To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird book cover
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History of the Text

To Kill a Mockingbird’s Publication and Reception History: To Kill a Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s most popular work. The novel received nearly unanimous rave reviews when it was published on July 11, 1960, though some critics took issue with its representation of race relations.

  • Entertaining Writing Style: Many critics loved Lee’s writing style and praised her “fresh” and “delightful” voice. Frank H. Lyell of the New York Times described the novel as having “gentle affection, rich humor, and deep understanding of small-town family life in Alabama.” The novel was often among nonfiction texts on bestseller lists, so critics seemed to find its lightheartedness refreshing as well as entertaining.
  • Relatability and Pedagogy: To Kill a Mockingbird was promptly incorporated into English curricula across the United States. According to Wally Lamb, a writer and former English teacher, characters like Scout and Jem “became a sort of vehicle by which [students] could begin to think and sort of process some of these emotional reactions . . . [to racial tensions].” Students are presumably more likely to learn about the realities of racial injustice alongside Scout and Jem.
  • Controversial Content: Despite its popularity in middle school English classes, To Kill a Mockingbird has been increasingly criticized for being more damaging than educational for students. First, parents and teachers emphasize the potentially traumatic experience of being a black student and having to read or hear derogatory, racist language—language that is possibly used to hurt black students within and outside of school—in the classroom. Second, critics have most recently questioned whether it is appropriate for students to read a novel that encourages disbelieving a woman who has accused a man of raping her. Overall, critics of To Kill a Mockingbird’s place in English classrooms advocate for replacing the novel with texts by black authors who have been silenced or otherwise ignored in the English literary canon.

The Great Depression in the United States: To Kill a Mockingbird is set during the Great Depression between 1930 and 1935. The Great Depression was a catastrophic, global economic depression that began in the United States when stock prices began to plummet around September 4, 1929. Scout’s fictional hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, is in the grip of this economic decline.

  • The Consequences of the Unequal Distribution of Wealth: By 1929, the economic boom of the 1920s fell when the stock market crashed—an event called the Wall Street Crash—in the United States. The crash can be attributed in part to an unequal distribution of wealth between the rich and the poor. Because the poor were already very poor, there were not enough people to buy the goods and services needed to sustain a healthy stock market. Both poor and wealthy people suffered as income, tax revenue, profits, and prices plummeted and unemployment reached a staggering 25%.
  • The Impact on Farming Communities: Rural towns in the South—including Scout’s fictional hometown of Maycomb, Alabama—were hit especially hard by the Great Depression because they relied on industries that were suddenly no longer in demand. Crop prices fell by approximately 60%, and primary industries like mining and logging suffered greatly. However, there were no employment alternatives available, so many people went hungry and homeless. Harper Lee captures the suffering of rural communities when she depicts the Cunninghams as poor farmers who pay their lawyer with produce because they have no money.

Racism and Oppression During the Great Depression: To Kill a Mockingbird explores issues of civil rights, racism, and oppression during an especially turbulent time of race relations in the Southern United States and the country as a whole. 

  • Segregationist Laws: During the Great Depression, African Americans in the South still suffered under the oppressive “Jim Crow” laws that were established in the 1870s. Jim Crow laws...

(The entire section is 1,175 words.)