Photo credits: Public Domain, scan of original cover via Wikipedia
In today’s more progressive world, it’s not unheard of for a classic book to come under fire for containing problematic content or inappropriate takes on subjects we have grown to view in more respectful and humane ways.
People can say what they will about cancel-culture, however, many readers feel that there is nothing wrong with holding writers and stories accountable for their subject matter and the effect that is had on the world of readers who are being asked to read such books.
For instance, many recent readers have pointed out the ways in which “To Kill A Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee, which has been praised for its statements against racism, is really just a poster child for white-savior narratives.
In a 2020 article written by Errin Haines and published by The Washington Post, Haines decided to revisit the classic, afterwards stating that, “the story is one by a white author, told through primarily white characters. Rereading the book, I was struck that Lee offers rich profiles of the story’s white characters, their personalities, mannerisms, dress, histories, but there are no such character studies to be found for any of the African Americans in this story. Their humanity is obscured from us, suggesting that it is of little consequence to the author, reader or the whites in Maycomb. White privilege means not actually having to know [B]lack or brown people, to live among them but to never really see them, even in one’s own house.”
Though the book has been taught in American public schools for decades leading many to initially fall in love with the story, including to Haines herself, there are now discussions surrounding whether or not the book is relevant anymore.
Haines goes on to explain the problem with the idealization of books such as this one, speaking to the ways in which people–particularly white people –are able to feel distanced from their biases as a result of proximity to characters such as Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch.
“Atticus has come to represent more than just a white savior. He stood in an Alabama courthouse not to block justice for a black man but to fight for it. In doing so, he wasn’t just attempting to save Tom Robinson… he was absolving the entire white race from the ills of racism,” Haines stated. “Atticus is the unimpeachable and quintessential example of what it means to be a Good White Person, inspiring young people across the country to become lawyers and enabling white Americans to point again and again to a fictional character as proof that not all actual white people are racist. It is a myth, a lie that America tells itself that perpetuates racism. At best, he was the least overtly racist person in a racist town.”
In general, I feel as though Haines’ take on Atticus in specific neatly sums up what the issue with most classic literature really is. If the book has somehow managed to make it into this century, it’s not because it is the end-all-be-all of literature. It is most likely because it was one of the least troubling or problematic works of fiction from a time where life for many people was violently oppressive.
Similarly to “To Kill A Mockingbird,” these books have been put on a pedestal and regarded as the best that the literary canon has to offer, simply because it looks the best while making white people feel the least uncomfortable.
Though it is unlikely our generation will see any sort of immediate change when it comes to academia and their precious classics, the discourse is happening and people are beginning to look at the objects we were taught to glorify with a more critical lense. And while there are many good things that can still be said about books such as these, the question being asked is still a very important one; do these books still fit within the society we are trying to create?
Ali Kochik is a fourth-year English major with minors in Journalism and Women’s & Gender Studies. AK908461@wcupa.edu