Understanding Great Literature: Understanding To Kill A Mockingbird, by Catherine Bernard
There is a bit of an irony about this book. Actually, there are several layers of irony. For one, this book was written in the early 2000’s, before Harper Lee had a second novel published–which appears to have been the original and rough version of To Kill A Mockingbird itself, showing the changes that took place during the editing process . For another, this book is an example of a search to capitalize on the interest of books which are treated to a critical reading that is suitable for high school or undergraduate students just entering into textual criticism for themselves, although in this case the author freely concedes that not much critical writing has been done on To Kill A Mockingbird despite its immense popularity because it is viewed as merely children’s literature which is apparently beneath serious research. I happen to disagree with that view, as does the author (evidently), but the lack of critical writing about To Kill A Mockingbird means that there is less depth in this book about To Kill A Mockingbird than would otherwise be the case. The more criticism that exists about a work, the easier it is to get a sense of it and make one’s own place among it.
In terms of its contents, this book is rather simply and straightforwardly written. This is not a book that is going to give a reader very many surprises but is on the whole a pleasant read. After a short foreword the author discusses the so-far enduring appeal of To Kill A Mockingbird, the biography of Harper Lee, and the historical context of To Kill A Mockingbird that manages to use the past to critique the present of the author, and even the present of the reader. The last three chapters look at the plot, cast of characters, and the general paucity of literary criticism. Admittedly, perhaps the most humorous part of the book for me was looking at the book reviews that the book had received at the time and afterward. At the time the readers noted it within the southern fiction of its time, but afterward at least some readers seem to have found more depth here. There is a great deal of depth to find, and reading the book reviews of others is an unusual experience when one writes so many. The book is closed by notes and some suggestions for further exploration.
Ultimately, this is a book about a book, so whether or not you appreciate this book will depend a great deal on whether you like To Kill A Mockingbird or not. Many people have to read that book in high school like I did, but I wonder how many people choose to think about the novel and its subject matter outside of the context of education. Writing about adult subjects like rape, racial injustice, and integrity. The author makes some worthwhile comments about the way that Harper Lee takes her life and experience and repurposes it for her own writings, which makes for an interesting approach. Given the autobiographical nature of much of her work, it is of little surprise that she would be so private about herself. Also impressive is the way that the author discusses the complicated editing process that turned Harper’s original work into a classic. Writers are often of the belief that their first draft is definitive and sometimes it can be worthwhile to understand how a novel can be found through the process of rewriting and reflecting. Harper’s work with Truman Capote is also worthy of comment, as it shows that writers need good friends. That was especially true of Harper Lee.
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