Background: 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
has maintained a steady popularity into the 21st century.
The reviews that greeted the appearance of To
Kill a Mockingbird generally were very favourable. Typical of
the praise Lee's book received was this notice in the Chicago
“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
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.
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
Sulliva...” — “Engrossing First Novel of Rare Excellence” in 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:
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”, in 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:
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
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”, in 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:
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.