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The Green Mile | Context


The Great Depression

Most of The Green Mile takes place in 1932. This was at the height of the Great Depression (1929–39), a decade-long period of worldwide economic struggle that followed a decade of enormous economic expansion after World War I (1914–18). Life was good in the 1920s United States. People had reliable jobs and a fair amount of expendable income. Many chose to invest their extra money in the stock market. Teachers, janitors, businessmen, and even the wealthy put their savings in stocks with the hope the value of the stocks would increase.

The stock market reached its highest point in August 1929. But the country's economic expansion was slowing. Companies weren't putting out as much product, which meant employee wages went down. Unemployment numbers rose. People didn't have money to buy non-necessities, so manufactured goods piled up on the shelves. Decreased demand meant decreased production, which meant fewer employees. But, stock prices continued to rise, and people kept buying stocks. It got to the point where the values of the stocks (what the stocks should trade for on the market) was greater than their prices (actual amounts of trade).

Investors grew more and more worried as the fall of 1929 progressed. Their panic came to a head on Thursday, October 24, 1929, when 12.9 million shares of stock were traded. Five days later another 16 million shares were traded. This event became known as Black Tuesday. This massive exodus from the stock market caused stocks to plummet in value across the board. Millions of people suddenly owned stocks worth nothing at all. They lost all the money they invested. People who borrowed money to purchase stocks in the first place were deeper in debt than before.

The stock market crash of October 1929 wasn't the only cause for the Great Depression. Farmers were hit from both sides by an ongoing drought and falling food prices. They weren't making enough money for the few crops they were able to grow. When it came time for the next harvest, they didn't have enough money to hire help. Crops rotted in the fields. Farmers couldn't make a living, and people across the country were starving. Meanwhile people afraid of losing everything were pulling their money out of banks in droves. Loans had to be closed, or liquidated, to come up with enough cash. Thousands of banks were closed by early 1933.

Historians agree the unemployment rate peaked between 1932 and 1933. Nationwide more than 20% of employment-age Americans were out of work. Things were especially bad in the American South, where agriculture, the backbone of the Southern economy, was failing. Farmers weren't making any money on their cash crops, or plants produced for sale at market. Without money they couldn't support local merchants, who had to go out of business. Jobs were extremely hard to come by. So those who had steady employment did whatever they could to make sure they didn't end up in the breadlines, too. This is why Percy Wetmore's threats of unemployment are so effective in The Green Mile. Paul Edgecombe and the other guards know it will be nearly impossible to find other jobs, especially if they are blacklisted from government employment altogether.

Racism in Jim Crow–Era South

Minorities suffered even worse than their white counterparts during the Great Depression. Any available jobs were generally reserved for white workers, who were willing to take whatever positions they could get, even low-paying ones, during this era of economic instability. African-Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos all had difficulty making ends meet. Malnutrition and hunger were rampant among minority populations, which led to disease and death. This type of institutionalized racism was particularly rampant during the Jim Crow era, a time named for laws that targeted African-Americans.

Named after a popular mid-19th-century minstrel character (part of a show where white actors performed disrespectful representations of African-Americans for the purpose of comedy) that epitomized the "happy slave," the Jim Crow era began shortly after the end of the Civil War (1861–65). Congress had passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which combined gave African-Americans rights equal to those of white American citizens. That didn't sit well with many Southerners who were afraid equal rights meant a decrease in their own status and success. To ensure their supremacy, white state legislatures enacted "black codes" that put limits on what black people could do. One such code in Louisiana forced black people to take a literacy test before they could vote. Because education was not readily available for black children of school age, this restriction prevented many African-Americans from exercising their Constitutional right to vote.

Black codes led to a system of racial segregation throughout the South. Segregation, and the Jim Crow laws that enforced it, was based on five pillars of oppression: economic, political, legal, social, and formal. Upper- and middle-class white people were afraid blacks and low-income whites would band together and overthrow the white ruling class. Their solution was to forbid poor blacks and whites from working in the same facilities. That left blacks with the lowest paying jobs or no jobs at all. Voting restrictions kept blacks out of the political process. If they couldn't vote, they couldn't elect people to fight for their rights at the local, state, and national levels. The legal system was also skewed in favor of whites as nearly all judges and juries were composed of white citizens, even if the person on trial was black. Furthermore, African-Americans weren't allowed to testify against white people on trial themselves.

