To Kill A Mockingbird
Novel by Harper Lee, 1960
Script by Christopher Sergel, 1970
©2009 by Eileen Warburton
In 1931, when Nelle Lee of Monroeville, Alabama was only five, nine black teenaged boys were falsely accused of raping two white women, tried in Scottsboro, Alabama, found guilty and – except for the 12-year old – sentenced to death. The long, agonized legal adventures of the Scottsboro Boys, as they came to be called, covered many years as they were imprisoned, tried, retried, retried, and retried on spurious “evidence” and with witnesses that changed and changed again with bribes and celebrity. The juries of Alabama were forcibly desegregated. The American Communist Party defended the boys and this split the American left. The case was taken up by the United States Supreme Court twice. The defendants spent decades in some of the worst prisons in the country. One was shot, trying to escape. The very last of them was pardoned by no less than George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor, in 1976.
So, while Nelle Lee was not directly involved in the Scottsboro Boys narrative, the constant news, the endless arguments, the public anger and private shame encompassed her entire childhood. Even more important, her widowed father, Amasa Coleman Lee followed the proceedings passionately. Amasa Lee was a lawyer, but was also the editor/proprietor of the town newspaper and served in the Alabama State legislature from 1926 – 1938. He is the model behind the character of Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird and his conscience-driven ideas about justice for people of all races clashed with the beliefs of many of his fellow citizens. Amasa was also fascinated by the long legal battles that made the Scottsboro case the most tried in American history. That he also actually defended black defendants in the small Alabama town of Monroeville made him, while respected, certainly different and apart in that tiny, tight world of conformity.
The book Nelle would write – calling herself by her middle and last names: Harper Lee – was not strictly autobiographical, but certainly was shaped by her personal experience and populated by the people she knew and loved well. The central family was even given the maiden name of the mother who had died so young, Frances Cunningham Finch Lee. The tightly knit town with its eccentrics, its finer folk, its sharecroppers and dirt farmers, its suppressed black community, and its “white trash” are all drawn from the ’30s in Monroeville. Nellie, like Scout, was a brawling tomboy. Down the street from the Lees did live a reclusive mysterious man who left little objects in the hollow of a tree for the children to find. And there was a boy like Dill, a smartish sometime neighbor and friend who played with the Lee children and egged on their adventures. He was, in fact, Truman Capote, who would go on to his own writing fame.
After a year or two of college and a law degree, Nelle Lee followed Capote to New York in 1950. She lived in a cold water flat and worked as a reservation clerk for Eastern Airlines for eight years while struggling to write her novel. In 1958 some friends chipped in to provide her money for a free year of writing and she revised and reworked her episodic pages into To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1959 she went with Capote as his “research assistant” to Holcombe, Kansas to help with the interviews that he would turn into In Cold Blood.
In 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird was published to instant acclaim and perpetual best sellerdom. To date the book has sold over 30 million copies. It earned the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and was made into a notable film with Gregory Peck in 1962. The timing was extraordinary, although not planned. In 1960, candidate John Kennedy called for a new Civil Rights Act and put it before Congress in 1961. After Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So To Kill a Mockingbird, which drew on events of the 1930s, rode the mighty wave of the civil rights movements of the early 1960s.
Harper Lee herself was overwhelmed by her enormous celebrity. She has published little else since that one first book, retreating into a guarded privacy that she maintains to this day despite many awards and honorary degrees. Her friend Truman Capote was so resentful of her success that it ultimately spoiled their lifelong friendship.
The book’s association with the civil rights movement and the play’s emphasis on the Tom Robinson trial slightly obscures that the play is about more than civil rights and black-white relations. It is about the great fear of the “other,” the “outsider,” that can only be overcome through the sympathetic imagination of tolerance. As Atticus insists with Scout and Jem, to get along in life they have to try to imagine what it is to wear another person’s “skin”. It is fear that leads the three children to perceive mysterious Boo Radley as a “monster” that they can torment and mock. But, under Atticus’ guidance and their better instincts, they move into communicating and ultimately to valuing Boo’s watchfulness and care.
Likewise, Tom Robinson, the accused black man, is perceived as a monster by the racist Maycomb community that fears him. As a young, modest, and compassionate black man, he has the temerity to “feel sorry” for a white person, thus violating standards of white superiority. Against all evidence, in the popular imagination this makes Tom Robinson capable of the worst of crimes – violence against and sexual violation of a white woman.
Fear of lost status emboldens the worst and most dangerous of this society. Tom Robinson’s civil behavior and self-respect are a threat to the “white trash” Ewells, isolated from the community except through the solidarity of fear. When Atticus exposes the corruption and mendacity of the Ewells in front of the entire town during the court trail, Bob Ewell is stripped of any semblance of equal status with his neighbors.
In the philosophy of Atticus Finch, the antidote to fear is the courage to imagine “other” and act accordingly. There are quiet signs of the changes that will come: a sheriff who finds the best representation for an accused black man, a lawyer determined to do right by his client against the wishes of the many, an employer who publicly calls out an honest act of witness, a judge disappointed with a verdict, neighbors who quietly value “fair play” and approve of “the men in this world who are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us.”
Christopher Sergel’s work as playwright deserves a note, for he’s made huge, unheralded contributions to the American theatre. His family founded Dramatic Publishing in Woodstock, Illinois in 1885 and all the family members grew up adapting novels for the stage. Not one to seek the spotlight himself, Christopher Sergel (1918-1993) was a journeyman who brilliantly recast many other works. They rolled out of his typewriter and onto the stage: Black Elk Speaks, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Mouse that Roared, Up the Down Staircase, Fame, Winesburg, Ohio, Lost Horizon, To Kill a Mockingbird, and many, many others. He was also a devoted mentor to many playwrights all over the world. His hope, he once admitted, was to be remembered as his friend E.B. White had once described Charlotte the Spider.
“. . . a true friend and a good writer.”
For further reading:
Charles J. Shields, I Am Scout. The Biography of Harper Lee. New York: Henry Holt, 2008.
Kerry Madden, Harper Lee (Up Close): a Young Adult book. New York: Viking Juvenile, 2009.
The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.