Harping About Harper Lee


With this year’s 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, writers have been spurred to question whether the book deserves its place in the hall of American classics.

Allen Barra sees Lee’s work as markedly inferior to other Alabama born writers such as Zora Neale Hurston or Walker Percy. According to Barra, the book is perhaps the most overrated in American literature. Author Thomas Mallon remarked in a 2006 New Yorker that the book is a classic taught in schools purely because it acts as a “moral Ritalin, an ungainsayable endorser of the obvious.” Barra, in agreement with Mallon, describes Atticus as the deliverer of one-liners that could have been stolen from high school English papers, citing phrases like:

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…”

“I do my best to love everybody.”

Some commentators on Barra’s piece are incredulous towards the critique (“classic,” “height of literary expression,” holds “enduring charm,” etc), but most seem to agree (“saccharine soaked maudlin” or “Atticus Finch is Latin for Bird Brain”).

Barra isn’t the only writer questioning Mockingbird. Instead of instructing us about the world, Malcolm Gladwell sees the book as an instruction in the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism. And journalist Richard King agrees with team critique.

Still, many people have flurried to defend Boo, Atticus, Scout, and Lee. Some notable responses:

“Morality in literature is not very fashionable today — too many complexities, too many shades of grey, a sense we have argued it all out long ago — but there is something about Mockingbird that still rouses fresh and horrified indignation.” —Jane Sullivan

“Few contemporary literary American novels have such a sweep and fewer have the confidence to take on social issues in the way Harper Lee does. Much literary writing today about racism is cloaked in irony or in so much lyricism that it becomes gaseous. Lee refuses to hide behind aesthetics. “– Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

“Many of those who feel most passionately about the book left their last classrooms long ago. Perhaps is it not in English class where this book lives but in our hearts and minds. Here we hold Atticus and Boo and Scout, alongside the idea of certain justice done in a familiar place, and done well. This is where we hold a uniquely American sense of ourselves in America and as Americans.”–Lee Carpenter

So what do you think, readers? Classic or overrated?

Nina Moog is a writer and director of photography based in Germany. She holds an MA from the University of St. Andrews and an MSc from the University of Oxford, where her thesis focused on photographic representations of prisons. More from this author →