The social aspect of the Jim Crow laws is what one usually thinks of when one thinks of segregation. Segregated states had separate bathrooms, drinking fountains, theaters, waiting rooms, and even hospitals, banks, and schools. In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation was legal as long as "separate but equal" facilities were provided for everyone. But that seemed to be little more than lip service. None of the facilities open to blacks were even close to being equal to those open to whites. Schools, where they existed, were literally falling down, and black hospitals existed only in large urban areas. Throughout the entire South blacks had limited access to public libraries or were relegated to separate libraries.

These restrictions didn't just separate the races. They also further solidified the commonly held belief that whites were superior to blacks. Many white people felt no moral or personal obligation to be polite to African-Americans. In many places white people threatened, beat, raped, tortured, and killed black people with no consequences. On the opposite end of the spectrum, blacks were expected to be unfailingly courteous to whites at all times for fear of harassment, personal harm, imprisonment, and even murder. This is the state of affairs that causes John Coffey, an innocent black man, to be sentenced to death in The Green Mile for a crime he didn't commit. He's not guilty of killing two little white girls. He's guilty of being black.

Capital Punishment in the United States

The Green Mile deals with capital punishment, or the legal killing of a person as punishment for their crime. The practice of killing criminal offenders came to what is now known as the United States with the first British settlers. In 1608 George Kendall, a Virginian, was executed for allegedly plotting to betray Great Britain on behalf of Spain. Within the decade capital punishment spread throughout the colonies. Depending on where one lived, one could be executed for killing chickens, trading with Indians, striking one's parents, or denying the "true God." Laws have changed since then. Today's use of the death penalty is limited to cases of murder and treason.

Until 1890 nearly all executions were hangings, which resulted in either strangulation or decapitation. Conducted mostly by local sheriffs, hangings eventually earned a reputation for being inordinately cruel. New York Governor David B. Hill spearheaded the movement to find a more humane way to carry out death sentences in 1886. Electricity was still in its infancy at the end of the 19th century. People were fascinated by it, and several unfortunate souls unintentionally proved it could cause quick, clean deaths by touching poorly insulted wires and high-voltage devices.

Proponents of the electric chair said it was a faster, more effective, and much less painful method of killing criminals than other methods of execution. By 1949 26 states had adopted the electric chair as their capital punishment of choice. This includes Louisiana, where The Green Mile most likely takes place. (If the story does indeed take place in Louisiana, as is widely believed by readers and movie audiences, the use of the electric chair is an historical inaccuracy. The main events of The Green Mile take place in 1932, but the first use of the electric chair in Louisiana was in 1941.) Today the electric chair is used in less than 14% of executions. Like its predecessor, it has been replaced with a newer, supposedly more humane method of death, the lethal injection. In recent years, lethal injection has also come under scrutiny regarding its humaneness.

The mechanics of the electric chair have changed slightly over time, but the general idea is still the same. The condemned prisoner is strapped into a wooden, throne-like chair. In The Green Mile the prisoner's ankles and wrists are strapped down; modern electric chairs have additional clamps to hold the body still. The electrical current coursing through the body is so strong it can cause violent muscle contractions, which results in broken bones and joints. That's why the prisoner is strapped down. Electricity enters the body at the left ankle and travels to the brain. In The Green Mile the electricity flows from the left leg clamp to the steel cap. Today it goes between two small cathodes, one placed on the left leg and one on the head. Both methods create a pathway for the electricity to flow. As Paul Edgecombe says in The Green Mile, this essentially creates an "electric bullet to the brain."

The most important part of the process is the sponge soaked in brine, or salt water. In The Green Mile the sponge is placed underneath the steel cap; today a sponge is placed between each cathode and the skin. The saline ions in the brine serve as a bridge between the prisoner's body and electrodes. Electricity naturally follows ions, which means there's a much smaller chance of electricity flowing outside the body. If the sponge isn't used or left dry, the condemned person's body will most likely catch on fire. This is the situation in the fourth book of the serial novel, The Bad Death of Eduard Delacroix.

