MAJOR ASSIGNMENT 1 – TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
THE NATURE OF THE SOURCE
The source is an extract from the book, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), by Harper Lee. The novel takes place during the 1930s in a small town in Alabama, USA. Atticus Finch is a lawyer who defends a black disabled man, Tom Robinson, against the charge of raping a white girl. The extract is parts of chapters nine, nineteen, and one paragraph of page 215. In chapter nine, Atticus’ six year old daughter, Scout, nearly starts a fight with a classmate, Cecil Jacobs after accusing Atticus of ‘defending niggers’. Chapter nineteen takes place in the courtroom when Atticus calls Tom Robinson, the man he is defending, to the stand. In 1950, Harper Lee started to write short stories about people living in Alabama, among them a story which would become To Kill a Mockingbird. Hoping to be published, Lee sent her writing to a literary agent in1957 and the full story was published in 1960. The novel as historical evidence is a secondary source. As a piece of fiction, it has a limited historical base and the author may also present her views, which may influence certain potential facts. As a source for accurate facts, it is useless or unreliable. It seems that it would be utterly unimportant as historical evidence and not at all useful to a historian, because it does not contain fact. Jordonova says that ‘one aspect of every answer must be the highest levels of truth’. However, fiction can reflect the mood or values of the time in which it was written or the time in which it is set. The author may well represent her views, but they may be views of her class, race or community. It would be useful to a historian in understanding the attitude of people at the time of racial segregation. It is set in a significant period of history and it attempts to convey the spirit and social conditions of the past. The book contains fictional characters and is not a description of an actual event. The novel makes a statement about the racial segregation that existed in the United States in the 1930s. The book was first published in 1960. By then, the Civil Rights movement was well on its way toward revolutionising how the US viewed race and especially African Americans. So the views of the characters in the book may not necessarily represent the views of American society in 1960, but can provide an insight into American society, or a small part of it, in the 1930s. The book was published just after some important events in civil rights. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person and was arrested. In the same year fourteen year old Emmet Till was murdered after approaching a white woman in a store; an event which may have influenced Harper Lee. The novel takes place before the changes and conflicts of the Civil Rights era. Born in the 1930s, Lee lived through the important period of civil rights in the United States. Lee, like any author, must have been influenced by certain events; otherwise she would not have had her particular views on racism, justice and civil rights. Lee may have also based the events on the Scottsboro Trials in 1931. When she was five, nine young black men were accused of raping two white women on a train. After a series of trials, four of the men were sentenced to long prison sentences, even though prominent lawyers argued that the accusations were false. It was later discovered that the women lied. This event can be compared to the story, but as already mentioned, Scottsboro Trials were just an influence. Lee may have also been influenced by her father, because he was also a lawyer like Atticus Finch. Comparisons can also be made with Lee and Scout. Lee was six when the Scottsboro Trial takes place and Scout the same age when the trial of Tom Robinson takes place; both also set in the 1930s. The novel has traits of an autobiography; historians have direct engagement with someone who was part of history. In this case, Harper Lee can be...
Bibliography: Tosh, J. The Pursuit of History: 5TH Ed. (Pearson Education, 2010)
http://library.thinkquest.org/12111/SG/SG5.html (Information on what influenced Harper Lee to write the book)
Aptheker, H.B. (ed.), A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, (1951)
Jordan, W.D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (The University of North Carolina Press, 1995)
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