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