonsense. There's nothing to sustain that reading, and that is not what this novel is about. In fact, I am going to argue that this novel is telling us that we cannot learn to adopt each other's perspectives, at least up to a point, and, if we understand that, we might have a chance at survival. Understanding our limitations in understanding other people is key. My point is that this is not kids' stuff, and our job and our responsibility as teachers is to get students to understand this.
I mentioned that this novel is about perverting values. In some respects, this novel shares characteristics of the Gothic, where borders are messed with, and things that might be black and white (and I use those terms advisedly) get kind of blurred. Probably the best example, and perhaps the best loved example, is Scout herself. She is a tomboy, which right away blurs gender differences. Strikingly, though, at the very end of the novel, after the kids are attacked by Bob Ewell—remember that Scout had been dressed as a ham for the school pageant and now she is in her undergarments—Aunt Alexandra rushes to get her something to wear. Aunt Alexandra had always been trying to get Scout to wear a dress, but what does she bring in this stressful moment? Scout's overalls. So, we get some idea that, despite her wish to change Scout, Aunt Alexandra knows deep inside who Scout really is. We start to understand the liminal space that these people are all living in, one in which the things they believe don't always coincide with the things they really know.
When you are reading the novel with your students, what do you do with the "n-word" when you are quoting a passage? When I teach this, I always explain to my students what I am going to say and how I am going to say it, and I do not use that word. I don't think that I have the right to use that word. I want them to understand my position on that. So when I am reading a passage, one in particular in the court, when Atticus asks Tom Robinson why he ran when he was first found with Mayella, he says, "Mr. Finch, if you was an 'n-word' like me, you would run, too." People know what that means, but you afford the respect of not using a word that is going to be offensive to people. It still carries the weight because people need to understand how that is working and what it means to different people, because it does mean something different to different people. In fact, the idea that meaning inheres differently for different people is key to understanding To Kill A Mockingbird because different experiences produce different meanings.
My basic strategy for teaching literature is to have students understand, first of all, what it is. First and foremost, literature is language, and it is a specific kind of language. What I am using now is called constative speech—I am trying to communicate as clearly and effectively as possible so that what you are receiving is more or less what I am trying to send. In fact, that is what happens in court, where Atticus is most at home. The lawyer is making a case and trying to convince the jury that his or her interpretation is the one to reach. That is constative language. Another form of language is the one where, if you are getting married and are standing up in front of some presiding official with your partner, and the presiding official says, "Do you take this person?" and you say, "I do." In that case, you have just used language to perform an action. By answering that question, you have morally, ethically, and legally engaged yourself and that person to you for the rest of your life.
Literature is the aesthetic use of language. It calls attention to itself through literary form, such as repetition and the use of figures of speech. Prose fiction, and Mockingbird in particular, calls attention to itself through metaphor. Do you remember the advice that Atticus gives to Scout when she can't understand what is going on around her and other people? He tells her, "What you need to do is walk around in another person's shoes." He has another metaphor he uses to make the same point—they essentially mean the same thing, but they are worded slightly differently: to walk around in someone else's skin. These are two metaphors that typically mean the same thing, but they achieve that meaning through different linguistic avenues. That is a very important thing to keep in mind, and we'll come back to this in a moment.
Metaphor describes one thing in terms of another thing. My love is like a red, red rose. What does that mean? How could love possibly be like a rose? We all have some sense of what it means. I can say my love is like a rose because it is sweet and it has thorns. But, if I said my love is like an overhead projector, you could make that make sense, too. It is bright, it is shiny, it blinds me. I can compare any two things in the world—my love is like a dumbbell, my love is like giraffe breath. The point is that as human beings we make meaning, so the trick is understanding how that meaning occurs, and, as the Aunt Alexandra example shows, we often learn to allow meaning or what we think to be the case to encroach on what might actually be the case. Here's an example.
You'll remember that when Tom Robinson's trial is beginning, there is a very festive atmosphere in front of the courthouse. The kids see Mr. Dolphus Raymond, the guy who purportedly drinks whiskey out of a straw from a paper bag, and he has an African American wife and so-called "mixed" children. Jem points one of the children out to Scout and Dill, and Dill says, "How can you tell? He looks black to me." Jem answers: "You can't sometimes, not unless you know who they are." Think about that. In the U.S., we think of race as something that is very fixed based on morphological features, but Jem reveals to us that you have to know a mixed child, not see one. Race is something that you know, not something that you see. What that suggests, according to how Harper Lee is thinking about this, is not that seeing is believing, which we are all used to, but believing is seeing. How you think you understand the world is what you will actually see. That is what To Kill A Mockingbird is based on.
