Background: The Critics

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 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 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:

“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”, 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:

“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”, 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:

“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.

Activities Tasks
Support or refute any two or more of the reviewers' comments.
To Kill a Mockingbird has been challenged repeatedly by the political left and right, who have sought to remove it from libraries for its portrayal of conflict between children and adults; ungrammatical speech; references to sex, the supernatural, and witchcraft; and unfavourable presentation of blacks. Which elements of the book - if any - do you think touch on controversial issues in our contemporary culture? Did you find any of those elements especially troubling, persuasive, or insightful?
Why do you think To Kill a Mockingbird has become a classic and has remained so popular? What is it about the book that keeps attracting readers over four decades after its initial publication? Why does it still speak to us so powerfully?
Write a 300 - 500 word word review of To Kill a Mockingbird suitable for publication in a national newspaper or magazine.