I was all of 21, in my first job after college graduation. I’d been hired as a copy editor on the news desk of the Beaumont (Tex.) Enterprise. Production at the Enterprise was just becoming automated, at least in what we called the “backshop.” Reporters still used typewriters, typing up their copy, handing it to editors (including new ones like me) and hoping we didn’t slaughter their peerless prose when we edited.
Most reporters, like most writers, required editing. I quickly learned who the better reporters were – the ones whose copy didn’t need much editing. Some needed a lot. One rarely if ever needed any – and he was the newspaper’s staff mystery.
I’ll call him Joe. He was in his 50s, and he covered local government. When Joe turned in his stories, he would mumble, almost as if apologizing. I don’t think anyone understood the mumbles. The mystery was how he did his job – he was never seen at a city council or other government meeting, and yet his stories reported exactly what went on. No one knew how Joe did it. Even more mysteriously, no one knew where he lived. He received his mail at the newspaper, and that was his legal address. One staffer followed him in his car one night, and all Joe did was drive around Beaumont for more than an hour until his lost the tail.
Joe was the stuff of legends at the newspaper. People had all kinds of stories about him, some of which might have been true. New staffers right out of college were especially gullible about the stories. Slightly feared and always a mystery, he was like the Boo Radley of the Beaumont Enterprise.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Boo Radley is the character that stays mostly in the background but on whom a good portion of the story centers. He’s the bogeyman for the children of the town of Maycomb. He’s never seen, but the children know he’s there, in the Radley home. He’s the stuff of Maycomb legends, and the children try to think of all kinds of ways to lure him outside. The Radley house is the one you run past, or the one you’re dared by your friends to knock on the door.
Jem and Scout Finch live three houses down from the Radley residence, and Boo occupies the children’s minds. They try to draw him out. They play games, enacting stories about the Radley family. Then they begin to notice small items left in a tree, almost like breadcrumbs. The items could be gifts, or clues, or even invitations. But slowly the children’s understanding of Boo begins to change.
Discovering who Boo is will ultimately save the Finch children’s lives. While the adults are dealing with all of the implications of the Tom Robinson trial, itself rocking long-held racial prejudices, the children are finding out about the real Boo. When the two narrative streams converge, in the wooded way home on Halloween night, it is Boo who intervenes to save the children from a murderous Robert Ewell.
I was a young teen when I first saw the movie, but I still vividly remember the scene of Jem in bed with his broken arm, Scout sitting nearby, and behind the bedroom door is Boo (played by a young Robert Duvall), saying nothing, still watching over the children. Scout has a moment of utter realization when she recognizes who the man must be. “Hey, Boo,” she says. Atticus Finch tells his children to “meet Arthur Radley.” And he tells Boo that he owes him the lives of his children.
Boo Radley is a legend, a legend comprised of mostly fearful or fanciful stories. Those who might know the truth won’t trouble themselves to tell it. The children retell and exaggerate the stories. But even after Boo emerges from the shadows as a real character, there is still much the children (and the readers) don’t know. As Matt Rawle points out in The Faith of a Mockingbird, “Harper Lee never lets the readers in on Boo’s true story, so we are left to make our own conclusions and opinions about Boo’s reclusive behavior.”
You can make up your own mind about what, or who, Boo might represent, but he can be a God-like figure, the God we all hear stories and legends about, some awfully scary. We can’t say that we see him much, but he leaves little breadcrumbs for us to find. And when times are bad, he’s the mysterious figure carrying us through the woods, like Boo carried the injured Jem. And when the scales on our eyes fall off, and we finally recognize him and see him, suddenly we, too, say “Hey, Boo.”
I left the Enterprise before ever finding out if anyone solved the mystery of Joe. Perhaps it was sufficient that I learned that he was a good reporter and a good writer, even if he was never seen at events he wrote about. I can still see him shuffling into the newsroom, nodding at us at the copy desk, and finding his way to his desk and typewriter, typing yet another completely accurate story about what happened at the city council meeting.
We all know a Boo Radley.
Top photograph by Mads Schmidt Rasmussen via Unsplash. Used with permission.