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Is it time to admit that To Kill a Mockingbird is not very good?

June 25, 2010

As the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird is celebrated all over the country this summer, a smarty pants at the Wall Street Journal has the temerity to point out that Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel actually isn’t very good, no matter how much we may love it.

A native of Alabama, Alan Barra says that Harper Lee, compared to fellow Bama-born writers like Zora Neale Hurston or Walker Percy,  “doesn’t really measure up to the others in literary talent, but we like to pretend she does.”

To Kill a Mockingbird, Barra reports, is the second most popular book to foist upon schoolchildren, after The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It sells a lot of copies, year in, year out–according to The New York Times, it’s the second bestselling backlist title of the past five years, following only another literary masterpiece, The Kite Runner.

And yet, as Barra argues persuasively, it may be among the most overrated books in the American canon. “[I]t’s sentiments and moral grandeur are as unimpeachable as the character of its hero, Atticus,” writes Barra, and, as an exacting literary critic, he does not mean this as a compliment:  “As Thomas Mallon wrote in a 2006 story in The New Yorker, the book acts as ‘an ungainsayable endorser of the obvious.’”

If Barra makes a convincing argument for some of the literary shortcomings of To Kill a Mockingbird, he’s not alone. Reviewers back in 1960 were not always kind. The Atlantic Monthly termed it “sugar water served with humor, while Flannery O’Connor damned it as a children’s book:

“I think for a child’s book it does all right,” she wrote. “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they’re reading a child’s book.”

It’s a discussion for another time, but the way O’Connor’s remark insults children’s literature as an inferior genre makes me itch. Back to Harper Lee.

Some critics are even harsher. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, resident bright boy Malcolm Gladwell makes an argument that To Kill a Mockingbird, as a product of Jim Crow liberalism, is itself inadvertently racist. Its villain isn’t Southern racism in general, which the book downplays, but the viciousness of “poor white trash.”

As always, Gladwell is the smuggest and most self-congratulatory of reporters, but he makes some valid points. So does Richard King in this tough-but-fair analysis in The Australian.

For her part, Harper Lee will almost certainly not come forward to defend herself or her novel. Still alive at 84, residing “quietly in Alabama,” she –famously — never wrote a second one.

“Harper Lee has always been a very private person,” Tina Andreadis, a spokeswoman for HarperCollins, tells The New York Times. “The legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird speaks for itself.”

I would never have thought to reconsider To Kill a Mocking Bird as Berra, Gladwell, King and others have. But that’s because I have no desire to read it again.

I enjoyed Lee’s novel on first reading, and I’ve not hesitated to recommend it over the years–to my own children and others. But I always thought the best parts of the novel are the first few chapters, when Scout, her brother Jem,  and her odd little friend Dill (based on Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote) enjoy idyllic summer adventures specific to the place (the Deep South) and time (the Depression).

For me, some of the juice goes out of the whole enterprise when it becomes a much more predictable story of courtroom drama and racial tragedy.

Readers, critics, other writers have speculated endlessly why Lee never published another book. Even viewed in the harshest light, To Kill a Mockingbird delivers genuine, deep reading pleasure.

In May a  New York panel of writers agreed that Lee was overwhelmed by the success of To Kill a Mockingbird. Author Mary McDonagh Murphy: “She had nowhere to go, A book that successful for a first outing was not good for her career.”

No doubt that’s true. But it might it also be true that Lee knew in her secret heart that To Kill a Mockingbird is not really all that good, that she herself is a bit of a fraud, and that knowledge froze her into silence?

Perhaps it would have been better for everyone if To Kill a Mockingbird really had been a modest little children’s book.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. Connie permalink
    June 25, 2010 2:57 pm

    While I haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird in a good long while, I have to say I find it far more memorable than anything I ever read by either Walker Percy OR Zora Neale Hurston. Speaking of heresy. But there you have it.

    I do agree the book is best in the early chapters. And since I first read it at nine or so I’ll never know how I would have reacted had I read it first as an adult. But you have to respect something that has influenced practically every reader who ever came in contact with it for the past 50 years, even if Ms. Lee never wrote another word. (Some might say that’s because she never wrote any words, that her BFF Truman Capote is responsible for Mockingbird, though I can’t imagine he wouldn’t have said so at some point in his life. It’s not as though his ego grew smaller as time passed.)

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 25, 2010 10:20 pm

      I’ve heard that, and disbelieve it on similar grounds. I’ve also heard the more credible story that after Lee wrote the first few really good chapters she ran out of steam and gave up, but some junior editor at her publishing company took it and fleshed it out into the classic we know. But I have absolutely no evidence to support this rumor, and though I first heard it over 20 years ago, I think this is the first time I’ve ever mentioned it. I certainly don’t endorse it. I do endorse the idea that while TKAM is a popular and influential book, it is NOT a first-class piece of literature.

