The Mockingbird's Brief

42 Pages Posted: 24 Jul 2017

See all articles by Mary Ellen Maatman

Mary Ellen Maatman

Widener University Delaware Law School

Date Written: January 2017


By comparing the texts of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird, this article explores what Harper Lee ultimately wanted to say in To Kill a Mockingbird, and why she said it the way that she did. The article’s thesis is that To Kill a Mockingbird can be understood as the “brief” written to make the case that Go Set a Watchman attempted to state: the massive resistance movement of the 1950’s was wrong.

This article examines the rhetorical situation Harper Lee confronted as she wrote Go Set a Watchman and then transformed it into To Kill a Mockingbird. This situation is defined by considering Harper Lee and her upbringing, her audience in the Deep South, and the need to speak to that audience as the White Citizens’ Council movement took hold in the region.

Go Set a Watchman was Lee’s first attempt to respond to the rhetorical situation posed by the Council movement’s purposes, methods, and rhetoric. In that work, Lee responded to this situation with a raw, morality-based counterargument to the Council movement. This argument had little chance of success, as segregationists at that time regarded themselves to be on the moral side of history.

Thus, this article examines how To Kill a Mockingbird works as “the Mockingbird’s brief.” If published in the 1950’s, Go Set a Watchman’s morality argument might have had traction with Southern moderates, but was unlikely to persuade segregationists. Yet, legal developments in desegregation litigation indicated that segregationists were willing to at least pay lip service to fairness principles. Thus, Harper Lee used the reworking of Go Set a Watchman into To Kill a Mockingbird to seize the rhetorical situation with a fairness argument calculated to win over her audience. The shift to fairness, which at first blush might be perceived as ducking segregationists’ punches, actually was a shift to greater effectiveness for the time and place for which Lee wrote.

This article concludes that Lee’s rhetorical strategy with To Kill a Mockingbird was effective. Ultimately, Harper Lee held a kind of reverse mirror up to segregationists by remaking her Atticus into a man who embodied what southern law and lawyers could be, if guided by fairness principles.

Keywords: To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, segregation, Alabama Citizens’ Council Movement

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Maatman, Mary Ellen, The Mockingbird's Brief (January 2017). Widener University Delaware Law School Legal Studies Research Paper Series No. 17-11, Cumberland Law Review, v. 47, 2017, Available at SSRN:

Mary Ellen Maatman (Contact Author)

Widener University Delaware Law School ( email )

4601 Concord Pike
Wilmington, DE 19803-0406
United States
302-477-2198 (Phone)
302-477-2255 (Fax)


Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics