I need some help with my paper on Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird":Analyze the social, political, and historical situation that existed at the time tthat "To Kill a Mockingbird" takes place...

I need some help with my paper on Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird":

Analyze the social, political, and historical situation that existed at the time tthat "To Kill a Mockingbird" takes place and at the time was written. How did these events of these times influence Lee? How is this influence evidenced in the novel?

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

The argument that one cannot separate the artist from the art certainly holds true with Harper Lee and her novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird."  As a tomboy herself with a father who was a lawyer, there is much of Miss Lee in her character of Scout Finch.  In fact, she herself considered a career in law, but abandoned it for her first love of writing.  Born in 1929 and raised in Monroeville, Alabama, in the southern part of this state, Lee witnessed the effects of Jim Crow which existed in the 1930s.  With Jim Crow there was physical force and terror, economic intimidation, and psychological control  exerted through messages of low worth and negativity transmitted socially to African-Americans in order to reinforce the status quo of segregation. 

After leaving the University of Alabama Law School in 1949,   Miss Lee went to New York City as a young woman.  There she would clearly have felt the difference in social attitudes from those of the Jim Crow South.  Indubitably, she was powerfully influenced by her new environment in the 1950s when the University of Alabama was forced to enroll its first black student (1956) and the Civil Rights Movement; her novel, which was censored in the South for a time, expressed her new perceptions.  Tom Robinson is the embodiment of Lee's perpective that blacks were not socially inferior or of low worth.  Tom is the Good Samaritan who helps his natural enemy in spite of the risk to himself.  Calpurnia also is portrayed as intelligent and educated--she speaks properly and governs the children in the social graces better than does Aunt Alexandria.  This "radical" (to Southerners) portrayal of blacks in "To Kill a Mockingbird" sent shock waves throughout the Deep South.

 

jk180's profile pic

James Kelley | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

The novel To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the Depression-era South. The novel was published in 1960. (I'm not sure exactly when the novel was written, but I remember reading that Harper Lee worked for more than a year on the novel.) These two pariods are very different, of course, and your question is a good one for a paper.

You may want to conduct some research (especially if the paper assignment calls for research) on the status of black Americans in the American South in the 1930s and in 1960. In the 1930s, for example, sharecropping (an institution that, in all honesty, wasn't all that different from slavery) was still very common. You can find an interesting discussion of sharecropping (complete with excellent photographs, including many of African American farm workers) in the work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Tom Robbinson seems to me to have no better a life than a sharecropper in the novel; he lives in a small settlement of blacks and works a white man's farm for little pay.

The year 1960, the date of the novel's publication, is interesting in terms of race relations in the American South, too. It is the year in which sit-ins sprang up across the region to challenge segregation (i.e. the exclusion of blacks) at lunch counters and in other public spaces. The novel's treatment of the theme of tolerance seems to me to be very conservative or even ineffectual in the face of the radical actions and dramatic changes that were taking place across the country in the year the novel was published.

You will probalby also want to note that the novel's setting and narration are shaped by these two periods. THe narrative voice is of an adult woman (maybe in the last years of the 1950s) talking about her childhood (in the Depression years).

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