Harper Lee Lee, (Nelle) Harper

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

(Nelle) Harper Lee 1926–

See also To Kill a Mockingbird Criticism.

American novelist. Lee's only work to date is her 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. A descendent of Robert E. Lee, she was born and raised in a small town in Alabama. Her decision to attend law school is attributed to the strong influence of her lawyer-father, who later served as a model for the main character in her novel, Atticus Finch. Her study of law and its principles helped her develop a lucid prose style; her southern upbringing gave her the raw material which she incorporated into the novel. In a time of the burgeoning civil rights movement, her book was met with popular acclaim and was later adapted for film. Critics agree that it is a literary success, comparing her easy flowing prose style to that of Mark Twain. Her promise of a second novel has yet to be fulfilled. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 11.)

The shadows of a beginning for black-white understanding, the persistent fight that Scout carries on against school, Jem's emergence into adulthood, Calpurnia's quiet power, and all the incidents touching on the children's "growing, outward" have an attractive starchiness that keeps this southern picture pert and provocative [in To Kill a Mockingbird]. (p. 360)

Virginia Kirkus' Service, May 1, 1960.

Frank H. Lyell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Harper Lee writes with gentle affection, rich humor and deep understanding of small-town family life in [Maycomb,] Alabama [in "To Kill a Mockingbird"]. (p. 5)

Maycomb has its share of eccentrics and evil-doers, but Miss Lee has not tried to satisfy the current lust for morbid, grotesque tales of Southern depravity…. [She] illustrates the importance of developing an open, unprejudiced, well-furnished mind of one's own…. (pp. 5, 18)

The dialogue of Miss Lee's refreshingly varied characters is a constant delight in its authenticity and swift revelation of personality. The events connecting the Finches with the Ewell-Robinson lawsuit develop quietly and logically, unifying the plot and dramatizing the author's level-headed plea for interracial understanding….

The praise Miss Lee deserved 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. Moviegoing readers will be able to cast most of the roles very quickly, but it is no disparagement of Miss Lee's winning book to say that it could be the basis of an excellent film. (p. 18)

Frank H. Lyell, "One-Taxi Town," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1960 by The New York Times Company: reprinted by permission), July 10, 1960, pp. 5, 18.

Richard Sullivan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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. Maycomb, Ala., itself comes alive, as a town abundantly inhabited by individual human beings, each one possessed of his or her own thoroughly convincing nature and personality. And each one contributes to the quiet, sustained humor, the occasionally intense drama, the often taut suspense which all rise out of this rich and variegated complex of human relationships.

Gradually, the novel unfolds and reveals not only a sharp look at a number of people but a view of the American south, and its attitudes, feelings,...

(The entire section is 2,785 words.)