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(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
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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.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 322
"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, and traditions.
This is in no way a sociological novel. It underlines no cause. It answers no questions. It offers no solutions. It proposes no programs. It is simply an excellent piece of story telling, which on the way along suggests that there are in Maycomb, Ala., persons of good will in whom love and generous loyalty supersede law, and others in whom meanness—along with envy and fear—breeds lying persecution, under law….
"To Kill a Mockingbird" is a novel of strong contemporary national significance. And it deserves serious consideration. But first of all it is a story so admirably done that it must be called both honorable and engrossing.
Richard Sullivan, "Engrossing First Novel of Rare Excellence," in Chicago Sunday Tribune, July 17, 1960, p. 1.
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To Kill a Mockingbird is a … successful piece of work. 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. Miss Lee has to be sure, made an attempt to confine the information in the text to what Scout would actually know, but it is no more than a casual gesture toward plausibility…. What happens [in the story] is … never seen directly by the narrator. The surface of the story is an Alcottish filigree of games, mischief, squabbles with an older brother, troubles at school, and the like. (p. 98)
A variety of adults, mostly eccentric in Scout's judgment, and a continual bubble of incident make To Kill a Mockingbird pleasant, undemanding reading. (pp. 98-9)
Phoebe Adams, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1960 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), August, 1960.
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The innocent childhood game that tumbles into something adult and serious is a fairly common theme in fiction, but I have not for some time seen the idea used so forcefully as in To Kill a Mockingbird…. The game is 'Making Boo come out' which the children of a Southern lawyer play outside the old home of a family of foot-washing Baptists where, according to one among many legends, Boo Radley has been kept chained up for years and years for stabbing his father with the scissors. 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. (p. 580)
Keith Waterhouse, in New Statesman (© 1960 The Statesman and Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 15, 1960.
To Kill a Mockingbird … [is] laden with well-deserved praise. In situation and tone it has something in common with [Carson McCullers'] The Member of the Wedding, though its development and its atmosphere are more commonplace…. The early parts of the book are pure delight. Miss Lee excels in recapturing her childhood, and the children she writes about are worth knowing….
[When a negro is accused of raping a white girl,] Scout's father undertakes the defence, and the novel thereafter runs the way of its many predecessors. But the plot is well constructed, the tone of the opening preserved to the end, and the message one that can stand repetition. (p. 697)
The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1960; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 28, 1960.
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Both the style and the story [of To Kill a Mockingbird] seem simple, but no doubt it is quite an achievement to bring them to that happy condition. What a greenhorn from the North may enjoy most is how quietly and completely he is introduced to ways of seeing and feeling and acting in the Deep South…. [Harper Lee, unknown until this book appeared,] will not soon be forgotten. (p. 289)
Leo Ward, in Commonweal (copyright © 1960 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), December 9, 1960.
Nick Aaron Ford
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To Kill a Mockingbird … is the complete antithesis of [Leon Odell Griffiths's] Seed in the Wind. Instead of stereotyped Negroes, this novel presents living, convincing characters—neither saints nor devils, neither completely ignorant or craven or foolish, nor completely wise or wholly courageous. Instead of blatant propaganda from beginning to end, the socially significant overtones do not begin to appear until the story has progressed a third of the way and then they creep in unobtrusively, as natural as breathing….
The story is told by Jean Louise Finch …, aged six at the beginning and eight at the end. It is dominated by [her] complete love and devotion for her father and older brother, her admiration for a boy her own age, her acceptance of Negroes as fellow human beings with the same rights and privileges as those of white people, and her hatred of all hypocrisy and cant. Her dramatic recital of the joys, fears, dreams, misdemeanors, and problems of her little circle of friends and enemies gives the most vivid, realistic, and delightful experiences of a child's world ever presented by an American novelist, with the possible exception of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. (p. 122)
Nick Aaron Ford, in PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture (copyright, 1961, by Atlanta University; reprinted by permission of PHYLON), Vol. XXII, Second Quarter (June), 1961.
Edgar H. Schuster
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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….
In the pages that follow I shall set forth both a practical classroom approach to the novel and an interpretation of To Kill a Mockingbird based on that approach. The reader should bear in mind that I am dealing here primarily with the elements of theme and structure….
It is not difficult to teach students the distinction between full and summary rendering. Furthermore, through their work in composition they are already familiar with the principle that the more space one gives an incident or idea, the more emphasis it receives. In fiction, it follows that those incidents that are fully rendered and those that are relatively long will be keys to the author's intention. (p. 506)
If Mockingbird is primarily a race relations novel, why is it that the author gives such a full treatment to episodes that seem totally unrelated to this theme?…
Another process of examination has to do with the discovery and tracing of thematic motifs….
