This is our final non-literary reading for this course, and originally my intent was to have it serve as a bridge between To Kill a Mockingbird and a Toni Morrison novel – in other words, between a novel that deals with racism against Black men on the one hand and (the possibility of) sexual violence against white women on the other – and a novel in which oppression and violence against Black women are placed front and center. I am still firm in my conviction that cutting material was the best decision for our class, given the circumstances, but I mourn not being able to end with a literary text that might illuminate and complicate Crenshaw’s ideas. If reading through Crenshaw’s essay prompts you to draw connections to literary works you’re familiar with that aren’t on the syllabus, I invite you to discuss them on the blog.
That said, I’m excited to hear your thoughts on reading this essay on the heels of Mockingbird. How might Crenshaw inform our reading of this novel’s comment on race, gender, class, and the law? Are there passages in Crenshaw’s essay that strike you as especially resonant with Lee’s novel? Are there moments in the novel that spring to mind for you as you read this essay?
This week we finally get to the “law” part of the novel. There’s a ton to talk about. Here are some questions to get us going.
Chapters 17 and 18 are full of rich descriptive detail about the courthouse as well as the layout of the courtroom and the personalities involved in this trial. You know how to do a close reading of a trial scene by now – so go for it.
If you’re a would-be lawyer, and/or have background in thinking about legal strategy, and/or watch a lot ofprocedurals, this question might be especially fun for you: what might Atticus have done differently in court? Are there other possible defense strategies you could imagine him deploying?
The injustice carried out by the legal system in this novel is heinous, and it’s an injustice that of course reflects a long history of white supremacist violence and anxieties about Black sexuality. So… how does that square with the tone of the narrative as a whole, which is not bleak? How does Lee make any of this OK by the end? What narrative choices have to be made in order for the final pages of the novel to be, dare I say, happy?
The questions I asked on Tuesday still very much apply to the reading we’re doing for tomorrow. I’m especially eager to have you think about some of the specific moments in which Atticus’s three identities – lawyer, father, moral hero – get fused. During our virtual discussion on Tuesday (thanks to those of you who were able to join!) I suggested that we get a little more specific about what his heroism is comprised of – where it comes from, what kind of idealization of Atticus is possible in the text, and what the limits to his heroism might be. More broadly: what are the contours (and the limits) of the kind of liberalism that Atticus, and perhaps the novel, espouse? How critical is this novel (particularly the first half) of the institutions that structure life in Maycomb for Scout in the 1930s?
The words “lady” and “gentleman” come up a lot in the reading for tomorrow. How and why? Where do those terms come from? What purchase do they have and for whom? And what might they have to do with Tom Robinson’s trial, which by Ch. 14 is coming into partial view?
I will post questions about the reading at least 24 hours before our scheduled class time, and each time I will use the tag “Discussion Questions” so that you can easily find them using the sidebar.
Many of you have read this novel before, likely in high school. I invite you to spend some time reflecting on what it’s like to return to this text after so much time. What do you remember about reading it the first time around? How was it taught? If you have fond memories of it, why? If you have less than fond memories, where do they come from? What’s different now – because you are older and/or because you’re reading it in the context of a Literature and Law course?
Take a look at the book’s epigraph. The central plot event, Atticus’s trial, hasn’t gotten going yet in these first chapters. But in what ways are Atticus’s vocation and the law already important to this story about childhood in a Depression-era southern Alabama town? How is Atticus’s identity as a lawyer tied in with his role as a father to Scout and Jem? What laws – of custom or nature, for instance – govern life in the Finch household, the neighborhood, Maycomb? What are the operative ideas about justice, right and wrong, that govern Scout and Jem’s lives as children? Where do those ideas come from?
Less a question than a piece of advice on reading historically: Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird in the late 1950s. It is set about two decades earlier. As Sara Schwebel puts it, To Kill a Mockingbird is “doubly historical”: it is ostensibly about Alabama in the 1930s, but it also has much to tell us about the preoccupations and anxieties of the moment of its composition and publication, which was the inaugural moment of the Civil Rights Movement. How might we read with that double historical frame in mind?
This is where you’ll publish your eight required blog posts, find out what your classmates are thinking about the reading, and do whatever else you feel like to create a vibrant online community to supplement our in-class time. We’ll do a WordPress tutorial in class next week.
The syllabus contains detailed information about what I’m looking for in your posts. A couple of technical instructions: Please do make use of the categories I’ve created, one for each major text or topic we’re covering; if you write a post about The Furies you should select the Furies category before you publish. This will make it easy for me and your classmates to search for all posts on a particular text or topic. Please also make use of tags to identify some keywords that might usefully be associated with what you’re writing about. So if you’re really focused on gender in The Furies, for example, you might create (or select, if it’s been created already) a “gender” tag for your post. Tags will help us draw connections across texts and contexts.
The idea of having you publish your writing on a blog rather than, say, just write me response papers or complete in-class quizzes is to encourage you to really engage your classmates – write for them and also read their writing to help enrich your experience with the material. I encourage (but do not require) you to regularly comment on each other’s posts.