To Kill a Mockingbird


Despite her editors' warnings that the book might not sell well, it quickly became a sensation, bringing acclaim to Lee in literary circles, in her hometown of Monroeville, and throughout Alabama.[88] The book went through numerous subsequent printings and became widely available through its inclusion in the Book of the Month Club and editions released by Reader's Digest Condensed Books.[89]

Initial reactions to the novel were varied. The New Yorker declared it "skilled, unpretentious, and totally ingenious",[90] and The Atlantic Monthly's reviewer rated it as "pleasant, undemanding reading", but found the narrative voice—"a six-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult"—to be implausible.[38] Time magazine's 1960 review of the book states that it "teaches the reader an astonishing number of useful truths about little girls and about Southern life" and calls Scout Finch "the most appealing child since Carson McCullers' Frankie got left behind at the wedding".[34] The Chicago Sunday Tribune noted the even-handed approach to the narration of the novel's events, writing: "This is in no way a sociological novel. It underlines no cause ... To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel of strong contemporary national significance."[91]

Not all reviewers were enthusiastic. Some lamented the use of poor white Southerners, and one-dimensional black victims,[92] and Granville Hicks labeled the book "melodramatic and contrived".[40] When the book was first released, Southern writer Flannery O'Connor commented, "I think for a child's book it does all right. It's interesting that all the folks that are buying it don't know they're reading a child's book. Somebody ought to say what it is."[56] Carson McCullers apparently agreed with the Time magazine review, writing to a cousin: "Well, honey, one thing we know is that she's been poaching on my literary preserves."[93]

One year after its publication To Kill a Mockingbird had been translated into ten languages. In the years since, it has sold more than 30 million copies and been translated into more than 40 languages.[94] The novel has never been out of print in hardcover or paperback, and has become part of the standard literature curriculum. A 2008 survey of secondary books read by students between grades 9–12 in the U.S. indicates the novel is the most widely read book in these grades.[95] A 1991 survey by the Book of the Month Club and the Library of Congress Center for the Book found that To Kill a Mockingbird was rated behind only the Bible in books that are "most often cited as making a difference".[96][note 1]

The 50th anniversary of the novel's release was met with celebrations and reflections on its impact.[97] Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune praises Lee's "rich use of language" but writes that the central lesson is that "courage isn't always flashy, isn't always enough, but is always in style".[98] Jane Sullivan in the Sydney Morning Herald agrees, stating that the book "still rouses fresh and horrified indignation" as it examines morality, a topic that has recently become unfashionable.[99] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writing in The Guardian states that Lee, rare among American novelists, writes with "a fiercely progressive ink, in which there is nothing inevitable about racism and its very foundation is open to question", comparing her to William Faulkner, who wrote about racism as an inevitability.[100] Literary critic Rosemary Goring in Scotland's The Herald notes the connections between Lee and Jane Austen, stating the book's central theme, that "one’s moral convictions are worth fighting for, even at the risk of being reviled" is eloquently discussed.[101]

Native Alabamian Allen Barra sharply criticized Lee and the novel in The Wall Street Journal calling Atticus a "repository of cracker-barrel epigrams" and the novel represents a "sugar-coated myth" of Alabama history. Barra writes, "It's time to stop pretending that To Kill a Mockingbird is some kind of timeless classic that ranks with the great works of American literature. Its bloodless liberal humanism is sadly dated".[102] Thomas Mallon in The New Yorker criticizes Atticus' stiff and self-righteous demeanor, and calls Scout "a kind of highly constructed doll" whose speech and actions are improbable. Although acknowledging that the novel works, Mallon blasts Lee's "wildly unstable" narrative voice for developing a story about a content neighborhood until it begins to impart morals in the courtroom drama, following with his observation that "the book has begun to cherish its own goodness" by the time the case is over.[103][note 2] Defending the book, Akin Ajayi writes that justice "is often complicated, but must always be founded upon the notion of equality and fairness for all." Ajayi states that the book forces readers to question issues about race, class, and society, but that it was not written to resolve them.[104]

Many writers compare their perceptions of To Kill a Mockingbird as adults with when they first read it as children. Mary McDonagh Murphy interviewed celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Rosanne Cash, Tom Brokaw, and Harper's sister Alice Lee, who read the novel and compiled their impressions of it as children and adults into a book titled Scout, Atticus, and Boo.[105]

Atticus Finch and the legal profession

I promised myself that when I grew up and I was a man, I would try to do things just as good and noble as what Atticus had done for Tom Robinson.

