Reading Beyond To Kill a Mockingbird
ARTICLE BY DR NICOLE KING, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD • 13 March 2023
To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) is a text that many people credit with shaping their early understandings of justice, compassion, and American racial prejudice. Rather than an endpoint, however, TKAM, offers a gateway to other American authors who were concerned with similar issues but wrote about them from varied perspectives and in distinct literary styles. In TKAM, the wrongful charges brought against Tom Robinson derive from racist mythologies of black sexuality and violence and, in particular, the danger black men posed to white women who are imagined through impossible ideals of femininity and purity. Lee’s central character Scout (Jean Louise), and the supporting character Miss Maudie, offer alternatives to such representations of vulnerable white girlhood and womanhood embodied by Tom’s supposed victim, Mayella Ewell. Novels and plays by other authors of Harper Lee’s generation also address these and other American myths and challenge the perspectives of their audience through the magic of telling a good story. Here are four suggestions of critically acclaimed books to explore in tandem with TKAM. Each broadens the landscape of American life and culture in unique ways.
Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison
If Tom Robinson had the opportunity to leave Maycomb County and travel North he might have had a series of adventures like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. In this novel, acknowledged as one of the greatest of the 20th century, the nameless titular character experiences a type of invisibility because whomever he encounters, whether at college or at work, in the South or in the North, friend or enemy, has a pre-conceived idea of who he is, what he should be doing and what he is worth as a black man. No one is able to truly see him and this makes his life both absurd and frightening. Influenced by Dostoevsky, Melville and Hemingway, Ellison uses humour, his deep knowledge of jazz music, and American history in his portrait of the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s. When accepting the National Book Award for Invisible Man, Ellison declared that the central task of any writer as “always to challenge the apparent forms of reality.” Using the prism of African American experiences Invisible Man questions the contradictions of American life including the types of racial prejudice and class conflict that Harper Lee presents in her novel.
A Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry
In 1959, A Raisin in The Sun was the first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. It received rave reviews, multiple awards, and, like Lee’s novel, it was quickly made into a successful Hollywood movie. A Raisin in the Sun is set in the North, on the south side of Chicago. In contrast to the comfortable, patrician life of the Finches, the black Younger family struggle economically. They are motivated by the American Dream of self-determination unfettered by predetermined positions of class or caste and must decide how best to spend a small inheritance. The option to move their multi-generational family out of their cramped, over-priced apartment and into a modest house in a modest neighbourhood prevails, yet Hansberry resists a simplistic ending. We don’t know what happens, but we do know that the Younger’s prospective new neighbours, who are white, are violently opposed to their arrival. Hansberry’s drama is about the ethics of fair play and thus it shares many elements with TKAM. Atticus Finch, Calpurnia and Boo Radley are each motivated at key moments to act ethically and to inspire others to do the same.
Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) by Paule Marshall
Also published in 1959, Brown Girl, Brownstones is the coming-of-age story of Selina Boyce. Selina is the daughter of immigrants: her parents have moved to Brooklyn, New York from the Caribbean island of Barbados, and much of the action of the novel takes place during and following World War II. This is a particularly good novel to read if you want to enter a world of richly drawn, varied female characters. As she develops from girlhood to adolescence and adulthood, Selina is iconoclastic and, like Scout, disdainful of behaving as girls were expected to at the time, particularly with regards to respectability. Similarly, Selina’s mother is a woman who refuses to live according to limits presumed by other people because she is black, female and born abroad. If Calpurnia were more fully realised in TKAM, she would no doubt share Selina and Silla’s commitment to female self-determination. Brown Girl, Brownstones does not gloss over anti-black racism and it also addresses tensions between different communities of black people, in a vein similar to Ellison’s Invisible Man. A question at the heart of the novel, and developed through the older Selina and her father, is can space be made for art and spiritual fulfilment in a country or a community where success is coldly measured in wages and property?
A Lesson Before Dying (1993) by Ernest J. Gaines
A Lesson Before Dying is set in a Cajun community in 1940s Louisiana. It traces many of the same themes of racial prejudice, Christianity and the haunting of American life by the legacies of slavery that are evident in TKAM. At the centre of Gaines’s novel is a young black man, Jefferson, who faces death by electrocution for a murder he did not commit. The narrative then goes on to show the effect on the community – white and black, wealthy and poor, old and young – as they try to come to terms with Jefferson’s legally-sanctioned execution. Whilst depicting the rigid divisions of social and cultural life in the township, Gaines sensitively portrays the challenges of considering ideals of justice amongst people who have different perspectives on morality, power, the future, and the past in the context of a racist legal system. A Lesson Before Dying powerfully presents American identities and America’s understanding of justice: much like Maycomb, the town of Bayonne must find a way to face both its historical and its contemporary demons.