EDITOR’S NOTE: When Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, died in February, we knew we wanted to honor her legacy in a powerful way in our magazine. In an exchange with Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute in Florida, we found a gateway. Clark focuses a chapter in his newest book on Lee’s work. We print it here as our tribute to a writer whose impact on the craft and on the country is resonant and valuable.
On the evening of February 18, 2016, four writers from the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, gathered around a table to read to each other excerpts of journalism, poetry, drama and fiction that had won a Pulitzer Prize. This year is the 100th anniversary of the prizes. We read from Gwendolyn Brooks, August Wilson and Harper Lee, who won the prize for fiction in 1961.
In a slow, steady voice, Butch Ward read arguably the most famous passage from To Kill a Mockingbird, the scene in which Atticus Finch tries, against all odds, to persuade an all-white jury to acquit his black client. Butch Ward is no Gregory Peck, but when he recited those final words of the closing argument – “In the name of God, do your duty” – a chill ran up my arms.
Little did we know that as we read her words aloud, Harper Lee was dying. The next morning, the New York Times sent out an alert that she was dead at the age of 89.
For such a private author, Lee has been much in the news in recent years. An early novel, Go Set a Watchman, was published last year amid great controversy. More coincidence: The day that news of that new/old novel was announced, I was drafting a chapter for a book, The Art of X-ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing. One of those great works is To Kill A Mockingbird. My chapter devoted to understanding the craft of Harper Lee follows on the next page.
X-ray reading is a form of close reading favored by writers, a powerful vision that helps the writer see below the surface of the text to reveal the machinery below. Such reverse engineering dispels none of the mystery or magic of great literature. Done well over time, it moves the reader to become a writer. Harper Lee is dead. Long live her legacy, which includes all writers inspired by her work.
X-raying Harper Lee: Weight of the wait
There are certain days in a writer’s life when the stars seem to align. As I was revising this chapter about To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee’s writing strategies, news broke that her publisher would produce a sequel to Mockingbird titled Go Set a Watchman. When it comes to suspenseful storytelling, there is nothing like a long wait followed by a big surprise.
Although it was published in 1960, during the early civil rights movement, Mockingbird is set in a small southern town during the Great Depression. Thanks to a movie version that won three Academy Awards and book sales worldwide of more than 18 million copies, the story is now familiar. Atticus Finch, a righteous Alabama lawyer and legislator played by Gregory Peck in the movie, raises his son Jem and his daughter Scout with a progressive view of race and justice. In the segregated South, this turns out to be daunting and even dangerous, especially when Atticus is called to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. The story is narrated by Scout, a spirited and determined child. Throughout the action, the children find themselves mired in a series of misadventures. Their ingenuity and loyalty to their father gain them access to the courtroom, where they get to view the trial from the balcony. It is there that the black citizens of the town have gathered, hoping against hope for a just judgment for one of their own.
I will focus my X-ray reading on chapter 21, not only the best and most revealing chapter in the book, but also one of the best chapters in all of American literature. In the previous chapter, Atticus offers the jury a passionate summation, not only reviewing the evidence, but also encouraging the all-white, all-male jury to follow their better angels.
But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal – there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest J.P. [justice of the peace] court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.
I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system – that is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.
It’s worth noting, through your X-ray glasses, how rhetorical this passage is. We know from Shakespeare that soliloquies – individual speeches to the audience – can enrich the experience of dramatic literature. A speech inside a story is another example of a text within a text, and it can be used to advance a story, reveal a character or explore a set of ideas.
We can recognize again the familiar rhetorical strategies that make a passage feel like a powerful piece of oratory. One is the use of parallel constructions – repeated grammatical patterns. Look, for example, at this passage.
There is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president.
The word equal is repeated three times as an anchor, but all the other elements are varied – within a pattern. The rollout of three elements – Rockefeller, Einstein, college president – signifies that the speaker is making a broad, encompassing statement. (Authors often use three examples as shorthand for “everything.”)
It shouldn’t surprise us that the speaker builds his lan- guage to a crescendo of passion and meaning and ends by invoking God and driving his listeners toward action, casting the most important sentiment within the shortest sentence, just eight words, seven of them of one syllable: “In the name of God, do your duty.”
By the beginning of chapter 21, the summation is concluded and the jury is about to begin its deliberations. Among the most familiar story engines is “guilty or not guilty.” This is why jury trials make such popular dramatic narratives, from Twelve Angry Men to Anatomy of a Murder to countless episodes of Perry Mason and Law and Order. It also explains why the coverage of high-profile trials is a staple of cable news programs. Viewers will follow the proceedings for weeks and even months, not just to learn what has happened but also to find out what will happen. The rituals of trials, some of which can be most tedious, also have some suspense built into them – a system of delay made more dramatic by jury deliberations, with the final outcome in doubt.
We will discover the verdict at the end of chapter 21, but not without a series of delays. In most ticktock structures, time either is counted down, as in a basketball game, or it builds to a predetermined point, as in the famous cowboy movie High Noon, the title of which signifies the arrival time of a train carrying a killer named Frank Miller. The Miller gang will seek vengeance against the town and especially its marshal, played by Gary Cooper. The film is only eighty-five minutes long, and the action – measured by the hands of a large clock – occurs almost in real time.
