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Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfectly built novel, despite its flaws

It's a novel nostalgic for childhood that also realizes nostalgia covers up many sins.

Photo by Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfectly built novel.

That doesn't mean the book is perfect. It has flaws — even glaring ones. But Harper Lee made a genius choice in telling the story from the point of view of a child, whose voice she then perfectly embodied. In nearly every review of the book — positive or negative — you'll find mention of how accurately she captures the way a kid sees the world.

Except that's not really true, either. Mockingbird is actually told from the point of view of the woman Scout Finch grows up to become, remembering when she was a child.

This gives Lee an even greater level of remove from the events depicted in the novel, meaning that essentially any flaw you find can be waved away as Scout's imperfect memory of things that happened to her when she was young.

From that point of view, then, is it any wonder the book is often assigned to teenagers to read in high school? Certainly, it's a good way to get America's more privileged youth to grapple with the nation's long history of racial injustice. But it also perfectly feeds into something teenagers are feeling for the very first time: nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a powerful feeling — but especially for teenagers

Until you are a teenager, you don't really have an opportunity to think back on "the good old days." Yes, when you first went to school, you might have been upset that you had to go, and longed for the days when you didn't. But that's not really nostalgia; it's protest of a major shift in your status quo.

Nostalgia is marked by a kind of self-aware wisdom, an ability to say, "This is who I am; this is who I was," that kids don't really possess but teenagers are just starting to grasp. Plus, when you're a teenager, you're usually getting the first tastes of real responsibility, which is both exhilarating and melancholy. People trust you to be more independent, but if you screw up, it's on you much more than it would have been when you were 6 or 7, and that can make you feel overwhelmed, longing for a return to a less complicated time.

To Kill a Mockingbird perfectly captures this wistful feeling. The early portions of the book — before Atticus Finch takes on the case of the wrongly accused Tom Robinson — have a misty, elegiac quality. They feel like memories the older Scout is documenting so she doesn't lose them.

The novel's greatest asset is Lee's selective use of telling details. She doesn't tell us everything about any character, simply offering up a few telltale little mementos of who they might be. Take, for instance, the focus she places on Atticus's glasses at moments of extreme emotional impact. The care he takes with them extends to the care he takes with his children and his clients, and it's a tiny, subtle way Lee uses to link all those ideas together.

It also clarifies the hugely negative reaction many had to Go Set a Watchman, Lee's follow-up novel (which she actually wrote before Mockingbird), which was published in 2015 amid much mystery as to whether she had actually signed off on it.

In that story, the simple fact of complicating Mockingbird's rather idyllic nostalgia — by pointing out the racist attitudes Atticus held as an old man and had likely always held — tarnished the idealized childhood presented in Mockingbird, which had always invited readers (who often first encountered it in high school) to conflate it with their own childhood memories at an age when it's remarkably easy to idealize childhood memories. Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and nobody likes having the trip interrupted.

And there's another level here, too. Mockingbird isn't just a novel about a young woman looking back on her childhood. It's a novel about a young country looking back on some of its worst moments.

How the book captures the childhood of its protagonist and a country

The America of To Kill a Mockingbird is a sort of primal America. It's a small town, where kids can play outside until all hours of the night. It has weird local myths and legends. It even has its own supposedly scary boogeyman, who turns out to be nothing compared with the boogeymen hiding in plain sight. It's the America of national myth and presidential campaign ads, the place we are always trying to get back to.

But Mockingbird gently complicates that picture. By far the most common complaints about the novel — complaints I largely share — stem from its treatment of Tom Robinson, who is simultaneously a bit of a stereotype and the kind of unbelievable saint who usually pops up in more hackneyed stories. (The latter, at least, is slightly more excusable because of the "adult remembering childhood" gambit. It's natural that the older Scout would simplify the supporting characters in her life in her memories.)

But Tom Robinson's unjust conviction also keeps Lee's portrayal of this nostalgic America from slipping entirely into hazy reverie. You can pretend this earlier America was a better, more honest place, but to do so would be like remembering your own childhood without all of the pain it inevitably included. Scout's beloved hometown could be the safe haven she loved to play in. It could also be a town that railroaded an innocent black man and sent him to his death.

This is where Mockingbird ultimately transcends its flaws and becomes part of American myth itself. Written at the dawn of the 1960s — a decade that many have described as the end of America's innocence (or, if you will, its childhood) — the book is one of the few out there to gently confront America's long history of injustices but not feel like it's somehow chickening out in its gentility.

Lee couches the story as a memory of childhood, but it's a dual childhood she's remembering — that of Scout and that of the country she lives in. This double layer of meaning keeps the book from ever tripping over itself and falling into vague allegory, though it constantly threatens to. We're all nostalgic for something, but that nostalgia always coats something we're consciously ignoring, if we're being honest with ourselves.

Mockingbird came to define Lee in a way that she obviously did not anticipate. Over time, she became more and more of a recluse, and her only other contribution to literature while alive was the divisively received Watchman.

But Mockingbird is touchstone enough to secure her place in the American literary legacy. It's at once a better and worse book than you might remember — worse because it has those flaws you may not have noticed as a teenager, and better because those flaws illuminate a complexity that was there all along, hiding in plain sight.