Was 'To Kill a Mockingbird' based on real events?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Some books have a profound impact on society and can act as a catalyst for social change. One of these is Haper Lee’s novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (1960). This book is now widely taught in schools in America and elsewhere and is frequently regarded as a classic. To this day the book sells hundreds of thousands of copies every year. This work is credited as helping to change attitudes to race in America at a critical juncture in its history. This book was very autobiographical, and the author based many of the characters are based on her family and friends. To Kill a Mockingbird also accurately reflects a time in American society when racial inequality was the norm and accepted.

The story of to Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee being awarded a Presidential Medal by President Bush

This remarkable work was written by Nelle Harper Lee (1926 – 2016), who grew up in Monroeville, Alabama. She was born into an affluent and well-connected family in the town. Lee, after graduating from high school, studied law in a desultory fashion for several years but never obtained a degree. Her real passion was literature, and with the help of her father and friends, she began to write the novel that would become ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ She submitted it to a publishing company, and she worked on it for a full three years before it was finally published in 1960. The book was an instant success, and it became a bestseller and was immediately hailed by the critics as a masterpiece.[1]

The work is a classic example of the Southern Gothic genre, with dark and irrational elements and eccentric characters. Harper Lee was astonished by the success of her novel and soon withdrew from public life. Remarkably, for a first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Harper Lee was showered by several Presidents with awards over the years. However, she did not write another book. Lee stated that she had said what she wanted to say and that she found the pressure of success and fame too much. The author lived a quiet life and was true to her word.

In old age, a book Go Set a Watchman (2015) was published. Her lawyer issued it, and it was very controversial. Many critics regard it as only an early draft of to Kill a Mockingbird and believe that the author was not mentally competent to give her permission for the work to be published. Harper Lee died at the age of 89 in an assisted living facility in Alabama. To Kill a Mocking bird was made into a memorable movie in 1962, starring Gregory Peck, Mary Bardham and Robert Duvall, and directed by Robert Mulligan. This won an Academy Award for best picture and is considered to be a classic. This movie is a faithful adaptation of the book, which is not always the case with Hollywood. In 2018, the novel was turned into a Broadway play that was very popular with critics and audiences alike.

Summary of the novel

The literary work of 1960 and the movie of 1962 are set in a small town in Alabama, called Maycomb, and it is set in the Depression-era of the 1930s. In many ways, it is a traditional coming of age story and it is told from the perspective of Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout, who is aged 6 when the book begins. She lives with her widowed father Atticus Finch, her older brother, and her best friend is a boy called, Dill. The three children live in dread and terror of Boo Radley a mysterious recluse who lives on the same street, in a boarded-up house. We later find out that he has been forced to stay at home by his father after he committed a minor crime, which brought shame to his family. Tom Robinson, a black man is charged with raping a white woman, Mayelle Ewell, and Atticus Finch is appointed his lawyer. At one point there is an attempt to lynch Robinson, but this is averted after an intervention by Scout. Atticus defends Tom, and he does it skillfully and he appears to prove that his client is innocent and Mayelle is a liar. However, the all-white jury convicts Tom, even though it is clear that they do not believe the allegations against him. Later, while in prison, Tom is shot while allegedly trying to escape. Bob Ewell is angered by his family’s treatment in the court and especially by Atticus’ cross-examination of his daughter.[2] His reputation and that of his family are in tatters, after the case. One night he sees Jem and Scout and in a fury, he attacks them with a knife. During the attack, the arm of Jem is broken, then the children are saved by an unlikely hero, that is Boo Radley. He fights with Ewell and manages to take his knife from him and kills him. Sheriff Heck Tate arrives, and he decides that it was a case of self-defense and declares that the attacker had killed himself when he tripped and fell on his own knife. This was done to protect the privacy of Boo and to ensure that he did not get into legal trouble. The novel ends with Scout watching Boo, who returns to his house and is never seen again [3].

A scene from a play based on the novel

The setting of the novel

Maycomb, the setting of the novel is based on Harper Lee’s birthplace of Monroeville. It captures very well the parochial and insular nature of a small town in the South in the post-war period. The author captures the social milieu very well. In particular, the class divisions that existed between more affluent and poorer whites often dismissively known as ‘white trash’ are well described. Towns like Monroeville were very hierarchical, and people were defined by their class. In particular, Lee captures the pervasive racism that was pervasive in the South in the 1930s. At this time, African-Americans while officially and legally equal had fewer rights than whites. The injustice perpetrated on Tom Robinson was not uncommon and many African-Americans lived under the threat of racial violence, as he had.

