Within a year of its publication in 1960, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird was translated into ten languages, selling more than 500,000 copies worldwide. By 1975, the novel had gone through ninety-four printings, becoming the third best-selling American novel of the century. Not surprisingly, To Kill a Mockingbird has never been out of print, and, in a 1991 "Survey of Lifetime Reading Habits," the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress discovered that the novel was second only to the Bible as the book "most often cited as making a difference" in people's lives.
How then is it possible, in this age that indiscriminately encourages the proliferation of academic discourse, that Claudia Durst Johnson's new study is the first book-length treatment of Lee's novel? As Johnson herself observes, "The critical assessment of To Kill a Mockingbird forms one of the most astonishing chapters in American literary history. The novel steadfastly maintains its position in the contemporary canon as an American masterpiece. . . . Yet in the 33 years since its publication, it has never been the focus of a dissertation, and it has been the subject of only six literary studies, several of them no more than a couple of pages long." Fortunately, Johnson's carefully constructed and clearly written assessment seeks to correct the astonishing oversights of the past. Treating the novel with the seriousness it has long deserved, Johnson reveals, in a way that no other critic has yet done, that Lee's novel not only withstands but also demands close critical scrutiny.
Johnson's study is divided into eight chapters, with the first three chapters providing the literary and historical context. Opening with a survey of the radical climate in the Deep South during both the Depression (the time in which the novel takes place) and the civil rights era (the time in which the novel was written), Johnson notes the parallels between Tom Robinson's case and the notorious Scottsboro trials in the early 1930s. Having established this historical background, Johnson then examines how the novel has become entangled in censorship controversies. For sundry reasons, To Kill a Mockingbird has become one of the most challenged novels of our time. As Johnson notes, however, there is "an ironic pattern in the censorship of the novel." In the mid-sixties, with To Kill a Mockingbird firmly established in the secondary school curriculum, "the complaints came from southern conservatives. . . . [and] the stated objections were to profanity, sex scenes, and immorality." The second round of objections, coming in the seventies and eighties, "took place in the East and Midwest by the religious right and African-Americans, with the latter group objecting to...
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