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Classic Review

To Kill a Mockingbird (Modern Classics) by Harper Lee

Reviewed by Phoebe Adams
The Atlantic Monthly

[Ed. Note. This review first ran in the Atlantic Monthly, August 1960.]

Two other novels have turned up which may be classified as respectable hammock reading, if anybody reads in hammocks anymore. Walk Egypt by Vinnie Williams is well-written soap opera, and Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird is sugar-water served with humor....

To Kill A Mockingbird is a more successful piece of work. It is frankly and completely impossible, being told in the first person by a six-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult. Miss Lee has, to be sure, made an attempt to confine the information in the text to what Scout would actually know, but it is no more than a casual gesture toward plausibility.

The book's setting is a small town in Alabama, and the action behind Scout's tale is her father's determination, as a lawyer, liberal, and honest man, to defend a Negro accused of raping a white girl. What happens is, naturally, never seen directly by the narrator. The surface of the story is an Alcottish filigree of games, mischief, squabbles with an older brother, troubles at school, and the like. None of it is painful, for Scout and Jem are happy children, brought up with angelic cleverness by their father and his old Negro housekeeper. Nothing fazes them much or long. Even the new first-grade teacher, a devotee of the "Dewey decimal system" who is outraged to discover that Scout can already read and write, proves endurable in the long run.

A variety of adults, mostly eccentric in Scout's judgment, and a continual bubble of incident make To Kill A Mockingbird pleasant, undemanding reading.

6 Responses to "Classic Review"

    Bill Reynolds July 31st, 2007 at 3:52 am

    A trite review of of a deep, finely written novel. "To Kill A Mockingbird" has entered the canon of American literature because it captures a particular pathos in time and articulates the individual's struggle with cultural forces that is the perennial engine of humanity.

    Sandy July 31st, 2007 at 6:59 am

    From reading this review, you'd never have guessed the book would become such a classic. It feels like the reviewer was missing out on some of the key elements of the story--or is it that the book has been built up to be better than it is? (Note: I personally thought it was one of the best books I had to read in high school, one that ranked up with The Outsiders as a book I'd read even if it wasn't required.)
    Anyway, it just shows that you can't judge a book by its review.

    Esther Bradley-DeTally July 31st, 2007 at 9:18 am

    Oh my Gawd - a clear example where form is obsolete over content, and a portentous review reflecting the emptiness of the reviewers's inner landscape. Form is obsolete in the review; content in Harper Lee's book is incredible!

    Roswitha July 31st, 2007 at 9:18 am

    Without Scout's name, I wouldn't have recognized the book. I am curious how TKAM became a classic. It seems unusual that, in a time before the internet, the reputation of the book grew despite a review such as this. I wonder what other reviews of the time said. How did it morph into required reading for virtually every high school student in the US (at least in the 80s)? A cultural anthropologist should look into this.

    M W King July 31st, 2007 at 10:01 am

    After reading what the Atlantic Monthly considers to be 'good' writing I'm not surprised at the luke warm review of an American classic.

    Clyde List July 31st, 2007 at 11:15 am

    I agree with the many objections above. On the other hand, like the reviewer, I was distracted by the cutesy-ness of Mockingbird. I found Harper Lee's "Aw Shucks, It's Just a Typical Day in the Old Dominion South- Let's Go Fishing" attitude less than pleasing. Unlike the reviewer, I found it cloying.

    I confess the book is not fresh in my mind. I read it a quarter century ago. I was working toward an American-English Literature Degree then while reading about Martin Luther King in the newspapers. Other rights groups were also marching and I saw Mockingbird to be a feminist version of Huckleberry Finn. (Considering the status of Huckleberry Finn in American literature, the comparison is worth making). Mockingbird falls far short of Twain's writing, alas, because of the cutey-pie treatment of the narrator.

    I remember thinking: I am so tired of these comic portrayals of Southerners. I wished, and still wish, for a depiction of the South that is as spell-binding as Twain's. (I also believe the South won the Civil War, in spite of Appomattox, and is ruling America today, but don't get me on that subject!)

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