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To Kill A Mockingbird: Popular Novel and Literary Classic
In the summer of 1961, Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" reached success not only in its numerous appearances on the New York Times Bestseller List, but the critically acclaimed novel also won that year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction and Bestsellers maga
zine's Paperback of the Year Award in 1962. In following years its popularity did not dwindle as its ninety-four printings by 1975 made it the third best-selling novel of the century. It has never been out of print, and in a survey by the Library of Cong
ress "To Kill A Mockingbird" was found to be second only to the "Bible" as the book "most often cited as making a difference" in people's lives. In addition, its literary significance reached epic proportions. To this day, students study "To Kill A Mockin
gbird" not because it was immensely popular back in the 1960s, but because of the many reasons that make it a national literary treasure. As Jonathan Daniels' review on the inside cover of the first edition states, "?To Kill A Mockingbird' is an authentic
and nostalgic story which in rare fashion at once puts together the tenderness and the tragedy of the South. They are the inseparable ingredients of a region much reported but seldom so well understood." This review accurately sums up what will be covere
d in the book's many subsequent reviews, meaning that this is a novel through which Lee paints a touching picture of rural southern America and its racial tensions.
As Daniels indicates, one the main reasons for the novel's great success, is the picture of the South that it creates. Reviewer Frank Lyell writes, "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" (New York Times Book Review, July 10, 1960).
One way that Maycomb represents Southern stereotypes is in the caste system among the white characters. They can be put into one of four classes: old aristocracy (Alexandra Finch and professionals like Atticus), middle class (Sam Levy or Braxton Underwood
), lower class (Cunninghams), and dregs (Ewells). According to Aunt Alexandra this is a gap that can never be crossed, "You can scrub Walter Cunningham till he shines, you can put him in shoes and a new suit, but he'll never be like Jem....Because--he--i
s--trash." Yet, on the other hand Lee seems to show that if there were more people in the world like Atticus Finch, there is a chance that the South would eventually change and be more fair among races and classes.
Lee's successful first novel can also be attributed to her writing style. Critic Richard Sullivan comments, "The style is bright and straightforward; the unaffected young narrator uses adult language to render the matter she deals with, but the point of v
iew 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" (Chicago Sunday Tribune, July 17, 1960). His was
not the only review which was favorable about Lee's choice of using Scout to define point of view. Many saw this as not only creative, but very effective. According to R.A. Dave "Her art is visual, and with cinemgraphic fluidity and subtlety we see a scen
e melting into another scene without jolts of transition."
What allows Lee to give such a touching and picturesque view of life in America, is the fact that this novel is quite autobiographical in nature. While Lee states on numerous occasions after the books initial success that she is not Scout, there are enou
gh similarities to see how influential her own experiences were in this work. Both Lee and Scout spent their childhood in small, rural Alabama towns during the 1930s. Both are the daughters of successful lawyers. Both love to read as well as play with the
ir older brothers and neighborboy. (In Lee's case this neighbor grew up to be fellow author, Truman Capote, who many critics claim to be very much like Dill.) And, almost too coincidentally, both were six years old during a significant trial.
It is important to note that as of 1998, this is Lee's only published novel. Unlike many of today's bestsellers which could make the New York Times list without anyone caring about their content, "To Kill A Mockingbird" can never be said to have topped th
e charts because of author name recognition.
While critics place much emphasis on the novel's representation of small-town Americana, one can not forget that the novel occurs during the mid 1930s, a period of social and economic depression for the United States. With millions out of work across the
nation, competition was fierce for the few available jobs. This escalated to existing tension between blacks and whites that has remained since the Civil War. The number of African-American lynchings was on the rise.
This plot of "To Kill A Mockingbird" is often compared with the events of the Scottsboro Trials. Also set in the 1930's both concern African-American men who are accused of rape by white women. On March 25, 1931, several vagrants, both white and black we
re riding the rails between Tennessee and Alabama when a fight broke out, resulting in a number of the white men being thrown from the train. All the vagrants were arrested upon their arrival to Alabama. However, two the women who faced charges for other
crimes, such as taking a minor across state lines for immoral purposes, accused the African-American men of rape. The trial that ensued has numerous similarities to that of Tom Robinson including African-Americans being found guilty when there is enormous
support in their favor, threats of lynching, a lone white man acting on behalf of black men despite the disdain of his community, and accusers who are working class women using racial discrimination to help cover their own deeds.