We see this again at the very closing of the novel, after Scout takes Boo Radley home. She turns around and notices she had never seen her street from that perspective, and because of that she thinks she understands a bit more about what Boo is like. But think about it: she's a kid, and that is incredibly simplistic, and she's wrong. That's where we're heading—we are going to see why it is wrong, or partially wrong, to think you can stand in someone else's skin or in someone else's truth.
To understand that, let's take another metaphor: the mockingbird. Scout and Jem want to get air rifles, and they pester Atticus until he finally relents, but he warns them: "I'd rather you shoot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." Scout asks why it's a sin, and Miss Maudie explains: "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us." At the end of the novel, when we find out that it is Boo Radley, in fact, who killed Bob Ewell to defend the Finch children, the adults try to explain to Scout why they are not going to tell that to the town: people would come to his house and knock on his door and bring him "with his shy ways into the limelight." Scout translates with her own metaphor: "it'd be sort of like shootin' a mockingbird."
Now let me ask you this: what does a mockingbird do? It mocks, that's why it is called a mockingbird. Mockingbirds imitate the calls of other birds—they don't have their own voice so they have to use another's. So, the mockingbird metaphor is a very powerful one for people who have to speak in someone else's voice, because their own voice, their own language, cannot be heard. So, who are we talking about? Tom Robinson says, "Mr. Finch, if you was an n-word like me, you'd run, too." Tom recognizes that Atticus doesn't know, he cannot know because his lived experience does not let him understand, the way Tom Robinson does, what it is like to be in his skin and how just being present at a crime makes you guilty.
A more nuanced version of this is Calpurnia, the Finches' maid. One Sunday, when Atticus is indisposed, Calpurnia decides to take the kids to her church. She scrubs them up and dresses them nicely because she wants people to know that she takes good care of the kids. One of the people who goes to that church, Miss Lula, does not like what she sees and blocks the entrance, challenging, "What you up to, Miss Cal?" Calpurnia responds simply that she is taking the kids to church. Miss Lula says that white children don't belong in their church, and after a brief argument, the kids end up attending Calpurnia's church and listen to a minister who thanks the children for their presence. Afterward, Scout tries to understand why Calpurnia speaks one way at the Finches' house and another at her church. It dawns on Scout that Calpurnia has "command of two languages." That is classic mockingbird. Calpurnia is using the speech of the Finches when she is in their home and speaking a different language when she is in her home or at her church. It is crucial to recognize that the Finches do not have to do that, they do not have to code-switch; they don't even have to know that Calpurnia has to do it, but people who are in different, socially lower positions have to know how to speak the language of the people they work for as well as their own language. That is classic mockingbird effect.
Essentially what that means, in part, is that the people who are exhibiting the mockingbird effect are existing for someone else, speaking for someone else, and they are speaking a language that is not necessarily their own. Conversely, Atticus uses language, uses the law, to interpret things the way he thinks they should be legally. From his position of authority, he knows not only the law; he knows the people in his community and how to use his knowledge and authority to his advantage—and that is why he puts one of the Cunninghams on the jury, even though the Cunninghams tried to kill Tom Robinson at the jail.
At the end of the novel, however, after Bob Ewell is killed by Boo Radley, Atticus breaks the law. At this point, it has become clear that Boo Radley saved the Finch children and killed Bob Ewell. However, the sheriff, Heck Tate, tells Atticus that he intends to tell the community that Bob Ewell fell on his knife. "To my way of thinkin', Mr. Finch, taking the one man who's done you and this town a great service an' draggin' him with his shy ways into the limelight—to me, that's a sin." Atticus knows who killed Bob Ewell, yet he assents to the lie. He kneels down and asks Scout, "Can you possibly understand?" Demonstrating her understanding of metaphor, Scout responds, "Well, it'd sort of be like shootin' a mockingbird, wouldn't it?"
It is a very touching scene, but Atticus breaks the law. Here is this lawyer who has lived his entire life by the law, and he breaks it. That is the last thing that happens in the novel. How should we understand that? How do we understand that this person who is this pillar of righteousness breaks the law? I think the only way to understand this is to say that he is making an ethical decision. He is deciding for this community, for this person, that this is the right thing to do. But, nevertheless, he is breaking the law. I don't want to live in a place where people decide that they are the judge and jury and this is what is going to happen. And yet, somehow, it feels right. In part, that is because Atticus has command of the law and the language that constitutes it, and he is positioned in a way others aren't to be able to make this kind of decision. I think it is good to ask our students to think about why it happens, that the person who represents the law the most becomes perverted. Is it because these circumstances are so extraordinary that the law cannot do its job, cannot hold up? It cannot hold up to the kind of scrutiny that it is going to have to be applied for this all to make any kind of sense. But I think what the novel ends with is, in fact, an ethical question: is it okay to break the law when the outcome seems to be the right thing to do? And, if so, what are the circumstances when it's okay, and who are the people who can do this?
