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Harper Lee Lays The Smack Down


I’ve always been shocked to find out that some school districts and libraries have actually banned To Kill A Mockingbird. How ridiculous is that?

I’ve expressed my opinions about banned books on the blog before, so I won’t go back into all that. But, today, I’ll let Harper Lee give her opinion on the matter.

In 1966, the Hanover County School Board in Virginia removed all copies of To Kill A Mockingbird from their libraries. They believed the book to be “immoral.”

Harper Lee responded by writing the following letter to the Richmond News Leader, which, in turn, published it. The fund she mentions at the bottom of this letter gave away free copies of the book to any child who wanted one. That’s awesome.

I love this letter! (source: Letters of Note and Understanding To Kill A Mockingbird):

Monroeville, Alabama
January, 1966

Editor, The News Leader:

Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.

Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that “To Kill a Mockingbird” spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is “immoral” has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.

I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.

Harper Lee

Don’t screw around with Harper Lee.

How could anyone view To Kill A Mockingbird as immoral? That’s like saying Lolita is a love story, or The Corrections is about a happy family.

Unbelievable. Were these school board members in Virginia in 1966 really this stupid?

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34 Comments Post a comment
  1. J. #

    I completely agree with the sentiment regarding To Kill A Mockingbird. I teach it every year, and the students and I have a discussion about why it might be banned and many of them are baffled to hear that it is.

    As for the passing comment about Lolita: there are some heavyweight critics who might take issue with your dismissal of the novel as a love story.

    May 16, 2012
    • Oh, believe me, I know about your point on Lolita. I’ve heard it from people on this blog. Is Lolita a story of obsession? Yes. Love? No.

      May 16, 2012
      • J. #

        When I mentioned heavyweight critics, I wasn’t referring to people on this blog (no offense intended to readers here).

        To dismiss Lolita as a story of obsession is to miss the subtleties that make it an amazing novel. And to skate along its surface and only focus on the story–an older man seduces a young girl–is to miss the allegorical sub-text regarding the relationships between Europe and the United States.

        Also, I find it a bit presumptuous that you seem to have defined the word “love” and created a list of is-is nots. If you’ve defined it in a concrete way, if you’ve figured out the secret platonic form of the concept, by all means: share it with the rest of us who have been struggling with that question for, oh, millenniums.

        May 16, 2012
      • I’m well aware of what the “heavyweight critics” have said about Lolita. I posted about the book probably a dozen times, at least. But this blog isn’t about filtering what I think through the lens of heavyweight critics. I can either tell you what I think or simply regurgitate reviews I’ve read on the web. However, that would be disingenuous and, frankly, boring.

        My opinion is that Lolita is not a love story–it’s a story of perversion and obsession. It’s a fabulous, well-written story of perversion and obsession, but that’s what it is.

        Anyway, that’s all beside the point and has been discussed on other posts on this blog. Back to Harper Lee…

        May 16, 2012
      • J. #

        Way to side-step the other parts of my comment.

        You’re the one who brought up Lolita in the post. And it seems that it’s entirely applicable to discuss that novel–among others–in a discussion of banning books and misreading them. You’re up in arms about people banning To Kill A Mockingbird. In fact, you call the people in Virginia who wanted to ban the book “stupid.” I was under the impression that, while the post does focus upon Harper Lee, you were bringing up the general issue of the ignorance of banning books. Was I wrong? I know you said you don’t want to get back into a discussion regarding banning books and all that, but why post about people wanting to ban a book? Would you prefer that I go and post on your blog about Lolita or about banning books?

        The desire to ban TKAM is representative of a larger issue in our society: people don’t actually read the books beyond their most literal meanings. Those who wish to ban Huck Finn or American Psycho are functioning in the same vein. As Harper Lee points out, the book is not difficult to understand, but most people do not want to understand what they have been taught to detest, no matter how simple the diction.

