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To Kill A Mockingbird
Harper Lee

REFERENCE

THE CRITICS

When it appeared in 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird was a first novel by an unknown author. The great majority of such books are read by a few thousand, or only a few hundred, persons, and then drop quickly out of sight. To Kill a Mockingbird was a rare exception to the rule. It was widely read and received high praise at its publication, and it maintained a steady popularity into the 1980s.

To Kill a Mockingbird is still a relatively recent novel. Its place in literary history is by no means set. When you read the great classics of world literature you are following in the footsteps of numerous critics and scholars who have analyzed them and argued over their finer points. Some relatively recent books by such authors as John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner have been studied in detail and widely criticized. With To Kill a Mockingbird, the situation is quite different. Partly because its style is straightforward and needs little elucidation, and partly because it is Harper Lee's only published novel, it has not received much attention from scholars and critics.

At first you may feel that this situation puts you at a disadvantage. You will not find books in the library that tell you what to think about the book, or what it means.

This absence of critical studies can open the door for you. You may well have insights into the novel that are entirely original. You may notice aspects of the story that have not been studied or written about by anyone else. And you can make up your mind about the merits of the novel without having to defend your judgments against the opinions of generations of critics. You can approach the book from a fresh point of view.

The reviews that greeted the appearance of To Kill a Mockingbird generally were very favorable. Typical of the praise Lee's book received was this notice in the Chicago Sunday Tribune: -

"To Kill a Mockingbird" is a first novel of such rare excellence that it will no doubt make a great many readers slow down to relish the more fully its simple distinction....

The style is bright and straightforward; the unaffected young narrator uses adult language to render the matter she deals with, but the point of view is cunningly restricted to that of a perceptive, independent child, who doesn't always understand fully what's happening, but who conveys completely, by implication, the weight and burden of the story.

There is wit, grace and skill in the telling. From the narrator on, every person in the book is every moment alive in time and place. Richard Sullivan, "Engrossing First Novel of Rare Excellence," Chicago Sunday Tribune, July 17, 1960.


A few reviewers found fault with certain aspects of the novel but liked the book as a whole. Phoebe Low Adams, a reviewer for the Atlantic Monthly called the book "successful," but went on, -

It is frankly and completely impossible, being told in the first person by a six-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult. -

Adams seems not to have noticed that you are told at the beginning of the story that the narrator is the grownup Scout looking back on her childhood experiences. Or perhaps Miss Adams knows this, but feels that the author herself failed to carry through with this premise. If the adult Jean Louise Finch is really telling the story, why does she never tell us how her attitudes toward her father, the Tom Robinson case, and other matters have changed over the years? Are you as bothered by this as Adams was?

Other reviewers enjoyed the substance of the novel, but found fault with the style. One such reviewer wrote the following: -

The praise that Miss Lee deserves must be qualified somewhat by noting that oftentimes the narrator's expository style has a processed, homogenized, impersonal flatness quite out of keeping with the narrator's gay, impulsive approach to life in youth. Also, some of the scenes suggest that Miss Lee is cocking at least one eye toward Hollywood.... Frank H. Lyell, "One-Taxi Town," 1960 The New York Times Book Review, July 10, 1960

Mr. Lyell was certainly right about the story's being just right for a Hollywood movie, but notice that his reaction to the style is completely opposite to that of Richard Sullivan, quoted in the beginning of this section.

A third point of view on Harper Lee's style was presented in the magazine Commonweal:

Both the style and the story seem simple, but no doubt it is quite an achievement to bring them to that happy condition. Leo Ward in Commonweal, December 9, 1960

As far as the content of the novel goes, several critics have cautioned against the temptation to see To Kill a Mockingbird as only a "sociological" novel. One teacher writes:

Students enjoy reading To Kill a Mockingbird, but my experience has been that their appreciation is meager. Over and over again their interpretations stress the race prejudice issue to the exclusion of virtually everything else... Edgar H. Schuster, "Discovering Theme and Structure in the Novel," English Journal, October, 1963

Not everyone would agree with this point of view. For example, Leo Ward in the review quoted above compares To Kill a Mockingbird with John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath- a novel admired in large measure for its powerful portrait of the plight of the poor and oppressed.

On the other hand, critics who tend to agree with Schuster that the novel is not so much about racial prejudice as about the universal experiences of growing up, have compared the novel with Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding and with Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Finally, in making up your mind about the novel's ultimate literary worth, keep in mind these comments from a British review. The reviewer agrees with those who think that To Kill a Mockingbird is mainly a story about growing up, not a "social problem" novel. On the other hand, he agrees with Leo Ward that sometimes readers do not appreciate the art that goes into creating a novel that seems simple and straightforward: -

The innocent childhood game that tumbles into something adult and serious is a fairly common theme in fiction, but I have not for some years seen the idea used so forcefully.... Pretty soon we are in the adult game, based on the same fear and fascination of the dark: the ugliness and violence of a Negro's trial for rape and the town's opposition to the children's father for defending him. Miss Lee does well what so many American writers do appallingly: she paints a true and lively picture of life in an American small town. And she gives freshness to a stock situation. Keith Waterhouse in The New Statesman, October 15, 1960

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