So, while the book is set during a time a racial turbulence, the issue becomes even more significant as Lee writes her novel right during the Civil Rights era. At this time Alabama is receiving probably its most national publicity ever as the media covers
Martin Luther King, the Montgomery bus boycott, and attempts to desegregate public schools. In her position as editor of a college political newspaper and with her knowledge of law after almost completing law school, Lee held in her hands the potential f
or a story that would most certainly strike a chord in the hearts of the American public. Of course people would want to read a touching novel of racial injustice set in the very state that was currently the focal point of America's attention for similar
acts of discrimination. She brought the huge problems of the sixties to hearts of readers by showing how an Alabama family could interact with the Tom Robinson's, Calpurnia's, and the Ewell's of this world. As Edgar H. Schuster states, "The achievement o
f 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 fea
r 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'" (English Journal, October 1963).
The idea of digging to the heart of racial issues through novels in not a new concept. Perhaps one could compare the way Scout's innocence towards race is shaped by the grown up situations she finds herself in with the way Huckleberry Finn gains a new und
erstanding of race as he and Jim make their river journey to freedom in Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn." One could also say that Lee's portrait of the 1930s South is comparable to Twain's picture of Mississippi river culture. Reviewer Keith Waterhouse fin
ds other literary comparisons, "In situation and tone it has something in common with [Carson McCuller's] ?The Member of the Wedding,' though its development and its atmosphere are more commonplace" (Times Literary Supplement, October 28, 1960). Also, Nic
k Aaron Ford comments, ?To Kill a Mockingbird' is the complete antitheses of [Leon Odell Griffiths's] ?Seed in the Wind.'" Instead of stereo-typed Negroes, this novel presents living, convincing characters--neither saints nor devils, neither completely i
gnorant or craven or foolish, not 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 they creep in un
obtrusively, as natural as breathing" (Phylon: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, June 1961).
The 1963 release of Horton Foote's adaptation of "To Kill A Mockingbird" did not put the novel back on the best seller charts, but it did affect the books popularity in other ways. The movie version is very similar to the novel, in fact it was nominated f
or the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Lee comments at the beginning of the published screenplay, "If the integrity of a film is measured by the degree to which the novelist's intent is preserved, Mr. Foote's screenplay should be studied as a c
lassic." This accuracy of the film makes the novel an excellent teaching tool because it so easy for teachers to use both resources. Having both the film and the novel painting such vivid pictures of so many issues in American history, the novel has found
its way to the educational literary cannon. In addition the film's charm and Academy Award winning acting (led by Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus Finch), viewers of the film in later decades are easily intrigued to read the book behind the script, th
us another reason for its subsequent accolades.
Another factor in the books popularity is the fact that its only substantial criticism is that at points, it contains too much sermonizing and melodrama. Both of these points help sell copies as its publication came at time when readers were expecting a l
ittle sermonizing and melodrama is one thing that many readers of popular fiction look for in a novel.
Furthermore, the most critical and extensive reviews s of the novel have been done by legal rather than literary scholars. For instance University of Notre Dame professor, Thomas Shaffer, uses the novel as a textbook for discussing legal ethics.
So, Harper Lee's first and only novel, "To Kill A Mockingbird" has evolved from a bestseller of the 1960s to an American literary classic. Its popularity can be accredited to Lee's pleasant writing style, her picturesque portrayal of the Southern rural t
own, and the way these two qualities enhance a story of racial injustice. Her timing could not have been more perfect for popular success as she sets her novel in a time of high racial tensions and yet releases these tensions to readers thirty years later
after they have escalated to new heights, making her story not only an enjoyable but a meaningful read. Its continued success and respect marks its significance as a tool to study both of these important time periods in American history.