50 Years Later, 'Mockingbird' Remains Relevant

To mark the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird," host Scott Simon speaks with author James McBride about how the classic American novel influenced his life and writing career. McBride is the author of the memoir "The Color of Water," and the novel "Miracle at St. Anna," which was adapted into a film directed by Spike Lee.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

"To Kill A Mockingbird" is 50 years old this weekend. Harper Lee's novel still sells nearly a million copies every year and has possibly become what amounts to the great American novel of the 20th century, telling a story of the South before the modern civil rights movement through the eyes of a small girl, an innocent man who's wrongly charged, a mysterious stranger next door and a simple country lawyer and father who embodies true American nobility.

The book has informed and inspired more than two generations of Americans: including writers, artists and activists, among them, James McBride. Mr. McBride is the author of the bestselling memoir "The Color of Water," and novels including "Song Yet Sung," as well as a composer and jazz musician.

He joins us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Thank you for being with us.

Mr. JAMES MCBRIDE (Author; Jazz musician): Delighted to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: Do you remember that first copy of "Mockingbird" that you read?

Mr. MCBRIDE: Oh yeah, yeah. Yeah, I grew up in a house of 12 kids, you know, and so we had books all over the place. And that first copy was a dog-eared book. When I say dog-eared, I mean a dog probably had a go at it, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCBRIDE: And I just I started reading the first page and couldn't stop. I hid the book so that my brothers and sisters couldn't find it...

SIMON: Oh, that's a tribute. Yeah.

Mr. MCBRIDE: ...until I finished it.

SIMON: So do you remember reading it? I mean, were you sad to how long it took?

Mr. MCBRIDE: Well, first of all, that book came when I was living in Jamaica Queens, New York in a working-class black community. And so, Macomb County that Miss Lee put together was so - it was like the moon to me. Yet, I just completely related to all the characters. I wasn't really sophisticated enough, first of all, to understand how racism worked. And so at the age of, you know, 10, 12 years old to see how this young girl negotiated a lot of these difficult elements was just for me fascinating.

And also, because my family had originally come from the South, I learned a lot about the South that I didn't know. This was a part of America that was completely different than New York, yet I related to just about everyone in the book.

SIMON: And now as an adult novelist and memoirist, what do you admire about the book?

Mr. MCBRIDE: Well, first of all, technically it's a wonderful book. I mean, it's a brilliant work because it begins with - it's basically the story of how this young girl's brother broke his arm over the course of, you know, a summer. And so that sets up, you know, she begins the book with that and then she tells, she just spins into backstory to tell the reader how this happens.

Spiritually, it's a masterpiece because it deals with the innocence of a young child and how that innocence is sullied by the real world, as this six-year-old girl starts to realize that these enormous concrete gates of reality are starting to, you know, construct themselves around her in terms of how people live racially and class-wise and so forth, her innocence is gradually being chipped away and she's trying to hang on that. And that's really the true power of the book.

SIMON: How does she write about African-American characters in your judgment?

Mr. MCBRIDE: Well, I mean, you know, one of the, I suppose one of the professional criticisms of "To Kill A Mockingbird" is that her African-American characters are like one-dimensional. They're not that deep. You know, Calpurnia, for example, the housekeeper, you know, she falls into the, you know, the hands on their hips, you know, you Mr. Jim don't you, you know.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. MCBRIDE: She wrote the book in the '50s. This was the world that she knew. In terms of, you know, technically, what six-year-old white girl from Alabama is going to be that curious about the black people around her? She even says in the book the character Scout wants to see - wants to visit Calpurnia's house but she's not allowed to. So, I mean, her black characters are a little bit, you know, they're not as, you know, they're not as fully dimensional as you'd find in the Toni Morrison novel. But they still tell a great story. They're morally deep. They're morally sound.

In fact, they're a lot better than a lot of black characters written by a lot black writers now. In this hip-hop age, you know, I don't mind sharing this book with my daughter. I'd rather that she see some of these characters than some of the heroes that are walking around now.

SIMON: You mentioned your daughter. As a father, is it harsh to measure up to Atticus Finch?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCBRIDE: Well, yeah. I mean Atticus Finch is, you know, he was just his whole - the business of his modesty and his ability to see tomorrow and to try to buttress his knowledge of what was coming for his kids was something that I'll never - as a father I'm not able to do.

And also, he was abused because he took on this case in a small town...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. MCBRIDE: ...and he had the courage not to fight back. He was really a kind of almost like a Martin Luther King character in that he was a man who believed in nonviolence and practiced it.

SIMON: You have written a big bestseller and keep writing. As an artist what do you make of the fact that this is the only published novel that Harper Lee has ever written?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCBRIDE: You know, John Coltrane, when he was playing in Europe, Rashid Ali, who was the drummer in Coltrane's band, tells a wonderful story about at a certain point where they were playing - Coltrane was playing - he just took the wand(ph) out of his mouth and just started beating his chest and singing. And so after the gig Rashid went to John Coltrane and said you know, John, what's the matter? I mean, what's going on? And Coltrane said there's just nothing left on the horn to play.

And I feel that way about "To Kill A Mockingbird" and Harper Lee. She sang the great song. She did the great work. If she never writes another word she's done enough. She's bared her soul for all of us. And so there's nothing else to say.

SIMON: Mr. McBride, I can't thank you enough. Thanks so much for talking to us about "To Kill A Mockingbird."

Mr. MCBRIDE: Thank you.

SIMON: James McBride, distinguished writer in residence at NYU and he's among the notables in a new collection of interviews that celebrate the 50th anniversary of "To Kill A Mockingbird," Scout, Atticus, and Boo.

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