Time, we know from experience and from quantum mechanics, is relative. In my personal theory of time, its speed depends on our consciousness of it. If we are “watching the clock” in a classroom or workplace, time can crawl. Or, if we are distracted by work or entertainment, it can “fly by.” “Where did the time go?” we ask after a particularly engaging experience.
We might imagine, then, that to create suspense, an author may want to slow down the narrative. This can be done by writing a series of short sentences, with each period acting as a stop sign. And it can be done by direct and repeated references to time. In Mockingbird, we are awaiting a verdict. Jury deliberations, especially in the Jim Crow South, could be over in a few minutes, or they could take days. Or the jury could be hung. What will happen? That’s what the characters in the novel, and all its readers, want to find out.
As chapter 21 begins, the family housekeeper, Calpurnia, has rushed into the courtroom, frantic with the news that the children, Jem and Scout, are missing and unaccounted for. The puzzle is quickly solved by the alert court reporter:
“I know where they are, Atticus. . . . They’re right up yonder in the colored balcony – been there since precisely one- eighteen p.m.”
There are two highly significant elements in this dialogue. The first reminds us that in this segregated arena, the children have sought refuge among the “colored” people. The other is the odd precision in the marking of time: “precisely one-eighteen p.m.” Atticus agrees that they can return to the courthouse to hear the verdict, but he says that they must first go home, with an angry Calpurnia, and eat their supper. She serves them milk, potato salad, and ham, but insists, “You all eat slow,” another reference to time.
When they return to the courthouse, Jem asks, about the jury, “How long have they been out?” Thirty minutes. After more waiting, Jem asks, “What time is it, Reverend?” He answers, “Gettin’ on toward eight.” More waiting. Then “The old courthouse clock suffered its preliminary strain and struck the hour, eight deafening bongs that shook our bones.” And then “When it bonged eleven times I was past feeling: tired from fighting sleep, I allowed myself a short nap against Reverend Sykes’s comfortable arm and shoulder.” More waiting. Scout addresses Jem:
“Ain’t it a long time?” I asked him.
“Sure is, Scout,” he said happily.
Jem’s assumption is that a long deliberation is a good sign for the defendant.
Just when it feels like the waiting will go on forever, the clerk says:
“This court will come to order,” in a voice that rang with authority, and the heads below us jerked up.
The suspense that extends over six pages is dispelled by action that occurs in less than two pages, in storytelling that is among the most powerful in American history.
What happened after that had a dreamlike quality: in a dream I saw the jury return, moving like underwater swimmers, and Judge Taylor’s voice came from far away and was tiny. I saw something only a lawyer’s child could be expected to see, could be expected to watch for, and it was like watching Atticus walk into the street, raise a rifle to his shoulder and pull the trigger, but watching all the time knowing that the gun was empty.
A jury never looks at a defendant it has convicted, and when this jury came in, not one of them looked at Tom Robinson. The foreman handed a piece of paper to Mr. Tate who handed it to the clerk who handed it to the judge . . .
I shut my eyes. Judge Taylor was polling the jury: “Guilty . . . guilty . . . guilty . . . guilty . . .” I peeked at Jem: his hands were white from gripping the balcony rail, and his shoulders jerked as if each “guilty” was a separate stab between them.
After consoling his client, Atticus grabs his coat and begins to leave the courtroom. As Scout stares down at the crowd from her seat:
Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle.
“Miss Jean Louise?”
I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s:
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. You father’s passin’.”
That ends the chapter and comes as a kind of surprise. All the waiting, all the clock watching, all the references to time, all the anticipation pointed us to the verdict. It turns out that only a shallow victory ensues: the length of deliberations. Jem should have listened to Reverend Sykes earlier in the chapter: “Now don’t you be so confident, Mr. Jem, I ain’t ever seen any jury decide in favor of a colored man over a white man.” And they would not see it that day. What the children would see was an act of profound collective respect, a Greek chorus of colored citizens rising to their feet, not in the presence of an overseer but in tribute to one who stood for their common humanity. The author has played a beautiful trick on us. We thought we were looking for a verdict, but the real stab of the chapter comes later, hiding all the while in plain sight.
As we’ve seen with so many works thus far, there is great value in rereading a classic text over the course of years and decades. The racism of 2015 is different from the racism of 1960, when Mockingbird was published. The novel, while racially progressive and inspirational for its time, has been criticized for its characterization of white southern poverty and its depiction of the accuser of rape. Race, class, gender, region and religion all play a role in the novel, and our perceptions of them have all evolved in the more than half century since publication. The word nigger – used dozens of times in the novel in the context of the 1930s – complicates a modern reading and teaching of the text. It is a healthy byproduct of X-ray reading to think, “Times have changed” or “I have changed.” That does not require us to ignore or discount the power of a work within the context of its own time. There is no way to explain away, for example, the anti-Semitism embedded in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. That does not mean that we cannot recognize that Shakespeare has made Shylock more sympathetic than Christopher Marlowe’s vicious Barabas in The Jew of Malta.
If you want the richest insight into southern racism in the 20th century, read the testimony of African American authors. But the power of their words and the threads of their narratives in no way diminish the work of a young white southern woman, Harper Lee, whose story, drawn richly from her own childhood, continues to enlighten America and the world.