        My issue with your reading of Lolita is the same issue you seem to have with people reading To Kill A Mockingbird and reacting in such a way. We all know–or have been taught–that “child molesting” is wrong, so of course the novel must be about perversion rather than the love affair between Old Europe and Young America gone wrong during the post-WWII era. And since the people of Virginia were taught that white people are superior
        from birth, it must be immoral to defend a black man against the false accusation of raping a white woman.

        I applaud your desire to express your views on books and your views on those who are expressing their own opinions on books (such as Virginia school board members).

        May 16, 2012
      • Okay, here’s your chance to explain as briefly as you can how Lolita was about “the love affair between Old Europe and Young America gone wrong during the post-WWII era,” and not about perversion or a middle-aged man obsessed with a pre-pubescent girl. Go!

        May 16, 2012
    • Okay, I’ll stick my hand into this meat grinder and see if I come out with any fingers left. I can’t say “Lolita” is a love story because I’m not sure what the definition of a love story is in this conversation. So I will ask a different question:

      Should we believe Humbert Humbert when seeing Lolita in North Star, “with her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and unkempt armpits … hopelessly worn at seventeen” he says, “I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else”? Or when he calls his crimes “sterile and selfish vice”? Should we believe Humbert when he says, in the final pages, he should get “at least 35 years for rape” (but have the charges for murdering Quilty dismissed)?

      Because if we should believe Humbert, or if we do, then he has gone in the novel from being a sociopath pedophile rapist (which he clearly is) to a pedophile rapist who … for lack of a more precise word … seems to have grown a soul and who loves Lolita as a person, not an object.

      Of course, the truly remarkably thing is not that Humbert Humbert realizes he was a monster, it’s that Lolita seems to forgive him for it. But she was always a character of strength and courage. It’s just hard to see because HH is always standing in the way.

      May 16, 2012
      • J. #

        I think you’re missing the point if you’re asking me to defend a particular reading of the book. What I object to is not a particular reading of it; I object to flippant answers which are surface-level, too easy. You’re criticizing people of a particular time and place for being stupid for considering a book immoral, and then you’re turning around and saying a novel which has a lot of acute social commentary and irony is a book about perversion and obsession and dismissing a reading of it as a love story.

        As to the above comment: HH is clearly an unreliable narrator, which is part of the genius of the book. And I’m not alone in saying that by the end of it, against my better judgment, I feel a bit sorry for him. But calling him a “sociopath pedophile rapist” is also a bit strong. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure that Dolores is pubescent, and I know for a fact that she has had sex before she has sex with HH. And let’s not forget the details: the first sexual encounter they had was consensual, so while he may be committing statutory rape, it’s not rape in the sense of exerting physical force to have intercourse with her.

        As to a comment below: Nabokov’s essay is actually at the end of current editions of Lolita. But anyone who has taken an undergraduate literature course can attest to the fact that an author writing about his own work is hardly a reliable source for establishing themes or readings of a work. The Intentional Fallacy objects to just this sort of reading.

        As our debate has illustrated, a reading of a novel–be it Lolita or TKAM–is, of course, subjective. But not all answers are valid answers. Those that have support for their claim are; those that do not are not. If we fail to require evidence for a particular reading, then we may as well just fall into total interpretive relativity, which gets us nowhere in any intelligent discussion of literature.

        I know I’m not in a classroom; I know you are all not my students. I’m not trying to educate anyone. Initially, I was simply voicing a slight objection to the tail-end of the original post. Literature, and the study of it, be it by a writer, a teacher, a book critic, or a layman, is a passion of mine, thus my profession.

        Side-note: I would like to read Huck Fin; I would also like to know how to effect people.

        May 16, 2012
      • Calling Humbert Humbert a “sociopath pedophile rapist” is not “a bit strong” it’s accurate. You ask for evidence. Here it is.

        A sociopath is generally considered to suffer from anti-social personality disorder, which according to Mayo Clinic has – among others – these characteristics: disregard for right and wrong; persistent lying or deceit; using charm or wit to manipulate others; recurring difficulties with the law; repeatedly violating the rights of others; child abuse or neglect; intimidation of others; aggressive or violent behavior; lack of remorse about harming others; impulsive behavior; agitation; poor or abusive relationships.