The case of Tom Robinson

Robinson is shown to be a hardworking and honest man who has been unjustly accused of a crime. Harper Lee never stated who was the model for Robinson and his trial. One of the possible models was the case of William Lett from Alabama in 1937, who was imprisoned for sexually assaulting a white female and who later died in prison. Another person who may have been the model for Robinson was Emmett Till, who lynched after allegedly insulting a white woman [4]. Many assume that the book refers to the notorious case of the Scottsboro boys, they were a group of African American youths, who were wrongly convicted of rape and sentenced to death. It seems likely that the Robinson character and his fate was based on the numerous examples of racial injustice that was the norm in America before the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement [5].

Boo Radley

Perhaps one of the most remarkable characters in the book is Boo Radley, the recluse. In the 1962 movie he is played by the young Robert Duval, then an unknown actor. The character has become a byword for those who have withdrawn from society and have become ‘shut-ins’. Boo Radley is a symbol of the dehumanization that was so common in the socially and racially repressive America of the time. In the novel he becomes the unlikely hero when he saves Scout and Jem[6]. It appears that Lee based this character on a neighboring family. When she was growing up in the 1950s, there was a family who lived in a boarded-up house, similar to the one described in the book. One member of the family a male was kept a virtual prisoner, until his death. It is believed that the family kept him at home, out of shame as he had committed some unknown crime. His family kept him isolated so that he would not shame the family further, by getting into more legal trouble, which is almost identical to the story of Boo Radley.

Atticus Finch

Few characters have had as much influence on society, like Atticus Finch. In the novel, he is shown as an admirable widow struggling to raise his family. This character who was so memorably played by Gregory Peck in the motion picture adaptation of the book is now seen by many as the ideal of a lawyer. He is arguably the hero of the novel as he attempts to save the innocent Tom Robinson. While his defense is ultimately unsuccessful, because of the racism of the jurors, Atticus compassion and dedication shine through in the story [7]. This much-loved character is based on Harper Lee’s father Amasa Coleman Lee, who was a lawyer. Many of the traits of Atticus are modeled on Amasa, who was a great influence on Lee. The author’s father defended two black men who were accused of murder in 1919. However, before the trial ended, the two men were brutally killed by a white mob. He was so disgusted by this that he abandoned the legal profession and became a newspaperman. These events undoubtedly, inspired Lee, in the writing of her novel. His father’s failed attempt to save his clients must have had a profound impact on the imaginative and impressionable child. In real life, Harper Lee’s father was not as liberal as Atticus Finch and it was only later in life that he adopted many progressive views.

Scout, Jem and Dill

One of the reasons for the success of the novel is the children’s characters, Jem, Scout and Dill, and their memorable adventures. Scout, in particular, offers a unique perspective on life in a small Southern town. All of these characters are based on real-life characters. Scout is based on Harper Less herself. The author, like her creation, was an intelligent and inquisitive child, who was something of a tom-boy. while Jem is based on her brother. Their friend Dill is based on the great American author Truman Capote. Scout and Dill were neighbors and were inseparable. It is amazing to think that two of America’s most beloved authors were childhood friends and remained somewhat close over their lives. This led to false rumors that Capote actually wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. It is worth noting that Lee’s mother did not die, as in the novel until she was in her twenties unlike Scout’s mother.

Conclusions

Harper Lee’s work can truly be said to be a ‘Great American Novel’. This work contributed to social change in American in the 1960s and 1970s, especially with regard to race relations. The work is very autobiographical and much of the story is based on events that took place. The central story of the racially motivated persecution of an African American was based on events from the youth of Harper Lee. This novel capture’s very well the atmosphere in a small Southern town and the racial and social prejudices of the time. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ characters are largely based on the family and friends of the author. However, like every other writer, Harper Lee, romanticized her characters. This is especially the case with her presentation of her father, who was the model of Atticus Finch. One of the reasons for the success of the novel is its engaging characters and this is because they are based on real-life people. To Kill A Mockingbird is work that is based on the lives of real people and a specific period of time, but it is ultimately a work of fiction.

Further Reading

Meyer, Michael J., ed. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird: New Essays. Scarecrow Press, 2010.

Shields, Charles J. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee: From Scout to Go Set a Watchman. Henry Holt and Company, 2016.

References

  1. Johnson, Claudia Durst. Understanding To kill a mockingbird: a student casebook to issues, sources, and historical documents. ABC-CLIO, 1994
  2. Lee, Harper. To kill a mockingbird (London, Random House, 2010), p 115
  3. Lee, Harper, p. 220
  4. Chura, Patrick. "Prolepsis and Anachronism: Emmet Till and the Historicity of To Kill a Mockingbird." The Southern Literary Journal 32, no. 2 (2000): 1-26
  5. Chura, p 18
  6. Lee, Harper, p. 220
  7. Osborn Jr, John Jay. "Atticus Finch-The End of Honor: A Discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird." USFL Rev. 30 (1995): 1139