Sunday, October 14, 2007

To Kill a Mockingbird: Popularity and Influence

To Kill a Mockingbird has been popular ever since its publication in 1960. Even before its release, four national mail-order book clubs had chosen it as their monthly selection. Within two years, it had won the Alabama Association Award, the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference on Christians and Jews, and, of course, the Pulitzer Prize for Literature (Harper Lee was the first woman to win this prize since Ellen Glasgow in 1942). The film rights were sold and the resulting movie (on which Harper Lee served as a special consultant after she declined to write the screenplay) came out in 1962. Since its publication, the novel has been one of the ten most frequently assigned books in secondary schools.

Interestingly, apart from the reviews TKAM received when it was published, there has been little in the way of literary criticism focused on it. It's mainly in the legal literature that people have dissected the book, at least the character of Atticus. See, for example, "Being Atticus Finch: The Professional Role of Empathy in To Kill a Mockingbird" from the Harvard Law Review and "Reconstructing Atticus Finch" by Steven Lubet, a critical piece that originally appeared in the Michigan Law Review and garnered dissenting responses.

Why do you think there has been a relative lack of scholarly discussion about TKAM, especially given how influential the book is in people's lives (remember that it's second only to the Bible as a book that's "made a difference" to us)? For those of you in the legal field, is Atticus Finch still a relevant touchstone for your profession?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

To Kill a Mockingbird: Crime and Justice

While the first half of To Kill a Mockingbird concerns the attempts of Scout, Jem, and Dill to get to the bottom of the Boo Radley mystery, the second half centers around the trial of Tom Robinson. One of the most quoted passages in the book is part of Atticus's closing remarks, about the sanctity of the court itself:

We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe[...]But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal -- there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.[...]Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.

(This is an echo of the real-life judge, James E. Horton, who presided over the retrial of the Scottsboro Boys: "Now, gentlemen, under our law when it comes to the courts we know neither native nor alien, we know neither Jew nor Gentile, we know neither black nor white....It is our duty to mete out even-handed justice." [quoted in To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries by Claudia Durst Johnson])

Do you agree with this assessment, either within the context of the book (the norms of violent racial prejudice) or in real life? Can the fact that Tom Robinson is found guilty even with overwhelming evidence to the contrary be explained by "Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution"? Is Atticus's optimism (indeed, is Atticus himself) even believable?

Think about other cases that have reflected the toxic side of American ethnic relations, like, recently, the Duke lacrosse players (three white college students accused of sexually assaulting a black stripper at a party; the students were eventually determined to be innocent but many members of the university community and the general public were all too willing to believe that the men were guilty) and the Jena 6 (six black Louisiana teenagers charged with attempted murder after a white classmate was beaten up at school; the first to be tried was initially convicted by an all-white jury selected from an all-white jury pool, but the case is far from over). What connections to our world of criminal justice do you see in TKAM?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

To Kill a Mockingbird: Introduction

Brooklyn Public Library is proud to host Harper Lee’s highly acclaimed novel as part of The Big Read -- an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American popular culture. The Big Read is all about bringing people together to read one great American classic at the same time and understand how its themes are still relevant today. In Brooklyn, it kicked off on Sunday, September 16, at the Brooklyn Book Festival at Borough Hall. During October many of our branches are hosting book discussions, including in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and Polish. Here, we welcome you to the online discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird.

First published in 1960, Mockingbird received the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and has since become one of the most widely read, studied and cherished novels in America. A sign of the novel’s impact on the people who read it is found in “Survey of Lifetime Reading Habits,” conducted in 1991 by the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book. The survey found that among the books mentioned by its 5000 respondents, Mockingbird was second only to the Bible in being “most often cited as making a difference” in people’s lives.

The historical context of the novel is formed by the regional history of race relations in Alabama in the 1930s and contains many themes such as pride and prejudice, ignorance and hatred, humor and pathos, humanity and brutality, fear and superstition, curiosity and innocence, courage and justice, and life's almost invisible politics and polarities.

Narrated by young Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch, the novel is a fictionalized account of the Scottsboro case of 1931, in which nine black youths were arrested and several of them sentenced on the charge of raping two white women while riding on a freight train near the town of Scottsboro, Alabama. Only much later was it discovered that the women had fabricated the whole story.

The novel centers around Atticus Finch, a white lawyer, whose humane view of life is the heart of the novel. The facts of life dramatized in the novel are often ugly but they are reality. Atticus Finch defends a black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Although Finch’s defense clearly proves his client to be innocent, Tom Robinson is nonetheless found guilty by the white jury, and is later killed during a prison escape. Into this tragic and cruel scenario, Scout weaves the predicament of Boo Radley, the reclusive bogeyman of neighborhood legend, whose invisible presence tantalizes the children, and who eventually protects Scout and her brother, Jem, from Tom’s accuser. Boo is connected with Tom with the motif of the mockingbird (‘they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us’), and creates an impression that something innocent is being bruised and broken.

In the views of renowned critic Edgar H. Schuster, Harper Lee’s greatest achievement in this novel is that she has placed prejudice in a perspective which allows us to see it as an aspect of larger phenomena--phenomena which arise from unconscious forces, from phantom contacts, from fear and lack of knowledge of the “other.” It disappears with the kind of knowledge or education that one gains through learning what people are really like when you “finally see them.” It is one of those rare books that expose some of the worst aspects of human nature but also provides insights into how people can be capable of the best.

Some discussion questions:

In what ways is the 1930s era, with WWII looming on the horizon and the Great Depression in full swing, relevant to the events of the novel? How does what was happening in Nazi Germany at the time parallel relations between blacks and whites in the American South?

In his closing arguments, Atticus asserts that Mayella accused Tom Robinson of rape “in an effort to get rid of her own guilt” for trying to seduce him. Can you think of other instances of this psychological dynamic—one group projecting its guilt onto another and then punishing that group to preserve its own “innocence”?

What had you heard about the novel before you read it? Had you seen the film? How was your experience of the book different from what you expected? How is it different from the film?

Atticus also insists to the jury that “there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.” Does the jury’s guilty verdict invalidate Atticus’s claims? Are the courts today “the great levelers,” making us all equal, as Atticus believes, or do wealth and race play an inordinate role in the way justice is distributed in America?

In what ways does Mockingbird speak to the current identity (race, class, creed, gender, ethnicity, sexuality) issues that confront America?

Monday, October 1, 2007

Interpreter of Maladies: Conclusion

This post concludes our month-long discussion of Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. Thanks to all who participated. The October book discussion title is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.