Revival of the Serial Story

The Green Mile was initially published as a serial novel. Different from a series, a serial novel is one story told in several installments either in a magazine or newspaper or in a free-standing book. Serial novels were all the rage in the Victorian era (1837–1901), but they originated more than a century earlier. At the end of the 17th century English law imposed a higher tax on the paper newspapers used for publication. To get around that many newspapers began using a different, larger paper which allowed them to classify themselves as pamphlets. The bigger sheets had a lot of space to fill, which led to publishers asking authors to write ongoing stories. The first serial story, The London Spy, was published in 1698.

This was a win-win situation for the papers. Not only did they avoid paying the tax increase, but many saw increased revenues thanks to the serial stories now running in their "pamphlets." A captivating story could double a newspaper's readership, which was also a boon for advertisers. Serials became so popular that they continued even after the newspaper tax was repealed.

There are two methods of publishing serials. The first and most common is in popular newspapers or magazines. Writers would be contracted to provide a story for each issue of publication for a set period of time, usually around two years. Many authors, especially those who were less well known, preferred this medium because sales weren't entirely contingent on their ability to keep the reader interested. The second publishing model is the part issue, which is a small, stand-alone volume with a cheap cover sold at a low price. This is how author Stephen King published The Green Mile in 1996. The risk with this model is that revenue is based entirely on the writer's talent. If the writing was poor or the story wasn't interesting, people stopped purchasing the books. This made part issues a major gamble for writers and publishers. Of the 192 serial novels published between 1836 and 1839, only 28 were part issue.

Charles Dickens was perhaps the most popular serial author of the Victorian era. He was one of the few authors who found success with part issues, though he also published in newspapers and magazines. His work was so beloved that readers in the United States waited at the docks for the delivery of the British publications that carried his stories. British novelist William Thackeray also found success with part issues, of which Vanity Fair (1848) is his most famous. English novelist George Eliot, Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and American writers Henry James and Harriet Beecher Stowe also wrote serials.

Serial novels fell out of fashion at the end of the 19th century as people became less keen on sprawling Victorian stories about morality. Audiences of the 20th century were more interested in sparse and introspective "modern novels." Serial stories jumped from the page to other forms of media that quickly gained traction, including radio programs, movies, and television.

The serial novel made a brief resurgence at the end of the 20th century. American author Tom Wolfe wrote the first draft of Bonfire of the Vanities as a serial story for Rolling Stone in 1984–85. After 20 subsequent months of rewrites the final version was published as a novel in 1987. American writer Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City originated in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1976 and served as the basis for his nine related novels. But no modern author has had as much commercial success with a serial novel as Stephen King did with 1996's The Green Mile.

In the fall of 1995 King and his foreign rights agent, Ralph Vicinanza, hatched a plan to release a story in six separate installments, one per month for six months. It would be released as a part issue, which made King's publisher more than a little nervous. The price had to be low enough that people wouldn't mind buying six installments yet high enough to actually make a profit. King wrote furiously to meet the aggressive deadlines. He hadn't even figured out how the novel was going to end when the first installment hit stores in March 1996. That's one of the many challenges of writing a serial novel—there's no chance to revise early chapters after the later chapters have been written. The other challenge of serial novels is keeping readers engaged and itching to read the next book. That wasn't a problem. Eighteen million individual installments of The Green Mile sold during that spring and summer, as well as millions of copies of the compiled editions.

The Green Mile is now mostly available in the traditional novel format, but unlike Wolfe, King didn't revise the original stories before the publication of the single-volume version. The problem with that is King used the first and sometimes second chapters of the last five books in the series to summarize what happened in the previous book. That's necessary for a novel with chapters released 30 days apart, but it grows tiresome and repetitive for the reader moving immediately from the end of one "book" to the beginning of the next. This slows the story's momentum and creates dips in its rising tension. The Green Mile is best enjoyed when it is read as the author intended, one book at a time with a few weeks in between books.

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