Thursday, September 30, 2010
Banned Books Week: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
As a young girl growing up in Monroeville, Alabama, Nelle Harper Lee was exposed to the hatred and prejudice against African Americans that characterized the South in the early twentieth century. Lee took the injustices she was exposed to as a child and used them as material for one of the most profound novels ever published on rights and equality. Lee’s novel has become a literary classic and still speaks volumes to every generation about discrimination and ignorance. Harper Lee’s childhood experiences growing up in the segregated South of the 1920s and 1930s and the impact they had on her worldview greatly influenced the storyline of her only published work, To Kill a Mockingbird.
The main storyline of To Kill a Mockingbird follows the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. In Maycomb, the fictional town that serves as the setting for the story, this was a death sentence for Robinson regardless of his guilt or innocence. Scout, the young narrator, watches her father Atticus Finch suffer persecution at the hands of his neighbors for defending Robinson in court. (**SPOILER ALERT** Highlight the next 2 lines to read the spoiler) Despite ample evidence proving his innocence, Robinson was found guilty by the all-white jury and given the death sentence. Robinson tried to escape prison, but was shot before he made it across the fence.
The trial of Tom Robinson was inspired by several cases that impacted both the nation and Lee’s hometown during her childhood. On a larger scale, the trial of Tom Robinson is said to draw from the infamous trial of the Scottsboro Boys. However, Lee also wanted “to leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world” (qtd. in Shields 117), so the Scottsboro trial could be considered too widespread for her purposes. Another trial that occurred during the period better serves Lee’s intentions. An article published in the Monroe Journal in November of 1933 reported that a white woman named Naomi Lowery had accused Walter Lett, a black man, of rape. Lett plead not guilty, claiming that he did not know Lowery and had been working elsewhere at the time of the alleged rape. Nonetheless, Lett was found guilty by the all-white jury and given the death penalty. However, some of the leading citizens of Monroeville did not agree with this verdict (Lee’s father, an attorney, was probably among them). Due to their protests, Lett’s electrocution date was pushed back several times before the judge changed his punishment to life imprisonment. Unfortunately, Lett went insane while waiting for his case to be resolved and was relocated to Searcy Hospital for the Insane where he died of tuberculosis (Shields 118-120).
The secondary storyline of To Kill A Mockingbird follows the adventures of Scout, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill as they attempt to coax local recluse Boo Radley out of his house. This story finds its factual basis in another episode from Lee’s early life. Children in Monroeville found the Boleware house a source of great intrigue and mystery. “Children held their noses while walking by, or crossed to the other side of the street, to avoid inhaling evil vapors that might be emanating from chinks between the house’s boards” (Shields 53). Son Boleware was the greatest source of interest connected to the house and was said to be a prisoner in his own home, tied to a bedstead by his father. Son and two schoolmates had been taken to court for breaking school windows and burglarizing a drugstore. The judge decided the boys would benefit from a year at the state industrial school; Son’s father, however, believed he had a better solution and the judge agreed to let Boleware punish him as he saw fit after Boleware promised that his son would never trouble the town again. After that fateful court date, Son was hardly ever seen again. As the years went by, all Son’s schoolmates and friends moved on and he evaporated from Monroeville memory. “Mr. Boleware ruined his son’s life, I guess because it was shaming him; the man was mean,” said Charles Ray Skinner (qtd. in Shields 54). This statement mirrors one made by Calpurnia, the Finches’ housekeeper in To Kill a Mockingbird, as Boo Radley’s father is taken away in a hearse: “There goes the meanest man God ever blew breath into” (qtd. in Shields 54).
Lee’s novel was originally published during the civil rights movement, showing “the atrocities of discrimination and bias based on ethnicity” (Champion 113). While critics disagreed about the novel’s merits, the public responded with extreme positivity. In its first year, the book sold hundreds of thousands of copies and won a Pulitzer Prize. In addition to both critical and public acclaim, the book also caused readers to reflect on the way that they viewed social issues. James Carville, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager and a Southerner by birth, commented on the book’s impact on him: “I just knew, the minute I read it, that she was right and I had been wrong” (qtd. in Bernard 36). To Kill a Mockingbird was used in classrooms across the country to introduce students to the issues of tolerance at its core. Unfortunately, parents reacted negatively to its use in schools, objecting to everything from references to sex and violence to the negative depictions of authority figures. Critic Jill P. May “argues that some white Southerners did not appreciate the way they were depicted in the novel and hoped that by labeling it immoral, fewer readers would have access to it” (Bernard 37).
Lee, however, could not understand how her novel could be considered immoral. In an editorial written to defend the book, she wrote “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct…that is the heritage of all Southerners” (qtd. in Bernard 37). In spite of the controversy, To Kill the Mockingbird’s popularity has not waned. “The novel also remains a perennial staple in high school English classrooms, offering new generations of students insight into the powerful social themes that were important in the 1930s, critical in the 1950s and 1960s, and that will remain important for years to come” (Bernard 38). At a time when racial equality was not tolerated, Harper Lee had the courage to publish a novel that spoke out against prejudice. Witnessing the injustice directed toward African Americans and accepted by her Southern neighbors had a profound impact on Lee, one she illustrated in To Kill a Mockingbird. After its release, To Kill a Mockingbird went on to inspire the same views in the reading public and garnered the reputation of being one of the most life-changing pieces of literature ever created (Shields 1).
Bernard, Catherine. Understanding Great Literature: Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird. San Diego: Lucent Books, 2003.
Champion, Laurie. “Harper Lee.” American Writers. Ed. Jay Parini. Vol.8. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001. 113-31.
Shields, Charles J. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006.
This is an essay I wrote in high school about one of my all-time favorite novels, and one that has been challenged or banned innumerable times. In honor of Banned Books Week, I wanted to pay tribute to (in my opinion) one of the greatest novels ever written.