        Any of those sound familiar?

        Lolita is 12 years old when Humbert Humbert meets her. Now pedophiles are commonly defined as people attracted to children who have not reach puberty. Lolita seems to have entered puberty at the beginning of the book. So, you take this point if you like.

        However, I myself would not be keen to say it’s okay for a grown man to have sexual intercourse with a 12 year old girl; most people in the novel seemed to think it’s a bad idea, including HH; and of course current American law – I don’t know what it was in the 1950s – defines it as a crime that will get you on the registered sex offenders list for the rest of your natural life (assuming you make it out of jail).

        As for the word rapist, if you would like to suggest that because a person consents to sex once, she or he has therefore consented to sex any and every other time – or that because a person has had sex with someone else sometime, therefore they’ve consented to have sex with anyone who comes along and takes a fancy to them — again, go ahead.

        Lolita puts the moves on HH when she thinks her mother is alive and she can go back home. She isn’t and Lolita doesn’t. Instead, HH kidnaps Lolita, isolates from every distant relation, friend, or community; makes Lolita utterly dependent on him; and keeps moving so Lolita can’t run away (until they settle at Beardsley, where Lolita makes a friend who helps her escape — why does she run away if she thinks life with HH is fine?).

        These are not circumstances which I think a reasonable person would believe are conducive to consent. Humbert himself says he’s a rapist. I don’t know why he would confess to such a thing, in a statement he is preparing for use at his trial in the novel, if it weren’t true.

        May 16, 2012
      • J. #

        Did you not bring up the point that the words of HH are suspect? He’s an unreliable narrator, so to use his words as support for your assessment of him is a shaky tactic. At what point in the novel does HH force himself physically upon Dolores? Unfortunately, there is no such crime as psychological rape. I am not, in any way, defending his actions. Many of them are deplorable, and what he does to Lo would be terrible to do to anyone at any age.

        What I find interesting about your reaction–and that of Robert–is that you are quick to talk about perversion and obsession and sociopathy and rape, but you’re both looking at it from a distinctly contemporary American viewpoint. You echo the people objecting to it at the time it was published for its surface-level immorality. Would you call my great-grandfather a pedophile because, in his arranged marriage, he wed my great-grandmother when she was thirteen and he was twenty-three? I’m sure they consummated their marriage because they had my great-uncle. But because we have been raised in a place that sets the age of consent at eighteen, because we are part of a society that allows for an adolescence, we are quick to point the finger and scream, “Sex offender!”

        I worry that some people may read “A Modest Proposal” and think Swift cruel or crazy for condoning the consumption of children. And I know that people, when American Psycho was published, will read only parts of a book and call people a misogynist and sexist and anti-feminist, their eyes dead to the obvious satire.

        Lolita is a novel that goes well-beyond the condemnation of a “sociopath pedophile” in its scope. It is a commentary on America, and it is heavy with irony and word-play. It was written by a foreigner, but it is most definitely a novel about America. To get completely caught up in the specifics of the story and to ignore the larger picture is to rob the novel of its satiric thrust.

        It is the same with Huck Finn and TKAM and myriad other works. Because a book uses the n-word, because it presents black people as human, because it has a “monster” in it, it must be unfit for the eyes of children and adults alike.

        Thankfully, you and I and many others, including the author of this blog, are sensible enough to see beyond all the close-minded conservatism. As we all know, this last is an absolute enemy to education, to intellectual pursuits, and to a broader understanding of the world.

        May 17, 2012
  2. Need I say it? Welcome to the South. There are still places that fight the book – I remember there being issues in NC when I was growing up.

    May 16, 2012
    • 1000000thingstodobeforeyoudie #

      I grew up in NC and as of the year 2000 we were still reading To Kill a Mockingbird in freshman English.

      May 16, 2012
      • Oh we read it I was in High School 99-00ish, but I know one of the schools out in Western, NC faced a few parents trying to get it removed.

