Harper Lee Lee, (Nelle) Harper - Essay


(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, 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.

Phoebe Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Keith Waterhouse

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Leo Ward

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1138 words.)

Edwin Bruell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.