To Kill A
just turned 50. And we took it up again with some of the
delight of childhood, this novel by Harper Lee set in 1932 in the
town of Maycomb, Alabama and that in its own way, opened a lot of
minds. Everybody knows Scout and Jem, the mysterious Boo,
lazy hot Southern summer days...
across rather powerfully on rereading is a sort of shock as to the
nature of what things were like then. The very hopelessness
of the legal system, the horrific fact that women were not allowed
to sit on juries, the abhorrent nature of racism in the 1930s.
The book was published in 1960—the Kennedy years, and the civil
rights movement was just gathering steam. Now, here, in
2010, the brilliant realization that Atticus Finch won! Not
only do women sit on juries, but sit on the Supreme Court, and a
black man is President, a black man who was also President of the
Harvard Law Review.
been thinking about a line from Derek Walcott’s luminous and
where he creates a rather beautiful set of images: the green lawn
which is like a page, the egret’s beak which is like the nib of
his pen, words like worms that are discarded or selected.
what the egrets teach,
Walcott says....taking us back to Darwin....
And this is
where the Finches come in (for this poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy
rolling, sees the pattern...) Darwin formulated his theory
of natural selection while in the Galapagos. He noticed that
while there was only one species of finch on the mainland, there
were 13 different species of finches, differentiated by beak size
and shape, that had evolved on different islands. From this,
the realization that in different environments with different
foods, finches with beaks more suited to getting a particular sort
of food survived. And so, natural selection!
famous for quoting Martin Luther King:
The arc of
the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
And we have seen that it does, especially in an environment like
ours, a free society based on a marvelous Constitution. We
realize that, most poetically and wondrously, only the strong
survive. We haven’t moved backwards from the 1930s but
gloriously forward. Finches like the Aunt in the novel,
didn’t quite make it. The Aunt of whom Scout says:
understood her preoccupation with heredity. Somewhere, I had
received the impression that Fine Folks were people who did the
best they could with the sense they had, but Aunt Alexandra was of
the opinion, obliquely expressed, that the longer a family had
been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was.
And then Ms. Maudie, who is one of the few people with the right sort of beak one might say,
handful of people in this town who say that fair play is not
marked White Only; the handful of people who say a fair trial is
for everybody, not just us....The handful of people in this town
with background, that’s who they are.
Finches who would trumpet their length of squattage on
their questionable patch of land (those who haven't quite
realized that this is not England--that the aristocracy here is
one of ability and intelligence!), who would run with the
Ewells if it is convenient (McCain’s pandering to the base with
Palin comes, rather sadly, to mind), who would, with all the
forces of obscurantism, try to enforce creationism in school
curricula (one thinks of the rather disturbing number of
Republican Senators who do not believe in evolution), we say this: know that the arc bends toward justice.
Know that which each passing year, the momentum is forward, toward
openness, toward equal rights for all (younger people are far less
opposed to gay marriage, for example--they just don’t understand,
delightfully, what all the fuss is about). Selection is
relentless. Alexandra Finch Hancock lost in the game of selection,
for finches like her were always on the wrong side of history and
of evolution, and still are. They’ve lost, before they ever
really get started. It’s not a mockingbird that gets killed
in the long run, but the wrong sort of finch with the wrong sort
of beak...a weak beak.... Darwin wins. Harper Lee
wins. Atticus Finch
wins. For selection is, most poetically, what the egrets teach....
To Kill A
Mockingbird, Harper Lee
To Kill A
Mockingbird with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch