Critical Insights: To Kill a Mockingbird

Critical Insights Series

The series focuses on an individual author's entire body of work, a single work of literature, or a literary theme.

At a Glance
  • 1 Volume; 300 Pages
  • 10-14 essays offering Current Critical Analysis by Top Literary Scholars
  • Introductory Essay by the Editor
  • Chronology of Author's Life
  • Complete List of Author's Works
  • Publication Dates of Works
  • Detailed Bio of the Editor
  • General Bibliography
  • General Subject Index
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Editor: Donald Noble,
Emeritus Professor of English, University
of Alabama
September 2009 · 1 volume · 344 pages · 6"x9"

Includes Online Database with Print Purchase
ISBN: 978-1-58765-618-7
# of Pages: 344
# of Volumes: 1
Print List Price: $105
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e-ISBN: 978-1-58765-619-4
eBook Single User Price: $105

In-depth critical discussions of Harper Lee's novel - Plus complimentary, unlimited online access to the full content of this great literary reference.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the type of book that transcends boundaries. Having been translated into over 40 languages, and never having gone out of print since its date of publication, Lee's novel is considered to be one of the most influential works of the 20th century. And while she never wrote another work of fiction, Lee is celebrated the world around for having created such a lasting and accessible story.

Edited by Alabama native and Lee scholar Don Noble, this volume brings together some of the very best criticism available on Lee's timeless classic. Overview essays by Nancy Grisham Anderson and Gurdip Panesar consider the cultural contexts surrounding the novel and the critical reception of Lee's work. Neil Heims offers a close examination of the novel as wisdom literature while Teresa Godwin Phelps and Thomas L. Shaffer consider the lessons being taught in the novel. Critic Matthew J. Bolton suggests looking at Lee's novel as an introduction to life in the South with an eye towards understanding Faulkner while Laurie Champion examines the notion of visual perception as a metaphor that is carried throughout the novel. Also included in this collection are character studies of Atticus Finch; a consideration of narrative strategies in both the novel and the film version of Mockingbird; and studies of sexuality, race, and ethics as found in the novel. Mockingbird remains one of a handful of novels with the unique ability to influence the way people live their lives. The essays included in this volume help to shed light on some of Mockingbird's most enduring qualities.

Each essay is 5,000 words in length, and all essays conclude with a list of "Works Cited," along with endnotes. Finally, the volume's appendixes offer a section of useful reference resources:

A chronology of the author's life
A complete list of the author's works and their original dates of publication
A general bibliography
A detailed paragraph on the volume's editor
Notes on the individual chapter authors
A subject index

From "About This Volume"
Commentators on To Kill a Mockingbird often refer to what may be a singular paradox. This 1960 American novel is one of the most popular books of all time, but it has attracted relatively little critical commentary. Although there is no doubt the 1962 award-winning movie propelled sales even higher, the book had won the Pulitzer and was a best seller before there was any movie, so success cannot be attributed to Horton Foote, screenwriter, and the performance of Gregory Peck. The novel famously stands for and by itself. In fact, Ms. Lee refused to write even a brief introduction to the thirty-fifth anniversary edition, stating that “Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive without preamble.”

It has survived indeed. Mockingbird sales have probably exceeded forty million copies, selling about a million a year in recent years, and half of that million is sold abroad, in one of the approximately forty languages into which the novel has been translated. In this volume of commentary on Mockingbird, there are two related points to make about To Kill a Mockingbird and its lack of commentary. First, the fact that it is an American best seller, a popular book, weighs against it. The best-seller list is so laden with thrillers, genre fiction, mysteries, fantasies, and romances that it has, understandably, become a commonplace to associate popularity with the second-rate, following the logic that “If that many people like it, it can’t be any good.” The indisputably authoritative The History of Southern Literature, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., et al., has only one paragraph about Mockingbird, with three brief mentions given to Lee in the section on Truman Capote. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is discussed in two pages of text, and in a section entitled “Popular Fiction, 1920- 1950.”

What these two novels share, besides having been given short shrift in this 1985 literary history, is that both have since risen in critics’ estimations and both are now upgraded, as it were, from popular fiction to literary fiction, and are, more and more often, written about, interpreted, understood from a variety of points of view.

The second reason one might offer for the lack of commentary on Mockingbird is that at a basic level of reader response, it does not seem to need much. Mockingbird is, to put it mildly, not like James Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegans Wake or William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or, more recently, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Readers, over forty-eight years in forty-some countries, believe quite rightly that they understand the novel. They feel that they “get it” without the interpretive help needed for more intellectually complex works such as Joyce’s or Faulkner’s or Pynchon’s. Mockingbird needs little “unpacking.”

I think it could be successfully wagered that the sales-to-essay ratio of To Kill a Mockingbird is the highest of any well-known American novel. It may even be a million to one.

But a work of such huge popularity will generate a different kind of interest and curiosity—what is it about Mockingbird that causes it to resonate so? And, since it is in fact a sophisticated work of art, when carefully examined, depths and dimensions not previously suspected are revealed. Also, a success of this magnitude, by an author who has remained a very private person, generates a good deal of curiosity about the publishing history of the book and the biography of the author.