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?

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

In the 1930s money was rare. Most professional people were poor because the farmers were poor since Maycomb County was a farm country. Nickels and dimes were hard to come by for doctors, lawyers and dentists. As the Cunninghams has no money to pay a lawyer,they simply paid with what they had. Doctors worked the same way by charging some folks a bushel of potatoes for delivery of a baby.

By looking at America today , do you think that this country has come from a long way? If your view is not different from mine do you think that the folks at that time could have done better in that era?

Melissa said...

I'm curious whether small communities today, those similar to the Maycomb Counties of the first half of the 20th century, still have that sense of community ties that the Depression fostered (forced?) in this book, as well as the community memory portrayed here. Community memory as in, it's known that the Cunninghams have integrity to a degree that they won't accept charity, "He's one of the Ewells, ma'am," etc.

(The sliding scale/honor system/barter modes of payment are of course hard to find these days. But a few months ago, I needed a new watch band and went to a small store on 18th Ave in Bensonhurst. I was a few dollars short and the proprietor wouldn't take a credit card. So, even though it was the first time I'd been there, he let me pay with what I had and trusted me to come back the next day with the rest. How often does that happen? And now that store is yet another T-Mobile outlet.)

And how different would the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird have been if it had taken place after televisions came to Maycomb?

There are so many ways that communities (large and small) have changed since the 1930s that it's hard to answer your question. The rampant suburbanization of the United States, for example, has had negative effects ranging from personal isolation to environmental degredation, but on the other hand, we in the 21st century can use innovations like the Internet and the World Wide Web to make connections with like-minded souls around the world -- certainly that sort of community-building wasn't possible until the very recent past.

Anonymous said...

the question is, would the propietor had trusted you if you were a member of minority group.

Melissa said...

In this case, the proprietor was a "minority" and I am not, but, sure, Brooklyn in 2007 is certainly not free of racism and prejudice. And it's more complicated than the black/white dichotomy in a homogeneous community like Maycomb (even if there is a Levy family there -- "they had been living on the same plot of ground in Maycomb for five generations").

Anonymous said...

If one takes your words, and put them into the proper context, one would say that the proprietor, it doesn't matter if it was black or white or yellow or brown, had used
the same strategy that one encountered in Maycomb in 1930. As
you can remark, race,class,gender
had traversed the proprietor's mind
before trusting you to return with
the rest of the money the following day. To go back to the preceding question. Would he have trusted you if you had had been a member of the minority group?

Anonymous said...

If an answer does not give rise to a new question from itself, it falls out of the dialog. Mikhail Bakhtin

When it comes to matters of trust and perception, IDENTITY is reality. In our encounters with fellow-human beings in the world, "similarity quotient" or prevailing "power paradigm" is the final arbiter of the direction of "free will."

Nomi said...

How about VALUES dear. Atticus' attitude towards fellow humans and in raising children, had nothing to do with "similarity-quotient" or "power paradigm"---but on eternally supreme values of truth, love, empathy and justice. However, it might be true that this kind of character development and child rearing is rare in any given culture. Politics of identity and practices of law are still based more on propaganda and narcissism than truth and justice. But human nature is not designed to be consistent. As Diderot said: “It is not human nature we should accuse but the despicable conventions that pervert it.”

Anonymous said...

Today, if not read carefully TKAM comes across as a fable almost. There is the perfect father who loves his children, the loving maid who takes care of his children and the good people of that tired ol town of Maycomb. People took care of each other but people also meted out retribution for imagined crimes. Remember, all the racist, drunken, violent men who want to kill Tom Robinson are part of the same Maycomb as the good people of the town. So really it is the same as everywhere. There are good people and bad people.
Responding to one of the comments asking whether Atticus' optimism is believable I would like to say that I believe it is. I don't think it is necessarily optimism as we know it but a firm belief in the ideas of right and wrong and that right will somehow win out. This is interesting to me since Atticus also knows what he is up against. I was brought up to believe the world is not fair but that doesn't stop me from wanting things in the world to be fair.

Atticus believes in justice; he believes in the justice system. I don't think he believes that all men feel the same way. He doesn't try to change who Mr. Euell is; he knows that is a losing battle.
In regard to relations between the 30's and now, there is still racism and there is still racism from people who do not believe they are racist. Note, Mrs. Bush's comments after Katrina that 'these people have a pretty good deal' because they were removed to Texas and other states and were taken care of. Something like that just shows complete ignorance of the situation that people went through. For example, being displaced, having family members die,losing your home, all made for a pretty good deal. This is something Mrs. Bush never has and never will have to experience. I pefere to believe she isn't mean; she is ignorant. How does this relate to Mockingbird? Those men going for Robinson operate out of fear. They are afraid that life will change. And guess what? They were right. Even though many people feel the same way as those men feel about Tom Robinson many more do not. So yes, Mockingbird definitely speaks to today as well as yesterday. There are many places different from New York City and places like Maycomb still exist. I bet there are both good people and bad people in these towns and everywhere - even in New York.

Anonymous said...

I think that it is possible to build up level of trust today through daily interactions with people today whether you live in a small town or an urban neighborhood. If you interact with a person on a regular basis over a period of time, you develop a some kind of relationship with them regardless of ethnicity or race.

If you live in any place where you must stay for some reason, then you are more obligated to tolerate your neighbors since you will stuck living with them for a long time to come. You get to see their bad sides, but if you are lucky, you also get to see their good sides at times. You just have to keep in mind that you must live with them. This applies in apartment complexes as well as small towns. This will always affect your actions since at the back of your mind, you always remember that you will have to run into this person for years to come.

However, I think there are many more examples of injustice going on than Duke or Jena. I saw "American Gypsy" last week. It is about a family of gypsies who, after a decade of legal battles, won an out-of-court settlement from the city of Spokane because of a police search that left the family outcasts among their own people. The director commented that a group of Spokane high school students were recently prevented from showing the film in their school because some parents of students were in the police. The family still lives in Spokane because they feel that the city is their home, but their lives are not easy.

Anonymous said...

The way a person has been brought up will stay with him or her for the rest of his or her life. Cecil Jacobs' mind has been fed up with rubbish by her folks who insinuated
that Mr. Finch is a disgrace, and that nigger ought to hang from the water tank. Our brain is like computers. What you put in, that's what you get out. For instance, you put GI (garbadge in), GO(garbadge out) will come out when you have to express yourself.
How does Macomb case relate to Today's issue? In Long Island, a hanging rope was found at a black family garage door. What do you think it signifies?

Melissa said...

How would you account for the differences in Atticus and Aunt Alexandra, his sister (and, though we see less of him, their brother, Uncle Jack)? They were raised in the same family but have very different outlooks...How is Atticus able to transcend being a product of his time in a way that his sister is not (and is that in fact what's going on)?

Anonymous said...

This is not astonishing at all because two or more people can come from the same womb, but having different characters. Mr Atticus's sister is totally different from Atticus himself. One
can say that it's totally night and day. People say that education
sometimes has tamed the real inner self. That may establish the difference between the two.

In the case of Calpurnia,we find out that she could express herself two ways in the same language, which is English. At church she could divulge her true self in the company of her folks. However, in Finch's house that she worked at,a molded Calpurnia in a required systematic skill, had been found.
Why? Because he knew how to read and write while the other black folks were illiterate.

Do you think that Macomb issues still exist in today's world?