—Scott Turow[106]

One of the most significant impacts To Kill a Mockingbird has had is Atticus Finch's model of integrity for the legal profession. As scholar Alice Petry explains, "Atticus has become something of a folk hero in legal circles and is treated almost as if he were an actual person."[107] Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center cites Atticus Finch as the reason he became a lawyer, and Richard Matsch, the federal judge who presided over the Timothy McVeigh trial, counts Atticus as a major judicial influence.[108] One law professor at the University of Notre Dame stated that the most influential textbook he taught from was To Kill a Mockingbird, and an article in the Michigan Law Review claims, "No real-life lawyer has done more for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession," before questioning whether, "Atticus Finch is a paragon of honor or an especially slick hired gun".[109]

In 1992, an Alabama editorial called for the death of Atticus, saying that as liberal as Atticus was, he still worked within a system of institutionalized racism and sexism and should not be revered. The editorial sparked a flurry of responses from attorneys who entered the profession because of him and esteemed him as a hero.[110] Critics of Atticus maintain he is morally ambiguous and does not use his legal skills to challenge the racist status quo in Maycomb.[56] However, in 1997, the Alabama State Bar erected a monument to Atticus in Monroeville, marking his existence as the "first commemorative milestone in the state's judicial history".[111] In 2008, Lee herself received an honorary special membership to the Alabama State Bar for creating Atticus who "has become the personification of the exemplary lawyer in serving the legal needs of the poor".[112]

Social commentary and challenges

To Kill a Mockingbird has been a source of significant controversy since its being the subject of classroom study as early as 1963. The book's racial slurs, profanity, and frank discussion of rape have led people to challenge its appropriateness in libraries and classrooms across the United States. The American Library Association reported that To Kill a Mockingbird was number 21 of the 100 most frequently challenged books of 2000–2009.[113]

One of the first incidents of the book being challenged was in Hanover, Virginia, in 1966: a parent protested that the use of rape as a plot device was immoral. Johnson cites examples of letters to local newspapers, which ranged from amusement to fury; those letters expressing the most outrage, however, complained about Mayella Ewell's attraction to Tom Robinson over the depictions of rape.[114] Upon learning the school administrators were holding hearings to decide the book's appropriateness for the classroom, Harper Lee sent $10 to The Richmond News Leader suggesting it to be used toward the enrollment of "the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice".[58] The National Education Association in 1968 placed the novel second on a list of books receiving the most complaints from private organizations—after Little Black Sambo.[115]

With a shift of attitudes about race in the 1970s, To Kill a Mockingbird faced challenges of a different sort: the treatment of racism in Maycomb was not condemned harshly enough. This has led to disparate perceptions that the novel has a generally positive impact on race relations for white readers, but a more ambiguous reception by black readers. In one high-profile case outside the U.S., school districts in the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia attempted to have the book removed from standard teaching curricula in the 1990s,[note 3] stating:

The terminology in this novel subjects students to humiliating experiences that rob them of their self-respect and the respect of their peers. The word 'Nigger' is used 48 times [in] the novel ... We believe that the English Language Arts curriculum in Nova Scotia must enable all students to feel comfortable with ideas, feelings and experiences presented without fear of humiliation ... To Kill a Mockingbird is clearly a book that no longer meets these goals and therefore must no longer be used for classroom instruction.[116]

Furthermore, despite the novel's thematic focus on racial injustice, its black characters are not fully examined.[79] In its use of racial epithets, stereotyped depictions of superstitious blacks, and Calpurnia, who to some critics is an updated version of the "contented slave" motif and to others simply unexplored, the book is viewed as marginalizing black characters.[117][118] One writer asserts that the use of Scout's narration serves as a convenient mechanism for readers to be innocent and detached from the racial conflict. Scout's voice "functions as the not-me which allows the rest of us—black and white, male and female—to find our relative position in society".[79] A teaching guide for the novel published by The English Journal cautions, "what seems wonderful or powerful to one group of students may seem degrading to another".[119] A Canadian language arts consultant found that the novel resonated well with white students, but that black students found it "demoralizing".[120] Another criticism, articulated by Michael Lind, is that the novel indulges in classist stereotyping and demonization of poor rural "white trash".[121]