        May 16, 2012
      • Apparently it wasn’t out in western NC – ‘Challenged at the Stanford Middle School in Durham, N.C. (2004) because the 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel uses the word “nigger.”‘ Source: 2004 Banned Books Resource Guide.

        May 16, 2012
      • 1000000thingstodobeforeyoudie #

        I understand what goes along with that word and it is more than just a curse. I get the hate that is behind it. However, people have to understand that the word was part of that era. To ban a book solely on the fact that word is in it is ridiculous. I would be interested to know if Huckleberry Finn was banned for the same reason.

        I used to hate reading books in high school that had the phrase “god damn” in it because I don’t agree with using the phrase. If I read it then I felt like I said it, but I didn’t try to get these books banned.

        May 16, 2012
        • If you want to avoid “god damn”s, do not pick up Catcher in the Rye!

          The problem with banning a book like Huck Finn, or To Kill a Mockingbird–or with rewriting them with the word “negro” taking the place of that other word–is that it essentially rewrites America’s history. That WAS the world. To pretend otherwise is to do a huge disservice to American youth. We are nowhere near post-racial enough today to let kids off the hook from learning about the most disturbing parts of our shared past.

          May 18, 2012
          • 1000000thingstodobeforeyoudie #

            I completely agree. Maybe it is easier to agree with you because I am from the south and, while I am not black, I have a good understanding of what the word means as a whole. Ignoring the fact that this word was in most everyone’s vocabulary is just ignorant .Ironic that the word “ignorant” is usually used in the definition of the word in question.

            May 18, 2012
  3. Oh, I laughed out loud. Go Harper Lee!

    May 16, 2012
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird is, by far, my favorite book of all time. I teach it, I love it, and I sincerely appreciate this post!

    May 16, 2012
  5. You know I do believe certain professionals forget that we are not in a class room and you are not “teaching” or claiming that your posts are “right in an scholastic sense,” though you do your homework and you share with us your truths and discoveries as you read each novel.For the love of God, Lolita no matter how you classify the f-ing book, is amazing because Nabokov wrote with amazing attention to the narrative. His command of language essential in a story “like this”. I read Huck Fin as a freshmen in high school. I read Catcher in the Rye as a senior. I know my friend wrote her thesis in high school on TKAM. If literature rattles the cage of society’s comfortability, take Basketball Diaries (Columbine blamed the scene where Leonardo Dicaprio dreams about entering his Catholic school and shooting every one with an automatic weapon). Problem, Mass Media cannot prove without a doubt how books, movies, TV effects anyone because every person thinks differently, and they don’t have a reliable screening tool used to say TKAM in West Virginia, not good, not willing yet to accept reality. I think youre topics are fine and the proof is in the final say, evidence. Look how much chatter you generate. Thank you, Jessicamemo

    May 16, 2012
    • Thanks Jessica. I agree. I do some research, but this blog isn’t about me telling you what the going professional book critic opinion is. I try to make it an honest blog where I give you an unfiltered opinion and reaction to these books, whether my opinion is right or wrong.

      I’ll tell you that I’m a professional writer, but I don’t claim to be a professional book critic by any stretch.

      Thanks for reading!

      May 16, 2012
  6. Further proof that Harper Lee is awesome. That letter is aces.

    May 16, 2012
  7. Justin #

    In response to the poster that claimed that Lolita was an allegory about Old Europe and Young America; Nabokov himself addressed that in a short essay that came out a year after the novel was published: “Although everybody should know that I detest symbols and allegories (which is due partly to my old feud with Freudian voodooism and partly to my loathing of generalizations devised by literary mythists and sociologists), an otherwise intelligent reader who flipped through the first part described Lolita as ““Old Europe debauching young America,”” while another flipper saw it as ““Young America debauching old Europe.” pulled from

    That said I think this argument and the fact that some people consider TKAM immoral really shows that people will pull whatever view or message they want to fit into their preexisting viewpoint

    May 16, 2012
    • J. #

      May 18, 2012
      • Justin #

        you do have a valid point in your blog that you wrote about, but when the author of a book himself states something, I find it quite ridiculous to then say that it is not relevant. It’s all well and good for you to find some meaning out something that was written, but when the author comes out and says point blank that is not what he meant I find it quite silly to assert that yes he did.