My students and I have identified five thematic motifs in To Kill a Mockingbird. (p. 507)
One of the motifs—largely understated due to the novel's point of view—concerns Jem's physiological and psychological growth. Although this growth motif may have more to do with character than with theme, the two elements are ultimately bound; moreover it seems clear that the growth of Jem (and of his sister as well) is intimately related to the theme and structure of the novel.
A second thematic motif is centered around what Miss Lee calls the "caste system" in Maycomb. This motif—brought up in many places throughout the book—is obviously related to other motifs, such as growth, superstition, and education. Furthermore, it is within the context of the "caste system" motif that Aunt Alexandria's "missionary circle" and all their talk about the Mrunas and J. Grimes Everett is to be understood.
Thirdly, the title of a novel, students should know, often points to one of its key themes, and this is obviously the case in To Kill a Mockingbird. Mockingbirds are mentioned in several places throughout the book, often in key scenes. Best of all, the tracing of this motif will reveal clearly to the students that Tom Robinson is not the only "mockingbird" in the novel.
Finally, the thematic motifs that I would like to discuss in fuller detail are those dealing with education and superstition. The education motif comes up early in the novel and persists until very near the end…. Reflection will reveal … that the education motif—far from being incidental—is a center for the ironic contrast between what is "taught" and what is "learned," a contrast that lies at the very heart of the novel.
In the course of their growing up the children do a great deal of learning, but little of that learning takes place in school…. Their most effective "teacher,"… is life itself, their experience. (pp. 507-08)
Superstition is another key motif running through the novel. Superstitions are, of course, the product of fear and ignorance. We expect them to disappear as fear and ignorance are replaced by security and knowledge, and this is clearly what happens, at least to the children, as the novel progresses.
The most memorable superstition in the book is the one concerning the "hot places." Because of its uniqueness, it stands as a kind of symbol of superstition in general. (p. 508)
The novel opens with the reference to Jem's bad arm and the argument between the children over who started it all. Scout blames it on the Ewells, but Jem claims that it began when Dill first came and gave them the idea of making Boo Radley come out. Although Atticus says that both children are right, the author tacitly confirms Jem's view by devoting her first fully rendered scene to the meeting with Dill and Jem's "foray" on the Radley Place.
It is also in this chapter that Dill wagers his copy of The Gray Ghost against two Tom Swifts that Jem won't touch Radley's house. Here, too, we learn of the "summertime boundaries" of the children—the Dubose house two doors to the north and the Radley Place three doors to the south. Mrs. Dubose is "gray" in age; Radley lives in a "gray house." Both characters are "ghosts" in the sense that the children do not know them; fear and prejudice and superstition surround both homes. All these facts should be kept in mind as the novel moves toward fulfillment. (p. 509)
A discovery of the structure of To Kill a Mockingbird must begin by focusing on the first chapter: the summertime boundaries, the "gray ghosts," the tension centered in the question of what Boo Radley is really like. How do these phenomena fit into the over-all design?
If that design is to be truly "over-all," it is obvious that the final chapter, too, must play a key role. It is in this chapter—just after having escorted the real Boo Radley home—that Scout makes the point about growing up and algebra; it is here that she says that one never knows a man unless he stands in his shoes and walks around in them; here that she realizes that "nothin's real scary except in books"; and here, finally, that Atticus reads to her from The Gray Ghost. The novel concludes with Scout revealing some of the content of that book:
"An' they chased him 'n' never could catch him 'cause they didn't know what he looked like, an' Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn't done any of those things … Atticus, he was real nice…."
His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me.
"Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them."
And so the gray ghosts—Dubose and Radley in particular—and superstitions and prejudices of all kinds are gone, banished by security and knowledge—the security stemming from the love and example of Atticus, the knowledge coming from real contact with real people.
The achievement of Harper Lee is not that she has written another novel about race prejudice, but rather that she has placed race prejudice in a perspective which allows us to see it as an aspect of a larger thing; as something that arises from phantom contacts, from fear and lack of knowledge; and finally as something that disappears with the kind of knowledge or "education" that one gains through learning what people are really like when you "finally see them." (p. 511)
Edgar H. Schuster, "Discovering Theme and Structure in the Novel," in English Journal (copyright © 1963 by the National Council of Teachers of English), October, 1963, pp. 506-11.
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Miss Lee does write like a woman. She paints Scout in warm tones, and we like the child. (p. 659)
Miss Lee uses high and telling humor when she depicts the myopic do-gooders of the local missionary circle who alternately squealed and sighed over the remote plight of the Mrunas who were safely distant in the dark continent, the while they stirred up a falsely labeled "Christian" hell for the racially different in their home town. Yes, and there was cutting irony and blanched white sarcasm too when the authoress seemingly reaches the outer limits of her fine sense of tolerance even for the bigoted. (p. 660)
Edwin Bruell, in English Journal (copyright © 1964 by The National Council of Teachers of English), December, 1964.