American classic novels Top 100
Earlier in this series, I excluded Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) from this series on the grounds that, in the 19th century, much of its phenomenal popularity derived from its timely advocacy of abolition in the run-up to the American civil war. Similarly, To Kill a Mockingbird owed some of its success to extra-literary circumstances: it was published in the year JFK went to the White House, then caught the mood of the civil rights movement, sold tens of millions of copies, and inspired a movie classic starring Gregory Peck. But, where Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a simple tale with an explicit moral, intended to change hearts and minds, Harper Lee’s only published book to date is a complex and subtle work of literature that has inspired and influenced generations of schoolchildren in the US and, most especially, in the UK. It’s that rare thing: a truly popular classic.
Narrated by Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, at the outset the six-year-old tomboy daughter of widowed small-town lawyer Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird is ostensibly about race prejudice in the American south. At the core of its main plot is the trial of Tom Robinson, an African-American accused of raping a white girl. When Atticus Finch is instructed to conduct Robinson’s defence, his fortune-cookie declaration that “You never really understand a person until ... you climb inside his skin” becomes the rhetorical heart of a novel based on Nelle Harper Lee’s formative years in the Alabama of the 1930s. Scout’s coming of age, another major strand in the story, will involve her realisation that “Boo” Radley is a benign mystery in her life and that many childhood terrors have mature meaning.
For all Atticus Finch’s noble defence, Robinson is convicted by an all-white jury, condemned to death, and shot dead while attempting a jailbreak. The death of an innocent man is linked to the dominant metaphor expressed in the novel’s title. The mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), a thrush-like bird with a long tail, creamy grey breast and white flashes, is a popular creature in American folklore. For Harper Lee it is the quintessence of innocence and the goodness of the natural world. Mockingbirds, says one character, “don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”.
Related: Harper Lee: a late twist in the tale of an adored writer | profile
A note on the text
To Kill a Mockingbird was published by JB Lippincott on 11 July 1960. It was initially titled Atticus but Lee renamed it to represent a novel that went far beyond a character study. Her editor at Lippincott warned Lee to anticipate a modest sale of a few thousand copies. She herself once said, “I never expected any sort of success”, and claimed that she was “hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers”. This is disingenuous. She also remarked that “at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. I hoped for a little, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.” Instead of a “quick and merciful death”, a Reader’s Digest reprint gave the novel an immediate audience, with sales eventually topping 40m worldwide (and counting). Despite her publisher’s warnings, the book soon brought acclaim to Lee in her hometown of Monroeville, and throughout Alabama.
Critical reactions varied. To The New Yorker it was “skilled, unpretentious and totally ingenious”. Time magazine declared that the novel “teaches the reader an astonishing number of useful truths about little girls and about Southern life”. Some reviewers lamented the use of poor white southerners, and one-dimensional black victims. The great southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, said: “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.”