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  • More Than One Way to (Mis)Read a Mockingbird
  • Jennifer Murray (bio)

The task of criticism, then, is not to situate itself within the same space as the text, allowing it to speak or completing what it necessarily leaves unsaid. On the contrary, its function is to install itself in the very incompleteness of the work in order to theorise it—to explain the ideological necessity of those 'not-saids' which constitutes the very principle of its identity.

—Terry Eagleton, Criticism and Ideology

To Kill a Mockingbird has become the object of a recent renewal of critical interest, starting with Claudia D. Johnson's To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries (1994) and culminating in On Harper Lee: Essays and Reflections (2007).1 Reading through this critical corpus, one is struck by two things: the recurrence of a need to justify having spent one's time on To Kill a Mockingbird in the first place (Johnson, Jolley, Hovet & Hovet, and to a lesser degree, Rowe) and the repetitive insistence on the themes of racism, sexism, and the 'coming of age' typology of the novel. Secondary themes, such as the focus on gothic elements by Johnson, the emphasis on vision by Champion, or the very coherent analysis of gift economy by John Carlos Rowe, seem to give the novel credit for greater discursive density, but one senses that the dynamics of the critical debate on the novel are already beginning to go around in circles. This gives some weight to the suspicion that To Kill a Mockingbird, despite its awards and popularity, is a less than great novel, without quelling the intuition that it is, at the same time, a novel worthy of critical consideration.2 My goal here will be to elucidate some of the characteristics of this not quite "splendid failure," but at least lopsided [End Page 75] achievement. To do so, I will interrogate those aspects of the text that are radically open to interpretative debate, the knots and tangles in the work that seem to indicate points of unresolved tension symptomatic of artistic or ideological compromise.3 These fault-lines that disrupt the evenness of the writing are related to most aspects of the novel: its structural cohesion, the identification and status of a "main character," and its ideological positioning in terms of race, class, and gender. What is fascinating about these textual disturbances is that they do not necessarily give rise, in recent criticism, to a questioning of the presuppositions or pressures that produced them, but rather that they tend to fuel a process of disavowal: a refusal to see. In concrete terms, this is manifested by a critical propensity to fill in the disturbing blanks, to smooth over contradictions, or simply to misread the text.

Originating from a few short stories, To Kill a Mockingbird is first of all the product of marketing pressures. In the mid–1950s, Harper Lee showed the stories she had written about her childhood experiences to a literary agent who "suggested that she consider going a step further by weaving the stories into a novel … She attempted to do so in 1956 and a year later, she had completed the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird" ("Nelle"). The transformation of the stories into a novel was not immediately successful. Editors at Lippincott "criticized the novel's structure, which they felt read like a series of short stories strung together," but "saw promise in the book and encouraged Lee to rewrite it" (Chapman & Dear 270; qtd in Petry 160). Lee spent nearly three years modifying her work to meet the editors' requirements.

The first question this raises is: why was the transformation of short stories into a novel considered to be "a step further"; why couldn't the stories be published as short stories? Clearly the answer is that novels were more marketable than short story collections. In his biography of Alice Munro, Robert Thacker notes that in the 1950s and 1960s "it was a truism among publishers that [short story] collections did not sell, and that they should be attempted only once an author's reputation was already established through the prior publication of a novel" (142). Thacker refers to...


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