Harper Lee died at the age of 89 on Thursday, and though the past year saw a bit of controversy over the publication over her new novel, Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s 1960 debut To Kill a Mockingbird remains an undisputed classic piece of modern American literature. Even at the time, reviewers were impressed.
Take a look back at what book critics thought of To Kill a Mockingbird when it was first published in 1960. Most reviewers identified the book’s lineage in the tradition of Southern literature, and some erroneously thought they would be reading more books from Lee eventually. Interestingly, not many reviews focused on the book’s racial themes.
“Author Lee, 34, an Alabaman, has written her first novel with all of the tactile brilliance and none of the preciosity generally supposed to be standard swamp-warfare issue for Southern writers. The novel is an account of an awakening to good and evil, and a faint catechistic flavor may have been inevitable. But it is faint indeed; novelist Lee‘s prose has an edge that cuts through cant, and she teaches the reader an astonishing number of useful truths about little girls and about Southern life.”
“All the magic and truth that might seem deceptive or exaggerated in a factual account of a small town unfold beautifully in a new first novel called To Kill a Mockingbird. At a time when so many machine-tooled novels are simply documentaries disguised behind a few fictional changes, it is pleasing to recommend a book that shows what a novelist can accomplish with quite familiar situations.”
“The dialogue of Miss Lee’s refreshingly varied characters is a constant delight in its authenticity and swift revelation of personality. The events connecting the Finches with the Ewell-Robinson lawsuit develop quietly and logically, unifying the plot and dramatizing the author’s level-headed plea for interracial understanding.”
“Almost all the elements of the ‘southern’ novel are to be found somewhere or other in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, but they seem to wear a look of innocence, an aura of freshness, as if we were encountering them for the very first time.”
“We will have her with us, let us hope, for a considerable time to come because there is that about To Kill a Mockingbird which says that a genuine writer has arrived.”
“A variety of adults, mostly eccentric in Scout’s judgment, and a continual bubble of incident make To Kill A Mockingbird pleasant, undemanding reading.”
“The fact is simply that she has written a wonderfully absorbing story, unencumbered by either of the gimmicks – the bedroom or bestiality – which are supposed to be the only things that sell fiction today.”