  2. September 6, 2010 1:54 am

    Wow, this is the first I’ve heard of people criticizing the merits of TKAM, other than the lazy kids in my high school English classes that just opposed any thing we were given to read by force.

    I enjoyed reading TKAM as a freshman, although I admit it’s not my favorite book ever. I think perhaps the subject manner of racism from the viewpoint of an innocent child and the character of Atticus Finch are what make the novel so memorable and favorable in critics’ and the general public’s mind. You can analyze it well enough and find symbolism, themes and important historical significance. Hm, I don’t know I can’t think of why else it’s status as a classic book would be challenged.

    I have always wondered why Lee didn’t write more books though. If it’s just to live comfortably off of the success of TKAM, I find that silly and quite arrogant. A real writer would acknowledge the success and move on to continuing writing whatever captures their attention and inspires them. I’d understand if she lost interest and wants to do other things, but then again, we don’t know since she is such a recluse and doesn’t entertain any press. Very interesting.

  3. May 4, 2012 4:11 pm

    I hated to kill a mockingbird. I wouldn’t say it was written badly…its just not my kind of story. While there are some who really appreciate the book, it always seemed to me like it was just a book everyone was forced to read in school even though they didn’t want to haha.

  4. GUYWHOHATESTKAM permalink
    May 9, 2012 8:19 pm

    stupid book was boring as heck, and the movie is just eh.

  5. December 29, 2012 3:12 pm

    Worst book. So lame. The introduction to the characters in the first few chapters are decent, but it just turns to shit. Waste of time.

  6. MissySpade permalink
    May 25, 2013 1:24 pm

    I found this book ungodly boring. It’s not that i hate “the classics” or whatever, I just hated all the hype for such a stupid story. My teachers claimed “it’s a love story with a side plot of racial prejudice” but there was no support for this claim. Yes, there was,in the beginning, some acts of affection between characters, but it was limited. Then later it just goes full blown into the ” whites hate blacks and whites who don’t should feel bad!” story, dropping the original one entirely!! All in all, it should NEVER have been praised as much as it was. 0/5 stars, Harper Lee.

  7. Lucius Hawes permalink
    May 27, 2013 12:58 am

    Atticus Finch, as a practitioner, strategised a tough case like any lawyer would try to do. He thought his best defense was to try to demonize the victim. It is an ordinary story on that respect. But lawyers love the part where Scout is admonished to stand while “Your father is passing.” We all want to believe our work is respected.

  8. October 30, 2013 8:36 pm

    Honestly, I really don’t see this book as a classic, but rather a highly overrated piece of work. What I mean is that TKAM was a high hitter when it was released, this was due to it coming out in the 60′s. The literature is not even close to being a master-class, however neither was “The Cat in the Hat,” though it is a classic in most eyes. What I believe makes this book mediocre is the point that the story is not engaging at all. I wasn’t asking for a J.R.R. Tolken adventure, but at least try to make a story that has you wanting to stay up and finish. This is were the book lost all hype and interest for me. The characters mentioned are memorable, but the innocence factor wears off as soon as the book hits Chapter 3. TKAM is garbage, though it is praised for its topic that is only fleshed out at last couple of chapters given. Those chapters felt like a entirely different story that tried to commit CPR to keep an already dead story alive. TKAM is a solid 1/5, an epic fail lauded for a topic that is not even fully appointed to, until it is too late.

  9. October 30, 2013 9:10 pm

    YOU BELIEVE IT IS A BAD BOOK, I WILL FIND YOU

  10. October 30, 2013 9:12 pm

    “It is a timeless book.”-said no one ever.

  11. October 31, 2013 12:21 am

    HA GAAAAAAAYYYYYY!!!!!!!1

  12. October 31, 2013 12:23 am

    Are we seriously arguing over a piece of literature. #STUPID

  13. October 31, 2013 12:25 am

    This iz so stoopid like dah.

  14. October 31, 2013 12:26 am

    My nutz are cold ja herd.

  15. July 31, 2014 12:50 am

    I seen the movie and enjoyed that. So i thought it was time to read the book but after the first few chapters found it disappointing

  16. August 2, 2014 12:31 am

    Like most things that people bash and denigrate, it’s usually because they don’t understand them, and they demonstrate their own ignorance with their hatred. TKM is decidedly not a children’s book, which is why so many readers don’t “get” it. It is far more complex and meaningful than it appears on the surface which is why it is one of the greatest works in American literature.

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