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To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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What are the rumors surrounding Walter Cunningham's poverty in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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Just to be clear, rumors usually involve a falsehood and a sense of malice, whereas gossip involves discussion about an individual with another individual or a group of people. Scout gives Miss Caroline the generally accepted gossip about the Cunningham's poverty, not with malicious intent, but simply with the desire to inform the teacher.

Scout explains to Miss Caroline that Walter, being a Cunningham, cannot accept a loan of a quarter because it is unlikely he will be able to pay it back. The Cunninghams, like many who rely on agriculture for their livelihood, often engage in a barter system when they need something from others, swapping supplies for services and vice versa. The Cunningham family have a reputation for not taking charity and for holding their own in society with their bartering, which reflects a sense of civic duty and a personal pride in their own ability to make their way despite their financial hardship.

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I would not consider Scout's comments about the Cunninghams' poverty to be rumors, but she does describe why they are poor. In Chapter 2, Scout elaborates on the financial situation of the Cunninghams as she attempts to explain to Miss Caroline why Walter refuses to accept her quarter for lunch. Scout tells Miss Caroline that Walter's family never takes anything they can't pay back. She says they don't have much but are still able to make ends meet. Scout then recalls a time when Walter Cunningham's father paid Atticus's lawyer fees in stovewood, hickory nuts, smilax and holly, and a sack full of turnip greens. When Jem asks Atticus if they are as poor as the Cunninghams, Atticus explains the economic crash negatively affected country folks like the Cunninghams the most. Like most farmers in Maycomb County, the Cunninghams do not have money, but rather pay for their services using materials they have on their farms.

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