This post is part of our Harper Lee Reading Day: a celebration of one of the most surprising literary events of our lifetime, the publication of her new book, Go Set a Watchman. Check out the rest right here.
For multiple generations of artists, writers, songwriters, and TV and movie producers, To Kill A Mockingbird was absolute cultural gold. When considering the many explanations of pop culture and how we define it, there’s a common requirement: for a piece of work to take part in the pop culture of a generation (or multiple generations), there needs to be a language that a significant portion of the population understands. For Harper Lee’s work, it seems that the three characters Atticus Finch, Scout, and Boo Radley have gone down in cultural history. Since the book’s publication in 1960, you couldn’t escape the references to Harper Lee’s characters if you wanted to.
For example, check out the trend of naming children after Scout. In 2014, over two hundred baby girls took on the unusual name, and more can be expected with the consistent media discussion of To Kill A Mockingbird. Note that this is considered a high number since Scout is not actually the character’s true name (it’s Jean Louise Finch).
Or, consider the massive respect many people have for the fictional Atticus Finch, who seems to have gone down in history as a moral example. Note that over eight hundred baby boys were named Atticus in 2014. Though unlike “Scout,” this influence could come from elsewhere since Atticus is a name meaning “Man from Attica” and could be in reference to a Christian martyr OR a philosopher who followed Plato. Granted, I’m pretty sure the name’s origin has altered so that when one hears the name Atticus, the reference is very direct. In addition, I’m proud of some of those parents out there naming girls Atticus and breaking expectations.
Even more fascinating is the moral association that Atticus has with the law profession. A simple Internet search shows how idealized Atticus has become as a lawyer who cares with empathy, economic forgiveness, and an understanding that courts should be blind to race (Remember the character of Elaine Miller in Almost Famous yelling to her son to be like Atticus Finch?). Atticus is so ingrained in our cultural memory, It’s almost as though this man is a professional example of morality in real life. Really, it’s surprising that Atticus is, after all, fictional. Of course, the To Kill A Mockingbird movie certainly helped the fame of this character, as movies tend to do.
You then have Boo Radley, whose great connotation of fear and ghostliness (the first name helps) has supported a series of jokes and pop culture references in which the recluse in a neighborhood is labeled. Though Boo Radley seems to receive more respect in the novel than in the pop culture references, the mass scale of these show the great popularity of this book, including music references (see the band that took on his name), movie references (Even Adam Sandler’s Mr. Deeds took a part in this) and then of course, comedy spoofs like Second City’s. It’s even fun to try to seek out the references to Boo Radley in the old Mystery Science Theater 3,000 episodes.
More than likely, though, Boo Radley helped support and maintain the hero-recluse trope in which (spoiler alert), the mysterious man in the neighborhood ends up having a heart of gold. Though, unlike our other characters here, the US Census does not report a child named Boo in 2014.
Now, this article could be a list of pop culture references that you can watch again and again. I do love those lists (Check out IMDB’s awesome collection). Instead, though, I wanted to point out what it means for a book to truly leave the author’s hands and become a product of its audience. Many readers have pre-ordered Lee’s upcoming book hoping to witness another powerful wave– another phenomenon.
Which is a lot to expect. It’s overwhelming.
Sometimes, the great embracing nature of our online media makes me worry that, eventually, the purpose of a novel might be lost when pop culture takes it over. Certainly, Boo Radley’s pop references have become something other than Lee’s intentions. Then again, sometimes The Simpsons gives you great faith in humanity’s maintenance of culture: