In memory of Harper Lee, here are writing lessons for journalists from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
Last night, three of my Poynter colleagues and I sat around a table and read aloud from "To Kill a Mockingbird." In a slow, steady voice, Butch Ward played the role of Atticus Finch, delivering the final words to the jury:
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 you duty.
Butch was no Gregory Peck, but as he recited those last words, I could feel a chill run up my arms.
Little did we know that, as we read her words aloud, their author was dying. This morning the New York Times sent out an alert that Harper Lee was dead at the age of 89. I have been thinking of Lee a lot over the last two years, devoting a chapter to her in my recent book “The Art of X-ray Reading.”
An early version of that chapter appeared on this site in 2015 when it was announced that another Harper Lee book, "Go Set a Watchman," would be published.
Poynter is republishing that essay.
Here is its theme:
“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.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prizes. One of them, for fiction, was won in 1961 by Harper Lee for a novel that will continue to thrill and inspire readers for centuries to come.
Today is a day in a writer’s life when the stars seem in alignment. On a day when I am working on a revision of a book chapter on To Kill a Mockingbird and the writing strategies of Harper Lee, news has broken that her publisher will produce a sequel this summer: Go Set a Watchman.
Reports say that the manuscript was written before her most famous book but serves as a kind of sequel with the narrator Scout now grown, living in New York, and still learning from her righteous father Atticus Finch. Once thought lost, the manuscript, according to reports, was found in a safe deposit box attached to the original manuscript of Mockingbird. There remains much mystery on how, after 55 years, all this came to pass. Although she has been quoted as approving the project, Lee is 88-years-old, quite infirm, and famously reclusive.
When it comes to suspenseful storytelling, there is nothing like a long wait followed by a big surprise.
Let’s take this opportunity, then, to learn from Harper Lee as a storyteller.
Although it was published in 1960, during the classic period of the Civil Rights movement, Mockingbird is set in a small Southern town during the Depression year 1935. Thanks to a movie version that won an Academy Award and books sales world-wide of more than 18 million copies – with an e-book edition on the way -- the story is quite familiar. A righteous Alabama lawyer and legislator, Atticus Finch, raises his son Jem and his daughter Scout with a progressive view of race and justice. In the apartheid South, this turns out to be a daunting and even dangerous task, especially when Atticus becomes the defense lawyer of 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 where the black citizens of town have gathered, hoping against hope for a just judgment for one of their own.
There are 31 chapters in Mockingbird. I will focus my X-ray reading on one chapter, Chapter 21, not only the best and most revealing chapter in the book, but one of the best chapters in all of American literature.
In the previous chapter, Chapter 20, 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: “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. Every story needs an engine, argues author Thomas French, a question that only the story can answer for the reader. “Whodunnit?” is a classic engine. Among the most familiar is “Guilty or Not Guilty.” This is why jury trials make such dramatic popular narratives, from Twelve Angry Men to Anatomy of a Murder to countless episodes of Perry Mason or Law and Order. It also explains when the coverage of high profile trials are a staple of cable news programs, a movement associated most prominently with the trial of O.J. Simpson. Viewers will follow the proceedings for weeks and even months, not just to learn what has happened, but 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 tick tock structures time is either counted down, as in a basketball game, or it builds to a predetermined point, such as the famous cowboy movie High Noon, 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 sheriff, played by Gary Cooper. The film is only 85 minutes long, with the action described – measured by the hands of a large clock – occurring almost in real time.
The experience of time, we know from experience and from quantum mechanics, is relative. In my personal theory of time, its speed depends inversely on our consciousness of it. If we are “watching the clock” in our classroom or workplace, the 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 an author to create suspense may want to slow down the narrative. This can be down by a series of shorter sentences, with each period acting as a stop sign. And it can be done by direct and repeated reference to the 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 can take days and days. Or the jury can be hung. What will happen? That’s what all 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, with the frantic 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 piece of dialogue. The first reminds us that in this segregated arena, the children 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 that they must first go home, with an angry Calpurnia, and eat their supper. She serves them milk, potato salad, and ham, but insists that “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, “Getting’ 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. “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 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 expands over six pages is dispelled by action that occurs in less than two, 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 staring 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 the 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 this 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 a 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.
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 all play a role in the novel and all have evolved in the more than half-century since publication. The use of the word “nigger” – used dozens of time in the novel in the context of 1935 – 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 recognize the power of a work within the context of its own time.
If you want the richest insight into Southern racism in the 20th century, read the testimony of African-American authors. The power of their words and the threads of their narratives in no way diminishes the work of a young Southern woman whose story, drawn richly form her own childhood, continues to enrich America and the world.