On Wednesday, April 4th, Sophia interviewed Dr. Gary Richards, the Department Chair of English, Linguistics, and Communications at the University of Mary Washington, and professor of Southern Literature, Modern American Fiction, and Contemporary American Fiction. They discussed his expertise of the novel itself, reasons why the book was banned, and what themes are encountered in the book.
Sophia started out the interview by asking Dr. Richards what he knows about the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. He read the novel as a middle schooler and then again when it was taught in his ninth grade classroom. When he was going to graduate school, the book was not deemed fit to teach because it was for the young adult crowd, not a novel to discuss with graduate students. But as the canon shifts and the newer generation acknowledges the impact the novel has had, being so widely read, there is more discussion created around it. Dr. Richards incorporated the novel as part of his graduate thesis at Vanderbilt, where he was studying Southern literature. Now, at the University of Mary Washington, he teaches the novel frequently in his classes. Dr. Richards did not know a lot of information about challenges against the novel, but he said he assumed it was because of issues dealing with race, “particularly racism in the context of allegations of interracial rape, its critique of racism, and that it sometimes replicates racist language.”
When asked about some of themes he discusses when he teaches the novel, he first said that he wants his students to look at form or structure of the novel. It is a conventionally written novel and is very traditional. He spoke of paring it with a radical, Post-Modernist novel like, The Crying Lot of 49 by Thomas Pynchon, a very experimental novel. He wants to show the difference between the two and have his students understand how structure works within both novels. As a class, they talk about point of view and narration, and Dr. Richards pointed out that most readers find Scout a really sympathetic character because the way the narrative is set up; it is the adult Scout remembering her childhood and “how that is kind of tricky thing because it adds a sense of intimacy but it is also kind of a deliberate performed naiveté when Scout is telling this. It is as if she is in the moment, not as if she is an adult woman. So that manipulates us.” After they talk about the set up of the novel, they talk about themes like social justice, how it is so heavy-handed and how there is a concern that it minimizes black agency. Tom Robinson is physically handicapped and condescended by a white, straight, male lawyer, who has decided to defend an African American man. From this there comes a question of black agency. Besides this theme he also talks about gender and sexuality, and how small town life is represented.
The interview then moved to whether or not the derogatory language was necessary in To Kill a Mockingbird. Because Dr. Richards teaches Southern literature the n-word comes up frequently. It always prompts discussion and he asks his students to talk about if the word is allowable. Some of his students argued that because “it is so powerful, it has such racialized derogatory punch, we need to be reading literature that makes us have these discussions. The discussions are not only useful, but it is also a reminder that language hurts.” He said Lee probably used it not only because the word was historically accurate, but also because it is the way that word has a punch, which writers have done time after time. She probably thought the word needed to be there and it “is not gratuitous because the novel is about race and racism.” Dr. Richards said that he does understand why it makes people uncomfortable, that we have a difficult time talking about race and this type of derogatory language puts “it in our faces.”
The discussion went on about what the book did for society at the time when it came out in 1961. Dr. Richards believes because it is such a conventional novel is the reason it was and still is a huge success. He pointed out that one of her earlier drafts, that eventually became the book To Go Set a Watchman, was more controversial and even presents Atticus Finch as a racist. With the help of her editors, they created a less controversial and palpable novel that became To Kill a Mockingbird. It made people feel good and was a safe way to handle social justice. The book presents a white lawyer handling the social justice in a orderly manner and that is probably why the book became so successful.
Sophia then asked if Dr. Richards thought it was still useful for the novel to be taught in middle and high school classrooms or has it come to a point in our day and age if the novel is too problematic to continue discussing in the modern classroom? His reply was, “I am a person who advocates for teaching problems.” He said that it is good to talk about these things in the classroom because it reminds students the realities of the world. Sadly, we still live in a racist world, and that with careful teaching and discussion we can bring these topics up in the classroom and create a productive conversation.
He does see where the parent is coming from when told how the parent in Accomack County believes that when they teach this book they are deeming the n-word okay to use in a learning environment. He said, “this is the power that language has. And so that mother who is raising the concern, ‘I don’t want my child hearing this,’ I think is valid. Those words still do sting.”
Here is the full transcription of the interview and you can listen to it below: