YOU NEVER REALLY UNDERSTAND A PERSON UNTIL YOU CONSIDER THINGS FROM HIS POINT OF VIEW . . . UNTIL YOU CLIMB INSIDE OF HIS SKIN AND WALK AROUND IN IT. ~ ATTICUS FINCH
We have come to the end of Chapter 29 of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
Tom Robinson, a black man, has been found guilty of making sexual advances toward the lonely Mayella Ewell, daughter of the town drunk, Tom Ewell, despite substantial evidence proving his innocence introduced by his lawyer, Atticus Finch, who has taken the case for free. Robinson is shot and killed trying to escape from prison and Ewell, humiliated by events at the trial, attacks the defenseless Jem and Scout, Finch's young son and daughter, as they walk home past the spooky house of their neighbor, the reclusive Arthur "Boo" Radley, on a dark night after a school Halloween pageant. One of Jem's arms is
broken, but a mysterious stranger comes to the children's rescue and carries Jem home.
Finch calls Sheriff Tate to the house where the sheriff asks Scout who the man was. In one of the most dramatic scenes in modern literature, Scout gestures to a man standing behind a doornail suddenly realizes that it's Radley.
He smiles shyly at her. Tears well up in Scout's eyes as she says, "Hey, Boo."
The hair on my neck stood on end the first time I read this breathtaking scene as a 13-year-old shortly after publication of Mockingbird in 1960, and every time that I have reread it since then. (The scene in the Oscar-winning 1962 film version starring Gregory Peck, with Scout played by Mary Badham and Robert Duvall making his movie debut as Boo is, if anything, even more dramatic.)
Tens of millions of people have read Mockingbird, and it is that rare book devoured by young people and simultaneously loved by their parents. The cheapo mass market edition of this masterpiece about racial injustice and the loss of innocence appropriately remains one of the most popular books in the American public school curriculum, at least in communities where books portraying less comfortable aspects of the real world aren't banned. But in yet another inexplicably weird development involving Harper Lee and her handlers in the years before her death, and since she
succumbed at age 89 on February 19, her estate has moved to cease publication of the hugely popular mass market edition of Mockingbird.
Lee had been as reclusive in life as had Boo Radley in her fiction, and questions remain -- and grow -- regarding how aware she was of the decisions made by her handlers and the controversies swirling around them. Chief among those handlers is Lee's "personal representative," Tonja Carter, who has successfully kept Lee's will sealed.
Lee's novel Go Set a Watchman, which apparently is a pre-1960 draft featuring the major characters in Mockingbird that is both a prequel and sequel and deeply discordant as both, was released last year amidst questions about whether Lee had approved its publication considering its comparative mediocrity, and indeed whether the work was entirely her own considering that it seemed to have come out of nowhere.
Then there was the announcement that there would be a Broadway production of Mockingbird adapted by Aaron Sorkin, who some critics found to be a peculiar choice considering his reputation of a hyper-caffeinated screenwriter. (Visions of Springtime for Hitler from Mel Brooks' The Producers flashed to mind.)
To Kill a Mockingbird isn't going to go away. HarperCollins will still publish trade paperback, hard cover and pricey special folio editions. And as one pundit noted, "Readers can also find the book at these incredible, little known places called libraries, where one can borrow a copy for a limited time and then return it, free of charge."
But two thirds of the 30 million copies of Mockingbird sold in the last 56 years were the low-priced edition, and as an author myself, it is hard -- no, make that impossible -- to reconcile Harper Lee wanting to limit sales of her most enduring classic.
(UPDATE: HarperCollins has now partially relented.)
PHOTOGRAPH: UNIVERSAL PICTURES