Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Writer's Life Through Her Words: A To Kill A Mockingbird Essay

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee is considered one of the great American novels right next to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This novel by Harper Lee is about a girl named Scout who is six years old at the beginning of the story. Scout, Jem, her brother; and Scout’s father, a lawyer named Atticus, live in the small town of Maycomb in Maycomb County, Alabama. Harper tells the story of how Jem broke his arms through the eye and words of Scout Finch: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”(Page 1) The main event in this novel, besides Jem breaking his arm, is the trial of Tom Robinson, an African American accused of raping Mayella Ewell. All writers show more of their life than the writers realize. Many events, names, personalities, and characters are drawn from Harper Lee’s own life. 
As an adult, Harper studied law like her father. Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, served in the Alabama legislature between 1927 and 1939. Amasa Lee was supposedly a segregationist until civil rights protests caught Amasa’s attention and sympathies. Harper Lee used all three of her mother’s names, Frances, Cunningham, and Finch, for characters in To Kill A Mockingbird. Finch is Scout’s last name, Francis is the name of one of Scout’s relatives, and Cunningham was the last name of a semi-important family in the book: “Hey, Mr. Cunningham.” (Page 153) In To Kill A Mockingbird Scout’s friend, Dill, was based off Truman Capote, a good friend throughout Harper Lee’s life. In the novel, Scout could read and write before Scout even went to school, and Scout read every night with Atticus. In real life, Harper was an avid reader and spent a great deal of time helping Truman Capote write his own novel. One of the main characters named Arthur “Boo” Radley was closely based off a man from Lee’s hometown of Monroeville. This man’s name was Alfred Boulware. According to townsfolk, Alfred and his two friends, Baggett and Sawyer, broke into the Hudson Store to steal cigarettes. Although, another town story claims the three boys shot out the store’s windows with a sling shot. Alfred, Baggett, and Sawyer were sentenced to attend reform school, but Alfred’s father would not let Alfred go. Instead, Alfred was to stay at home for the rest of his life. He was not allowed to leave the house without a family member to accompany him. The townspeople of Monroeville say that Alfred’s friends would often come over and sneak Alfred out of the house. “Arthur Radley just stays in the house, that’s all... Wouldn’t you stay in the house if you didn’t want to come out?” (Page 44)

Just like many of the character’s are tied to Harper Lee’s life, Maycomb is tied to Monroeville, Harper’s hometown. Both towns have a courthouse in the center of town where  similar court cases, like Alfred and Boo’s cases, were held. Both Maycomb and Monroeville are small, rural towns: “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop . . . somehow it was hotter then . . .” (Page 5) Monroeville has grown quite a bit since the 1930s and if Maycomb was a real town, the town might have also grown. Both towns are county seats and are named after the county the towns are located in. Some writers, like Harper Lee, alter events from their own lives and place these altered events in the stories the writers write, for example the Alfred Boulware trial. Some of the general public believe that the Scottsboro Trials, may have created the idea of Tom Robinson’s trial for the rape of Mayella Ewell. These trials first took place in March of 1931 when Harper was six. In the Scottsboro Trials, nine African American teenager where accused of violence and rape. On the freight train, a fight erupted and the African Americans threw all but one of the caucasians off the train. Some of the men who where thrown off the train went to the nearest station in Stevenson to report “an assault by a gang of blacks”. The train was stopped and armed men rounded up every African American teenage boy that the men could find. These arrested boys came to be known as the Scottsboro Boys. Victoria Price and Ruby Bates claimed that twelve African American boys with knives and guns had raped them. Price accused six of the nine arrested boys. Just like a group of men came to hang Tom Robinson, a group of several hundred men gathered around the Scottsboro Jail hoping to hang the Scottsboro Boys. Neither group succeeded: “That proves something- that a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they’re still human... (m)aybe we need a police force of children...” (page 157) The first of many trials was held twelve days after the Scottsboro boys had been arrested. The case made its way to the Supreme Court where the convictions were overturned. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus, who was defending Tom Robinson, wanted to appeal the case until the case went to the Supreme Court in the North. Tom’s trial did not stand a chance in the prejudicial South. The trial was never appealed as Tom Robinson died soon after his first trial.

Finally, although Harper Lee has long time said that To Kill A Mockingbird was not based on Harper’s own life, many events, names, characters, and settings are drawn from Lee’s life. Harper Lee did admit that her father was the model for Atticus Finch.  To Kill A Mockingbird has other examples of similarities between the Harper Lee’s life and the novel, such as the Walter Lett trial from 1933. Today there is a movie for To Kill A Mockingbird where many of the examples from this essay can be found. Over all, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a complex piece of literature formed from events and people who greatly affected Lee’s childhood. 
If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

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