“Reading into Mockingbird” is a series of posts about the historical themes in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the Reading into History Teen Summer’s 2015 read. Through these posts, we will provide historical background to enhance your reading of the book and your participation in our Goodreads discussions and teach-in event at the Museum on September 20.
“Everybody in Maycomb, it seemed, had a Streak: a Drinking Streak, a Gambling Streak, a Mean Streak, a Funny Streak.”
– To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 13
As we read further into To Kill a Mockingbird this summer, we see the two forces of race and class pulling at the main characters in direct and subtle ways. Tom Robinson, the African American man fasely accused of rape, and the poor, white Ewell family, specifically the father Bob and eldest daughter Mayella, are all subject to the preconceived biases of the people of Maycomb. To understand the history of Harper Lee’s language describing these characters, we need to examine an ideology started in the 19th century called eugenics.
The book that inspired this dark chapter in American history is Hereditary Genius: an inquiry into its laws and consequences by Sir Francis Galton, a copy of which is in the Patricia Klingenstein Library at the New-York Historical Society. Galton coined the term “eugenics,” which roughly means “good origins” in Greek, in 1883. In Hereditary Genius Galton manipulated what was known about heredity and genetics to suggest that if humans with the best qualities had children, and humans with the worst qualities did not, then the human race could eventually become free from disease or impairment of any kind.
Similarly, Social Darwinists held that the “fittest” people must naturally be at the top of society, and therefore concluded that white, wealthy, educated people were naturally the best people. Building on this idea, Galton created broad classifications like “feeblemindedness” and “degeneracy” to identify populations with the worst qualities, primarily African Americans and poor whites. Eugenics was used to prove that “unfit” people needed to be prevented from passing their “degeneracy” on to future generations. By the early 20th century, laws were established that limited the number of children people could have, particularly those identified as genetically “immoral and inferior.”
In addition to legal precedents, eugenic ideology seeped into American cultural views on race and class, and they are written all over the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird. An example of class bias is in the description of the novel’s main antagonists, the members of the poor white Ewell family. You’ll find that eugenicists’ descriptions of actually families bear a striking resemblance to the descriptions of the fictional Ewells.
The Eugenics Record Office, an organization founded in 1910 in Cold Springs Harbor, NY, used the findings from an 1877 study of a New York family to create and publish their own pseudo-scientific study of “degenerate” families. Entitled The Jukes; a study in crime, pauperism, disease, and heredity (a copy of which is held by the Klingenstein Library), it concluded that the Jukes were genetically and incurably degenerate in their habits and abilities.
The Jukes’ home, as described by eugenicist Arthur Estabrook:
Between huge clefts in the rock are small patches of land once the home of the early Jukes, but now desolate except for the wild animals which live in the caves once used by the Jukes as both homes and places in which to hide stolen booty…Most of the original Jukes were squatters on the soil and became owners by occupancy. They lived in stone or log houses, usually of one or at the most two rooms, the men, women, and children intermingling freely.
Compare this to the description of the Ewell’s property: “Maycomb’s Ewells lived behind the town garbage dump in what was once a Negro cabin…Nobody was quite sure how many children were on the place. Some people said six, others said nine; there were always several dirty-faced ones at the windows when anyone passed by.” (Chapter 17)
In Scout’s initial description of the Ewells, she notes that “no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms, and the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings.” The Ewells are depicted as Maycomb’s burden. “No economic fluctuations changed their status—people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a depression.” In all, the Ewells are made out to be as repulsive as possible, both for how they destroy Tom Robinson’s life, and for how they “let down” the white race, as well.
While the Ewells are examples of how eugenics reinforced negative stereotypes of poor whites, the primary and most destructive preoccupation of the eugenics movement was the protection of the white race from “inferior” blacks. To Kill a Mockingbird’s plot shows the horrifying repercussions of this when African American Tom Robinson is accused of raping white Mayella Ewell. To us, Robinson is clearly proven innocent through Atticus Finch’s defense, but the all-white Maycomb jury convicts him of this crime.
Eugenics was a keystone in Adolf Hitler’s ideology, and towards the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout’s class discusses Hitler’s treatment of the Jews during a current events report. Scout’s classmate Cecil notes that Hitler is persecuting Jews and “washin’ all the feeble-minded.” The class’s teacher Miss Gates asserts that “over here, we don’t believe in persecuting anybody,” an obviously incorrect statement, in light of the events surrounding these characters.
In real life, some Alabamans were interested in Hitler’s methods. State Public Health Officer Dr. James Norment Baker said in 1934 that “the whole civilized world will watch, with keen interest, the bold experiment launched by Germany…” and Eugenics Record Office co-founder Harry Laughlin was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg for advancing the “science of racial cleansing.”
The Nazis’ use of eugenic theory so outraged the world that America was forced to confront its own use of these ideas. Eugenic laws and organizations fizzled in the 1950s and ‘60s, though these ideas have never completely vanished from the way some Americans articulate race and class.
As you read To Kill a Mockingbird, do you see other instances of Maycomb county locals expressing eugenic theory? How about in the world today? To discuss these issues and the book in depth, head to our Goodreads page.