The novel is cited as a factor in the success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, however, in that it "arrived at the right moment to help the South and the nation grapple with the racial tensions (of) the accelerating civil rights movement".[122] Its publication is so closely associated with the Civil Rights Movement that many studies of the book and biographies of Harper Lee include descriptions of important moments in the movement, despite the fact that she had no direct involvement in any of them.[123][124][125] Civil Rights leader Andrew Young comments that part of the book's effectiveness is that it "inspires hope in the midst of chaos and confusion" and by using racial epithets portrays the reality of the times in which it was set. Young views the novel as "an act of humanity" in showing the possibility of people rising above their prejudices.[126] Alabama author Mark Childress compares it to the impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book that is popularly implicated in starting the U.S. Civil War. Childress states the novel "gives white Southerners a way to understand the racism that they've been brought up with and to find another way. And most white people in the South were good people. Most white people in the South were not throwing bombs and causing havoc ... I think the book really helped them come to understand what was wrong with the system in the way that any number of treatises could never do, because it was popular art, because it was told from a child's point of view." [127]

Diane McWhorter, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Birmingham civil rights campaign, asserts that To Kill a Mockingbird condemns racism instead of racists, and states that every child in the South has moments of racial cognitive dissonance when they are faced with the harsh reality of inequality. This feeling causes them to question the beliefs with which they have been raised, which for many children is what the novel does. McWhorter writes of Lee, "for a white person from the South to write a book like this in the late 1950s is really unusual—by its very existence an act of protest."[128][note 4] Author James McBride calls Lee brilliant but stops short of calling her brave: "I think by calling Harper Lee brave you kind of absolve yourself of your own racism ... She certainly set the standards in terms of how these issues need to be discussed, but in many ways I feel ... the moral bar's been lowered. And that's really distressing. We need a thousand Atticus Finches." McBride, however, defends the book's sentimentality, and the way Lee approaches the story with "honesty and integrity".[129]

Rumors of authorship by Truman Capote

Lee's childhood friend, author Truman Capote, wrote on the dust jacket of the first edition, "Someone rare has written this very fine first novel: a writer with the liveliest sense of life, and the warmest, most authentic sense of humor. A touching book; and so funny, so likeable."[130] This comment has been construed to suggest that Capote wrote the book or edited it heavily.[131] In 2003, a Tuscaloosa newspaper quoted Capote's biological father, Archulus Persons, as claiming that Capote had written "almost all" of the book.[132] In 2006, a Capote letter was donated to Monroeville's literary heritage museum; in a letter to a neighbor in Monroeville in 1959, Capote mentioned that Lee was writing a book that was to be published soon. Extensive notes between Lee and her editor at Lippincott also refute the rumor of Capote's authorship.[133] Lee's older sister, Alice, responded to the rumor, saying: "That's the biggest lie ever told."[28]


During the years immediately following the novel's publication, Harper Lee enjoyed the attention its popularity garnered her, granting interviews, visiting schools, and attending events honoring the book. In 1961, when To Kill a Mockingbird was in its 41st week on the bestseller list, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, stunning Lee.[134] It also won the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews in the same year, and the Paperback of the Year award from Bestsellers magazine in 1962.[89][135] Starting in 1964, Lee began to turn down interviews, complaining that the questions were monotonous, and grew concerned that attention she received bordered on the kind of publicity celebrities sought.[136] She has declined ever since to talk with reporters about the book. She has also steadfastly refused to provide an introduction, writing in 1995: "Introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity. The only good thing about Introductions is that in some cases they delay the dose to come. Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble."[137]

In 2001, Lee was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor.[138] In the same year, Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley initiated a reading program throughout the city's libraries, and chose his favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird, as the first title of the One City, One Book program. Lee declared that "there is no greater honor the novel could receive".[139] By 2004, the novel had been chosen by 25 communities for variations of the citywide reading program, more than any other novel.[140] David Kipen of the National Endowment of the Arts, who supervised The Big Read, states "people just seem to connect with it. It dredges up things in their own lives, their interactions across racial lines, legal encounters, and childhood. It's just this skeleton key to so many different parts of people's lives, and they cherish it."[141]

In 2006, Lee was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Notre Dame. During the ceremony, the students and audience gave Lee a standing ovation, and the entire graduating class held up copies of To Kill a Mockingbird to honor her.[142][note 5] Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 5, 2007 by President George W. Bush. In his remarks, Bush stated, "One reason To Kill a Mockingbird succeeded is the wise and kind heart of the author, which comes through on every page ... To Kill a Mockingbird has influenced the character of our country for the better. It's been a gift to the entire world. As a model of good writing and humane sensibility, this book will be read and studied forever."[143]

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