It was 1986 and I was asked to read at our school’s chapel. The visiting reverend had the gospel handled; I as a senior could pick an appropriate reading to share with all my classmates. I chose the scene where Atticus shoots the rabid dog.
To me, this scene embodies everything that is wondrous about Harper Lee’s writing. A 1930s community is at a standstill from the terror of an infected dog that could end lives. “Nothing is more deadly than a deserted, waiting street. The trees were still, the mockingbirds were silent…” (103) An aging father is asked to take up a gun, in front of his children, because he’s the “deadest shot in Maycomb County” (106).
Atticus protests; he’s not shot a gun in 30 years. The sheriff begs him. His children and Calpurnia stand frozen, breath bated. The scene unfolds with cinematic perfection, every moment a slow motion rendering of suspenseful action and dialogue. Atticus fells the dog in one shot.
And the dog’s name? Tim Johnson. You can’t walk a foot inside Mockingbird without running into rich character, that wry and understated humor alternating with poignant, gut-wrenching honesty.
Jem is astounded his dad is capable of such things. He’s been so embarrassed by his father’s age and infirmity–his inability to play football and the like. He and Scout can’t imagine why Atticus has never bragged about his shooting skill. It’s because, Miss Maudie says, “People in their right minds never take pride in their talents” (107).
The 17 year-old standing before her peers and teachers that day chose this passage for many reasons, not the least of which was loving this book so much. But today I’d like to think it’s because this moment and many of the moments in Mockingbird are about doing the right thing, the humble thing, and the hard thing.
In our country, this book woke up a lot of white people unaware of or unwilling to face racial inequality. Though most still did nothing afterwards, for a moment they got a glimmer of understanding about injustice. It took the voice of a little girl from the Depression era to awaken a 1960s white-majority America to the fact that white privilege does indeed exist, that the drum major instinct–the superiority complex that Dr. King described so eloquently–is a virulent source of racial hatred.
It all comes down to whether your inner sphere is a raging brew of uncontested, ugly desires, or whether you are, as Miss Maudie says of Atticus, “civilized in your heart.” Jem is thrilled to discover this part of his father—the glorious, secret strength that craves no glory whatsoever.
“Jem picked up a rock and threw it jubilantly at the carhouse. Running after it, he called back, ‘Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!’” (107)
Harper Lee created a man whom most men and women never are and never will be. Atticus Finch of Mockingbird is a tenacious fighter for justice, saintly with his patience, and self-sacrificing at the risk of his own and his children’s safety. Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman is a fearful old man who rationalizes and intellectualizes his racism. My guess is the truth of any Atticus who ever lived is somewhere in between.
On this day of her death, I salute Nelle Harper Lee. She did something braver than I as a white girl would have done in 1960.
To Ms. Lee, whose magnum opus was one tiny part of a much larger Movement that had been hard fought so long already.
To Ms. Lee, who hating the limelight herself, stowed herself away like Boo Radley to appreciate the finer things of life beyond fame.
Your light is eternal, a steady flame fueling itself, seeking no air or wind from others. Rest in peace after a life well lived.
“He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” (296)
Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird. J.B. Lippincott Company. Philadelphia and New York. 1960.