Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Prolepsis and Anachronism: Emmet till and the Historicity of to Kill a Mockingbird

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Prolepsis and Anachronism: Emmet till and the Historicity of to Kill a Mockingbird

Article excerpt

Though there is a strong consensus that To Kill a Mockingbird is deeply oriented within the history of the Depression era, no analysis has attempted to separate the historical conditions of the moment of the text's production in the mid 1950s from the historical present of the novel, the mid 1930s. Such analysis is revealing, first because under scrutiny the novel's 1930s history is exposed as at times quite flawed in its presentation of facts. The WPA, for example, did not exist until 1935, but it is mentioned in the novel's fourth chapter, which is set in 1933. Eleanor Roosevelt did not violate segregation law by sitting with black audience members at the Southern Conference on Human Welfare in Birmingham until 1938, but this event is mentioned by Mrs. Merriweather during the fall of 1935. More important than these several occasional chronological lapses, however, is the novel's participation in racial and social ideology that characterized not the Depression era but the early civil rights era. Because the text's 1930s history is superficial, the novel is best understood as an amalgam or cross-historical montage, its "historical present" diluted by the influence of events and ideology concurrent with its period of production. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, for example, stimulated a national debate in which Lee's novel participates and upon which it offers forceful commentary. As fundamental a presence in To Kill a Mockingbird is the structural and ideological detail of the Emmett Till trial of 1955,(1) which upon close consideration seems unquestionably to have provided a workable model for aspects of Lee's fictional Tom Robinson trial. In other words, racial events and ideology of the 1950s--the period concurrent with the novel's production--leach into the depiction of Lee's 1930s history, orienting large sections the text not to the Depression era but to social conditions of the civil rights era. The mid 1950s/early civil rights era is therefore the context from which the novel is best understood as the intersection of cultural and literary ideology.

Lee herself hints at the contradictions contained within conflicting historical periodicity when she informs the reader early in the novel that its events are depicted from a somewhat distant perspective, "when enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them" (3). Simply because neither the author nor even Scout, her first person narrator and authorial surrogate, can experience the 1930s within the 1930s but must interpret from a later moment invested with its own discrete historical perspective, historical prolepsis--the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished--is inevitable, and it is an indication that Lee's 1930s historical background, though developed in some detail, should not be allowed to obscure the real conditions which governed the text's production in the years from roughly 1955 to 1959.

Central issues of Harper Lee's fictional Tom Robinson case, along with cultural tensions ascendant in the aftermath of the May 17, 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, are located in the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered by two white men in the Mississippi Delta on August 28, 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman in a store in Money, Mississippi. There is a long list of similarities both circumstantial and deeply ideological between the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till and Lee's account of the conviction and murder of Tom Robinson, similarities which point to the common origin of both texts in a particularly troubled period in the southern history of race.

During the mid to late 1950s, race relations in the Deep South were of course defined and dominated by the Brown decision, which negated the doctrine of "separate but equal" that had since Plessy v. Ferguson been the basis of the South's segregated way of life. …

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