Exploring Harper Lee’s Southern wisdom

tamrawilson Uncategorized

mockingbirdRoxboro, NC is hosting a community read about To Kill a Mockingbird. Recently the Person County Public Library asked me to discuss the book as my work as a Road Scholar with the North Carolina Humanities Council.

I shared how Harper Lee’s seminal novel set the standard for what we’ve come to expect not only in a child-narrated story, but Southern stories in general. To Kill a Mockingbird is essentially the tale of Scout Finch and her widowed father Atticus, a respected Alabama lawyer. Atticus Finch defends a black man named Tom Robinson who faces fabricated rape charges. Robinson’s trial and tangent events expose Scout and her brother Jem to evils of racism and stereotyping.

The Pulitzer Prize winning novel is regarded as one of the landmarks of American literature and is required reading in many high schools. The story is set in “Maycomb,” a town similar to Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, AL, but its themes rings true for many places in the South and elsewhere during the 1930s and beyond. Harper Lee’s narrative was adapted to a stage play and a screenplay. 

My talk touches on how Lee crafted Scout’s voice in the book and how the book in general illustrates the six essential commonalities of Southern storytelling–a strong sense of place along with race, religion, liquor, a missing parent (or lost fortune) and a chifforobe. Yes, those half-wardrobe, half-chest of drawers appear in many Southern stories. Chifforobes are relics of the past that are often depicted in unfamiliar surroundings, which is part of the point. The South is one of those places that tends to move forward looking backward.

chiffoA chifforobe is what Tom Robinson, a black man, is asked to “bust up” in the crucial scene between him and a poor white girl, Mayella Ewell. His decision to walk into her yard and destroy the chifforobe at her request leads to his undoing.

Chifforobes are designed for private spaces (boudoirs) and contain private things (underwear). Chifforobes represent strict social structures—places to hide family secrets. Bringing those private matters into the light shows how some conventions are going to change, and change they do.

I came upon this revelation studying Southern literature in graduate school and the more Southern stories I read, the more chifforobes I found, along with those other elements. I wrote an essay a couple of years ago in storySouth, a literary journal in which I mentioned having found 86 chifforobes in prominent Southern novels, memoirs and stories. My count continues. You can read my “chifforobe” article here: http://www.storysouth.com/2013/09/the-chifforobe.html

The more of these Southern elements a story has, the more Southern it is. To Kill a Mockingbird prominently employs all six.

As a master’s degree candidate, I worked on a book-length manuscript with a child narrator. The thesis explored all six “Southern” literary elements including the chifforobe, which shows how profoundly influenced I’ve been by Harper Lee and how living in the South for 36 years has seeped into my own stories.