I am going to go back now to the metaphor of shoes and skin, and I am going to try to tie this all together. Atticus tells Scout, "You'll understand somebody if you can stand in their shoes and walk around." The other version of that metaphor is that you will understand someone if you can walk around in their skin. Why does it matter that there are two different ways of saying that same thing? Keep in mind that literature calls attention to itself. It is asking you to think about the language that it uses.
Let me back up a second to make this point even a little bit harder. When Atticus breaks the law, this is the person who uses language to its utmost precision. As I mentioned before, lawyers use highly precise language so that the jury will have to come to the conclusion that what they are saying is correct. It is almost a surgical use of language. But when Atticus breaks the law, there is kind of a breakdown, and the novel concludes on an uncertain moral or ethical dimension. What that means is that language is not able to hold up that level of surgical precision. That is precisely the zone of literature. Instead of trying to use language to zero in on a particular interpretation, what literature does is be suggestive so that you can have all kinds of different associations and then come to this kind of gut-level feeling about what something is, even if you cannot quite articulate it intellectually or discursively. I would suggest that the thing literature does is to create a gut-level understanding about something that you can't quite articulate. A lot of literature is about love, which is a good example of that, and in American culture—whether in the 1960s or today—race is a good example. It is something we understand, perhaps implicitly, but it is very difficult to articulate. What literature can often do is bring up topics in a way that makes sense to us in our hearts before they can make sense to us in our heads. I would stipulate that literature for the past two thousand years has done precisely that. What Harper Lee got us to do in thinking about race this way is kind of get to a gut-level understanding of it, even if we can't really explain it discursively. And the end of the novel, with Atticus breaking the law, is also a breakdown in language. The situation is something that we are not quite ready to talk about. We don't have the tools to talk about yet. So, what we can do is come at it from different perspectives if we can't quite zero in on it and localize it. That is what these two metaphors are doing—walk around in somebody's shoes or walk around in somebody's skin.
The difference is this: as we all know, you can do the first one, but you can't do the second one. I can imagine what you are like if I walk around in your shoes (and we've all quite literally walked around in someone else's shoes), but there is a limit to my understanding, and that limit is represented by the metaphor of walking around in someone else's skin, because that is impossible. What Harper Lee is saying, I think, and this is the reading that I like to develop with my students, is that it is very important that we all learn to sympathize and empathize with somebody else. But you can go too far. You can presume that you know what it is like to know their lived experience, and, if you do that, you've gone too far. It is violent and it is dangerous. You are wiping out their lived experience in that supposition that you understand what their life is like, and you don't.
Some of the greatest works of literature, from the Greek tragedies up until today, don't answer difficult questions but rather let us see them more clearly. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird exposes to us some really sensitive cultural conflicts in the figures of Black characters, not socially positioned to be recognized and understood in their own right, who must speak through others. The novel ends with arguably the most righteous character, the man of law, making a legally and morally questionable decision to lie about a killing. Atticus Finch is the man most in control of language and as a respected white man—perhaps the most respected man in all of Maycomb—he is empowered to "bend the law" (Scout's definition of a compromise). So the novel concludes quite inconclusively: Did Atticus make a righteous, if extra-legal, decision not to reveal that Boo Radley killed Bob Ewell? Or did he abuse his power and position?
I think the message to take away from that then, and from Harper Lee, is that you must learn to sympathize with people, but, more importantly, you must learn that there is a limit to what you can learn to understand, and that is how we get along—by understanding difference, celebrating it even, but also recognizing that there are lines that you need to respect and that you can't cross. And the way you do that is to talk to people, to ask them questions. And to respect them.
"Atticus stood up and walked to the end of the porch. When he completed his examination of the wisteria vine he strolled back to me.
'First of all,' he said, 'if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—'
'—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.'"
"We came to the street light on the corner, and I wondered how many times Dill had stood there hugging the fat pole, watching, waiting, hoping. I wondered how many times Jem and I had made this journey, but I entered the Radley front gate for the second time in my life. Boo and I walked up the steps to the porch. His fingers found the front doorknob. He gently released my hand, opened the door, went inside, and shut the door behind him. I never saw him again.
Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.
I turned to go home. Street lights winked down the street all the way to town. I had never seen our neighborhood from this angle.
[. . .]
Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough."