March 2015
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Boo Radley as a Role Model

by Jonathan Wallace

My mind was idly floating over many topics the other day--I was probably in a semi-comatose state--when it occurred to me that, if I were to pick a literary character to be, I would choose Boo Radley. This of course surprised me, because of the wide field of candidates: you could be Philip Marlowe or Holden Caulfield or Alyosha Karamazov or Jean Valjean....

I was very happy with the choice of Boo Radley and it took some thinking to see why. Radley has no id or ego; he is all superego. He is not seen, living in the dark, until he surges up at the critical moment when he is needed. He does the courageous necessary thing, and then doesn't give an interview to the New York Times or sell his memoirs to Macmillan. He sits blinking for a few minutes in the unaccustomed light, holding Scout's hand, then goes back to his basement and is never seen more.

As a character, as a personality, Radley is stripped down to the bare essentials, all love, certainty and energy. He is a brilliant invention: Harper Lee has taken a horror movie convention and turned it inside out. Boo's very name suggests he is a creature of the id, a Caliban who has become terribly monstrous in the basement, until like Norman Bates he surges out with a knife. But he is a good Caliban, an Ariel really, designed to reverse all our expectations.

There is no evidence that Boo changes in the course of the novel, because we only see him once. We have no reason to think he battled any self-doubt the night he saved Scout and Jem. Contrast Jean Valjean, who must struggle mightily for an entire night before, as the wealthy mayor who could have stayed far away, he goes to the courtroom where an innocent man is being tried in his place, and announces "I am Jean Valjean!" Radley doesn't speak; he is all action; there is nothing left over to say. There is no margin in his eruption into the story for wishing or commentary; he simply does and then goes.

It is a standard criticism leveled by supercilious practitioners of Playwrights 101 that a character doesn't change, is a mere catalyst; while novels don't have the same burden that plays do, to keep us awake and attentive for two hours, Holden, Alyosha and Jean, if not Philip, are all transformed by their encounters. But the reason Boo is not, isn't because Harper Lee was careless, or unimaginative, but because Boo is already perfect when we meet him.

He has the perfection not of an arrogant Holden Caulfield, or of the fierce Jean Valjean who must stand with his forehead against an oak tree for an entire night before allowing Cosette to love Marius. Boo Radley has the perfection of a panther, who without self awareness lives fully in its skin. Boo is as complete in his Radleyness as a panther is in its pantherness.

If Boo was real, and he is at least as an archetype, then Harper Lee was also the perfect medium to translate him into prose on a page. I don't think any other novelist could have done it. Flaubert's Boo would have died baffled, Austen's would have been much petted and feted by the local women, Wharton's would have overdosed on laudanum, Dostoyevsky's would have delivered a long monolog about Christ, Hemingway's would have been shot by a hunter, Faulkner's would have manifested stigmata, Mailer's would have had sex with Scout, Marquez's would have grown enormous wings.

A lesser novelist than Lee would have given in to the temptation to drop hints that Boo is Christ. In fact, Christ himself was a sort of cockier, more confrontational Boo Radley. Trying to locate an actual Boo in history, only Joan of Arc comes to mind; she arrived just at the moment she was needed and was all super-ego.

I have read To Kill a Mockingbird over and over. It is easy reading, so easy that one ignores the mastery of the work. The prose isn't burnished or pretentious, there is no dense invention, no ambiguity or irony. Its also easy to downgrade it because it was required reading in high school. But I wouldn't hold that against Harper Lee; even a high school curriculum specialist can let a great novel in once in a while, by accident. Harper Lee is beyond our comprehension, having made the difficult look easy. We don't really understand the magnitude of the accomplishment because she did it only once, so we have no later work to disrespect. Many novelists who write too many books undo that early magnificence, that pantherness, like Joseph Heller did when the machinery became visible, the tricks no longer worked. And he only wrote a few novels, not one a year like Philip Roth.

I thought of Boo because I had just won a significant trial with a complicated theory which had also come to me when I was semi-comatose. I am a dreamer, and I never feel so alive, so present, as when I am standing up before a judge, arguing about something which matters. Only then do my feet touch earth. Once I won, I felt very quiet, even sad, and eager to go home and think about what just happened. I realized that as a goal in life, to be active when needed, and to be left alone the rest of the time, is nothing to be ashamed of. At that moment, my resistance to Boo Radley ended. I had always been unable to admit I admired him, because he is so wild and unsocialized and lives in a basement.

If you had asked me over the years, I would probably have said I wanted to be Atticus, because he is a great modest lawyer, the same way as a child I insisted blue was my favorite color and then bought a red bicycle. Atticus is wonderful, but as legal ethicist Monroe Freedman sarcastically pointed out, he is paid to defend Tom Robinson. Atticus has an excellent superego but he is not all superego; he has a public reputation, he must think about the man he wants to be and struggle sometimes, like Jean Valjean, to live up to that standard. Boo would never worry about that; he is the superego's version of the id.

The reason Harper Lee could give us Boo is that, apparently, she was Boo. Like him, she materialized at the moment she was needed and gave us this jewel-like short novel, then went back to her privacy and silence. I always respected that choice. As I write, after sixty years, they are publishing another novel of hers, and there is debate as to whether she wanted that, whether she is competent now to approve it. I fear very much the people around her, lawyers and publishers, are doing what she warned us not to, killing a mockingbird.