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 understanding of the book and your participation in our Goodreads discussions and teach-in event at the Museum on September 20.
“Are we poor, Atticus?”
Atticus nodded. “We are indeed.”
-To Kill A Mockingbird, Chapter Two
The narrator of To Kill A Mockingbird, the adult version of the novel’s protagonist, Scout Finch, describes the fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama, as a place where poverty slowed the pace of life. “A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with…” she recalls. Through Scout’s words, author Harper Lee could have been describing much of America in the 1930s when millions of Americans struggled to survive during the Great Depression.
At the end of the 1920s, the virtual collapse of the American economy caused the Great Depression—panic set in when the stock market crashed on “Black Tuesday,” October 29, 1929. By the Fall of 1932, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, an important stock market index, lost 89 percent of its value. As Americans lost faith in their banking system, they began withdrawing their meager remaining funds en masse. “Bank runs,” as they were dubbed, caused thousands of banks to shudder their doors; their coffers were emptied. As banks failed, so did businesses, leaving millions out of work. In March, 1933, 30 percent of the US civilian labor force was unemployed, the highest percentage in American history.
The Great Depression hit the rural South hardest, where To Kill A Mockingbird is set. Throughout the 1920s, natural disasters, including a boll weevil infestation and widespread flooding devastated southern fields and with them, the region’s economy. The Great Depression only exacerbated these miserable conditions. Cotton prices fell from 18 cents per pound in 1929 to only six cents per pound in 1932. In To Kill A Mockingbird, we see two types of farmers that were deeply affected by the Depression: the Cunninghams, a family of white subsistence farmers, and the Robinsons, an African American family who worked as seasonal farm hands (probably sharecroppers). In the novel’s second chapter, Atticus explains to Jem and Scout that the crash hit folks like the Cunninghams hardest, and that their hardship had ripple effects on the whole town’s economy. The novel’s narrator, an adult Scout looking back on her childhood, recalls her father Atticus explaining that “professional people were poor because the farmers were poor. As Maycomb County was farm country, nickels and dimes were hard to come by for doctors and dentists and lawyers.” Instead of nickles or dimes, the Cunninghams pay Atticus in crops.”
Atticus was not completely right, however: families like the Robinsons, not the Cunninghams, experienced the worst of the Depression. Fifty percent of all African Americans, most of whom lived in the South, were unemployed by 1932. Many worked as farm hands like the Robinsons. In 1935 Georgia, 88 percent of black farmers worked land they did not own. Searching for economic opportunity and safety from pervasive racial violence in the Jim Crow South, record numbers of African Americans began migrating north and west starting in 1914. After 1930, migration slowed as African Americans were shut out of jobs in favor of whites. As unemployment grew and general frustrations mounted, blacks bore the brunt of it. Between 1877 and 1950, almost 4,000 African Americans were lynched in the South.
After President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933, he signed the Federal Emergency Relief Act into law. This act created the first system of federal programs designed to get food, money, and medicine directly to citizens in need. These programs along with others were designed to manage the banking crisis, regulate currency, and create jobs. Together, they became the New Deal. Americans had mixed views on government relief—some saw it as a ray of hope, others a challenge to their dignity. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Mr. Cunningham rejects relief aid and is “willing to go hungry” to not take a government job and keep farming. The novel’s antagonist, Bob Ewell, eagerly accepts relief checks, never looks for work, and wastes his money. These characters represent extremes: millions of Americans accepted relief and lived as best they could. Listen here as Studs Terkel, a famous oral historian, interviews Eileen Barthe, a government relief caseworker during the Depression who cannot forget the hurt pride of one man forced to ask for help.
What are your thoughts on the Robinsons, Ewells, Cunninghams, and other characters in To Kill A Mockingbird who were affected by the Great Depression? Head over to our Goodreads page where you’ll soon find discussion questions on these themes, including the “moral universe” of the novel.