“To Kill a Mockingbird”: Great Book But Not a Great Novel?

I wrote this post last year about Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Given all the hype and hoopla (and controversy) surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s long-lost and recently-found “Go Set a Watchman,” thought it might be worth a re-visit. Look forward to hearing any thoughts or reactions to Lee’s “new” novel (written well before “Mockingbird”).

The Books That Mattered

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is perhaps the quintessential Book That Mattered: one of the moral touchstones of an entire generation.

It is abook thatmany of us Baby Boomers (and non-Baby Boomers)fondly recallreading inouryounger years, many of us when we were still in high school.


And yet, readingMockingbird again after forty years or so. . .hate to say it . . . but it is not a great novel.Not even close. I’m not evensure it’s a very good novel. It’s a little too black and white, too unshaded, too stylistically uninventive to rank up there with thebest novels of our time.

So we have a bit of a dilemma: here’s a book that many of us love and admire–but, whenconsidered objectively, is not really a veryimpressive work of art.

How to solve it?

Let’s take a hint from Wallace Stevens and his great poem, “Thirteen…

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Filed under books

6 responses to ““To Kill a Mockingbird”: Great Book But Not a Great Novel?

  1. Richard

    Hey Erich:
    Read “Mockingbird in the middle ’60. Just another book left behind by an airman heading to another duty station. The scene about killing the rabid dog held my attention, and the discovery of Scout’s champion, Bo Radley, was enthralling. Don’t much remember the rest.

    • Hi Richard — thanks for commenting. I’m looking forward to reading the new book, “Go Set a Watchman,” since apparently it’s very different from “Mockingbird.” Apparently it’s much angrier and less forgiving. That great humanist icon, Atticus Finch, apparently comes off as a bitter old racist (not the modern-day saint he becomes in “Mockingbird.”) We’ll see.

  2. Debbie

    Enjoyed your repost especially since hearing all the news about “Go set a Watchman.” From what I’ve heard and read, it seems as though the new book would not have had the same positive impact as “To Kill a Mockingbird” or been such a wonderful read for young adults. I may pass on ever reading it so I can keep Atticus Finch on his pedestal where he inspired many of us to be nicer to one another.

    • I’ve heard that other readers have expressed similar feelings about not wanting to read “Watchman” so as not to sully their fond memories of “Mockingbird.” That book was such an important and formative book for so many of us. I’m pretty sure I’ll read “Watchman” — if only to see how it compares to “Mockingbird.” Thanks for commenting.

  3. Sorry I didn’t get to this the first time you published it, Erich, but I’m glad you put it out there again. As you say, it’s a timely reminder with the new book (which is, I understand, actually an earlier version of “Mockingbird”?) coming out. I agree completely with your assessment. I too reread the novel a few years ago and was disappointed by the writing style, the character complexity, the potential (but unrealized) literary power. In fact, I set it down thinking the book was vastly overrated. But I appreciate your complicating the matter in your blog. And really your comments mesh exactly with my teenage daughter’s reaction to the book. She loves it and thinks it’s one of the most important books she’s ever read (and she’s a reader). So, yes, hurrah for the YA novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and its long and enduring reach on young minds. Ours back then and our children’s now . . . and their children’s in the future I hope. Recent events in the news should make it clear that books like Harper Lee’s are still necessary and “contemporary,” to use your word. Thanks again for your smart insights.


    • Thanks for your comments, Jack. As I’m getting older, I’m starting to appreciate that literature is a much wider tent than I thought when I was younger — and more certain about what constituted capital L “Literature” and what didn’t (we English Majors can be such snobs at times).

      Room for all kinds of books. And some, like “Mockingbird,” need not be great works of art to still have a profound and positive influence. So glad that Addie loves books too!

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