        May 23, 2012
        • J. #

          The fact of the matter is that even authors are sometimes unaware of what they are writing as it is being written. I don’t believe I ever said what an author says is irrelevant, but once he publishes a book, his word is just as valid as anyone else reading it and offering an interpretation based upon evidence found in the text. Do you also “find it quite silly to assert” that texts are open to multiple interpretations? Because you would be arguing with some well-trained and amazing literary minds if you were to say so. If we buy into only what an author says about his book, then we are valuing one interpretation over another based solely upon someone’s word. I not only find this “silly,” as you say; I find it intellectually irresponsible.

          May 23, 2012
          • I discovered this article via a Mental Floss article that links here as a description of things Harper Lee has done since TKAM, and was with the writer’s sentiment up until the Lolita reference and I was glad someone else took issue with it. However, the author is the unquestionable totalitarian over what his own writing means, and there is no other possible interpretation except that which the author agrees, period. Like in rape, if someone says no and another acts as if it had been a yes, a crime has been committed. Suggesting that an author’s description of his own writing as being not as he explains, is to rape the text for what you wish of it and is criminal in the literary sense. No other interpretations are valid, at all, ever. The intellectual irresponsibility lies with you, for supplanting one of the most grotesque examples of prescriptivism, in the face of the endlessly proven ways in which language is descriptive. To undermine the author’s credibility to accurately interpret his own work, hypocritically undermines your own talents of offering a credible position.

            May 4, 2014
  8. Worse, they were ignorant. Here is where the importance of literature comes in. Reading and understanding a work for what it means, its theme, its message, beyond what it appears to say is so monumental. I believe reading is the ultimate teacher of empathy and an abolitionist of ignorance to an open mind. Great post.

    May 16, 2012
  9. I once met a person who did not believe the Bible could be interpreted differently by people because its meaning was right there for people to see. But he was the type of Christian who used the Bible as a sledgehammer. How we see a book or movie or TV show is based on interpretation and interest of each individual.

    May 16, 2012
  10. That letter is great! She says what she wants to say in such a concise and pithy manner. Thanks for sharing.

    Clearly there are some people who get a kick out of attempting to dictate what other people read. Some people have even been wanting to ban The Hunger Games, which baffles me just as much as banning To Kill a Mockingbird.

    May 16, 2012
  11. When it comes to Lolita, I am agreeing with Paul on this one. HH is absolutely a pedophile in the way he grooms the girl before and after her mother’s death. He is a rapist who knows she is cooperating because there is no one else in her life to turn to for help. Once she has a way out, the girl uses it.

    Perhaps the writer felt there was no moral to the story. But to me it is an example of how a predator can lure anyone into their trap, into their way of thinking and make you think that the evil they are doing is justified in some way. They use their charm, their admitted faults, their self-effacement at the right moments to trick and deceive you.

    In writing this novel, Nabokov points out evil. He shows it to us and then shows how easy it is for us to overlook a person’s sins. Lee does the same thing in her novel – points out evil. But she does not justify it, she points out wrong and never lets us get snookered by complacency.

    “Lolita” offends because we want to (comfortably) vilify her behavior but must admit at some point that his actions are wrong. “TKAM” offends because we see the prejudice in our own hearts and we cannot re-assign the blame anywhere else. Lee knew that what those board members were doing was hiding from the truth of the racism in their souls when they banned that book. If it is not there on the library shelves, then it cannot mock them.

    When you consider the time period – 1966 – there was much for the school board to be embarrassed by. (Isn’t that the time of the song ‘Harper Valley PTA’) Thank God that we have people such as Lee and Nabokov willing to point out the wrongs in our world.

    May 16, 2012
  12. she is awesome.

    May 20, 2012
  13. Reblogged this on books. and commented:

    May 31, 2012

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