Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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History of the Text

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To Kill a Mockingbird’s Publication and Reception History: To Kill a Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s most popular work. The novel received nearly unanimous rave reviews when it was published on July 11, 1960, though some critics took issue with its representation of race relations.

  • Entertaining Writing Style: Many critics loved Lee’s writing style and praised her “fresh” and “delightful” voice. Frank H. Lyell of the New York Times described the novel as having “gentle affection, rich humor, and deep understanding of small-town family life in Alabama.” The novel was often among nonfiction texts on bestseller lists, so critics seemed to find its lightheartedness refreshing as well as entertaining.
  • Relatability and Pedagogy: To Kill a Mockingbird was promptly incorporated into English curricula across the United States. According to Wally Lamb, a writer and former English teacher, characters like Scout and Jem “became a sort of vehicle by which [students] could begin to think and sort of process some of these emotional reactions . . . [to racial tensions].” Students are presumably more likely to learn about the realities of racial injustice alongside Scout and Jem.
  • Controversial Content: Despite its popularity in middle school English classes, To Kill a Mockingbird has been increasingly criticized for being more damaging than educational for students. First, parents and teachers emphasize the potentially traumatic experience of being a black student and having to read or hear derogatory, racist language—language that is possibly used to hurt black students within and outside of school—in the classroom. Second, critics have most recently questioned whether it is appropriate for students to read a novel that encourages disbelieving a woman who has accused a man of raping her. Overall, critics of To Kill a Mockingbird’s place in English classrooms advocate for replacing the novel with texts by black authors who have been silenced or otherwise ignored in the English literary canon.

The Great Depression in the United States: To Kill a Mockingbird is set during the Great Depression between 1930 and 1935. The Great Depression was a catastrophic, global economic depression that began in the United States when stock prices began to plummet around September 4, 1929. Scout’s fictional hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, is in the grip of this economic decline.

  • The Consequences of the Unequal Distribution of Wealth: By 1929, the economic boom of the 1920s fell when the stock market crashed—an event called the Wall Street Crash—in the United States. The crash can be attributed in part to an unequal distribution of wealth between the rich and the poor. Because the poor were already very poor, there were not enough people to buy the goods and services needed to sustain a healthy stock market. Both poor and wealthy people suffered as income, tax revenue, profits, and prices plummeted and unemployment reached a staggering 25%.
  • The Impact on Farming Communities: Rural towns in the South—including Scout’s fictional hometown of Maycomb, Alabama—were hit especially hard by the Great Depression because they relied on industries that were suddenly no longer in demand. Crop prices fell by approximately 60%, and primary industries like mining and logging suffered greatly. However, there were no employment alternatives available, so many people went hungry and homeless. Harper Lee captures the suffering of rural communities when she depicts the Cunninghams as poor farmers who pay their lawyer with produce because they have no money.

Racism and Oppression During the Great Depression: To Kill a Mockingbird explores issues of civil rights, racism, and oppression during an especially turbulent time of race relations in the Southern United States and the country as a whole. 

  • Segregationist Laws: During the Great...

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  • Depression, African Americans in the South still suffered under the oppressive “Jim Crow” laws that were established in the 1870s. Jim Crow laws prohibited black people from using the same public facilities, including transportation and schools, as white people. Alternative facilities were often inferior, poorly funded, or nonexistent. 
  • Roosevelt’s “New Deal”: Between 1933 and 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented a series of financial reforms, work programs, and regulations— collectively referred to as the “New Deal”—to help Americans survive the Great Depression. Though Roosevelt did not specifically intend New Deal policies to further civil rights reform, black Americans benefited somewhat from programs like the Works Progress Administration (1935–1943), which employed millions of able-bodied people for public works projects. Though white men took precedence during the hiring process, competition over available jobs arose between white and black Americans. Race relations worsened in the South because many resentful white people believed that black people were taking their jobs. As a result, violence against black communities surged. 
  • The Scottsboro Boys Trials: Harper Lee likely based Tom Robinson’s trial on the Scottsboro Boys Trials of 1931, in which two white women falsely accused nine black teenage boys of raping them during a train ride from Tennessee to Alabama. The two women, along with the nine boys and two white men, were riding in an empty freight car in search of employment. The black boys and white men fought—possibly because they were competing for the same jobs—and the white men were forced off of the train. The remaining black boys and white women were arrested for vagrancy when they arrived in Alabama. The two women convinced law enforcement that they were raped by the nine teenagers despite having questionable backgrounds and no physical evidence of rape. Eight of the nine boys were sentenced to death. The Supreme Court ordered a second trial, during which one of the white women admitted that neither she nor the other woman had been raped. Nevertheless, the boys were sentenced again, and the appeals process stretched out over decades. Some of the men escaped or were released on parole. In 2013, approximately 80 years after the trials, the case was finally closed. The last of the Scottsboro Boys were exonerated when they received posthumous pardons. 

Southern Gothic Literature: To Kill a Mockingbird is part of the Southern gothic genre. Southern gothic literature features authors such as William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. Like many Southern gothic works, To Kill a Mockingbird features flawed, peculiar characters navigating poverty, violence, oppression, and racial tensions in the South. 

  • European Roots: Gothic fiction stems from the European gothic tradition that first rose to popularity in Germany in the 18th century. Gothic fiction employs supernatural imagery and events to highlight repressed or unspoken truths in real life. The supernatural qualities of Southern gothic fiction are uniquely rooted in the repressed traumas of the region’s history with slavery, which are essentially traumas of the nation as a whole. 
  • Dark Humor and Disturbing Characters: Common characteristics of Southern gothic literature include eccentric characters experiencing disturbing, darkly humorous events, irrational or bizarre thoughts, and transgressive desires or impulses. Some characters, like Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, are considered grotesque because they are considered deformed in some way—often because they have physical or psychological abnormalities that evoke horror, intense curiosity, suspicion, pity, and compassion. Overall, Southern gothic literature perpetuates a tone of alienation and otherness. 

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