There was a moment of comic relief during Claudia Durst Johnson's lecture this week on "To Kill a Mockingbird" at the Harold Washington Library Center.
Johnson, an expert on Lee's classic work, had been talking about the literary underpinnings of the book and about the novel's parallels to the true-life Scottsboro trials, in which nine black men, like Lee's character, Tom Robinson, were unlawfully convicted of raping a white woman.
The audience of about 100 softly laughed, with perhaps a touch of confusion. But Johnson quickly explained. In many ways, she said, Lee's novel was about the human tendency to demonize those who are different.
Dill, one of the children in Lee's book, is fascinated with the Dracula legend, having just seen Lugosi's film version. And he becomes obsessed with the neighborhood recluse, Arthur "Boo" Radley, picturing him as a bogey-man. Yet, in the end, it's Boo who saves the lives of Scout, the novel's narrator, and her brother Jem, from a drunken attacker.
"He becomes not a devil, but an angel, a guardian angel," Johnson said.
A week of "Mockingbird" events
Johnson's lecture was one of dozens of events and book discussions being held throughout Chicago (and some suburbs) this week as part of the Chicago Public Library's One Book, One Chicago initiative, aimed at getting the entire city reading and talking about the same book to boost civic cohesiveness and a love of literature.
Other activities included Chicago Bar Association-sponsored performances of the courtroom scene from the book, as adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel in 1970, and the use of the novel by Literacy Chicago to help adults learn how to read.
Johnson, a retired University of Alabama English professor, had just visited Lee in her Alabama hometown of Monroeville. "I've never seen her so excited and so interested in something as Chicago's plan," Johnson told her audience Monday. Since publishing her novel, Lee, now 75, has been something of a recluse herself, living a quiet life in New York and Alabama and refusing all interview requests.
As any reader of the book knows, Robinson, the black laborer unfairly accused and convicted of raping the white Mayella Ewell, spends virtually the entire novel, except when he's on trial for his life, in a jail or prison.
Yet, Johnson noted that everyone in the book has been caught one way or another in a literal or figurative prison. "Boo" Radley is held prisoner by his family inside their home. Mayella is held prisoner by her father to take care of his other six children and keep house.
Even the clear-eyed Scout, who prefers overalls to dresses, complains about her Aunt Alexandra's attempts to turn her into a "lady." At one point, Scout says, "I felt the starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary closing in on me."
Of course, the greatest prison is the one made up of laws, traditions and attitudes that keep the African-American people in the novel locked into second-class citizenship. This is the prison that Scout's father Atticus Finch seeks to break down in his closing argument, Johnson noted.
Mayella and her father, although obviously lying, are confident, Atticus says to the jury, "that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption -- the evil assumption -- that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their caliber."
Yet, even Atticus wasn't completely free of the prison of his white upbringing, observed WLS-Ch. 7 news anchor Joel Daly.
It was the day after Johnson's lecture, and Daly had just finished portraying the heroic lawyer as part of the bar association's performance of the trial scene for 200 middle-school students in the Parsons Memorial Courtroom in the Dirksen Federal Building. A second performance was held for the public later in the day.
Noting that Atticus had apparently never tried, as a state legislator, to change laws that perpetuated the oppression of blacks, Daly told the racially and ethnically mixed group of students from three Chicago schools, "He was caught in his own society as well."
The courtroom scene in Sergel's adaptation, like the 1962 film, closely follows Lee's novel, but the bar association performances were sharply different in one respect: the demeanor of Tom Robinson on the witness stand.
A combative Tom Robinson
As portrayed by Latham Williams, Robinson was far from the meek, fearful defendant in earlier versions. Instead, he was aggressive, exasperated, even combative in his testimony. In fact, during one exchange with the prosecuting attorney, Robinson angrily retorted, "I was afraid I'd have to face up to what I didn't do!"
Williams, a lawyer with the employment search firm of TMP Worldwide, said the change was made to accommodate expectations of a post-civil rights movement America. "Modern audiences would expect a more aggressive defendant," he said. Yet, even in 1930s Alabama, not all blacks would have been as passive as Robinson was depicted in Lee's book and the Gregory Peck movie. "If it were Frederick Douglass or W.E.B. duBois, he would have done more to take on the system," Williams said.
One of the more unusual "Mockingbird" events was a program in which adults, learning to read through Literacy Chicago, listened to the book being read aloud at the organization's Loop office and then discussed it. "We wanted our students to be part of the great Chicago reading club," said June Porter, adult literacy coordinator for the group.
So as Dr. Eugene Winkler of First United Methodist Church read the courtroom scene Tuesday afternoon, eight reading students -- some immigrants, some products of the Chicago public school system -- took it in and then answered questions from Porter.
One of those students was Elaine Townsel, who has been in the program for two years. She was excited because, with the help of her tutor, she had been able to find out in an encyclopedia just what a mockingbird is.
She passed around a photocopy of the encyclopedia's drawing of the bird. And, then, with a big smile, she told why the bird has its name.
"The mockingbird," she said, "he imitates the other birds."