Why even write this article?
August 5, 2009
Malcolm Gladwell has written a terrible article about To Kill a Mockingbird. Its purpose is to obscure far more than to enlighten, and in that it succeeds.
Novels need not present “constructive suggestions” to be good art. Nor need novelists be voices for social reform. In fact, Dickens’s status as one of them interferes with his art. The man was a little too enthusiastic for his own good, and part of the harm it did him was to leave him open to this criticism by George Orwell: “He believed in the power of changing hearts, and that’s what you believe in, Orwell says, if you ‘do not wish to endanger the status quo.’” Orwell’s insistence on seeing Dickens, a different and at times explicitly political novelist, as an advocate of the status quo, does not translate to Lee or her protagonist being such advocates. Gladwell implies as much, however. “But in cases where the status quo involves systemic injustice this is no more than a temporary strategy. Eventually, such injustice requires more than a change of heart.” But that’s a critique of Finch or Lee only if you misinterpret their purposes!
Finch is a defense lawyer. This means that he has a duty to a particular client in a particular situation. He does not owe a duty to the structures of Alabama, or the structures of racism or sexism. It would be unethical of him to abandon the best defense of his client because it was related to a different prejudice in the jurors’ mind. Thus, it is not “as a Jim Crow liberal” that he “dare[s] not challenge the foundations of [the juror’s] privilege,” but as a good lawyer of any age or political persuasion. His defense doesn’t tell us about liberalism, Jim Crow or otherwise, but about justice: it must be enacted in particulars, and can only come to light through particulars. Harper Lee’s story cannot be about fixing the racism, sexism, and classism of Alabama precisely because it’s about a particular defendant tried by a particular lawyer. She’s a novelist, not a politician or activist; she’s telling a story, not advocating systemic change. And Atticus’s limitations in court are not formed by liberalism, but by law.
Gladwell’s big test of Finch’s and Lee’s ability to “tell us about life,” comes when Finch decides not insist on the Sheriff punishing Boo Radley for murder. But mightn’t justice include treating folks like Boo Radley different from folks like Bob Ewell? Even if one’s triumphant non-Jim-Crow liberalism, which is apparently much stronger, more “principled,” and effective than its cousin, recoils at this notion, shouldn’t we pay attention to the common opinions on this one? Police use discretion very much like the Sheriff’s all the time, even if we’re not comfortable saying that it’s in the context of murder investigations (although of course it’s exercised there, too). Would we not want them to do so?
I wonder what Gladwell thinks about arresting people for disorderly conduct. Surely arresting every person who violates the law would not result in perfect justice. Gladwell says this scene shows us that Finch is just a guy trapped by Jim Crow liberalism because Finch’s “response is to adopt one set of standards for respectable whites like Boo Radley and another for white trash like Bob Ewell.” I don’t think it’s at all honest to say that the Sheriff’s decision is based on class: Bob Ewell is a guy who just tried to kill two children, never mind his history as an incestuous rapist, whereas Radley is a deformed recluse, who for this reason may not be trustworthy, no?, by 1930s Alabama’s unspeakably ignorant standards. Determining how to react to this set of facts requires complicated balancing that is in no way reducible to Ewell’s living in poverty and Radley’s not. In truth, exercising this discretion requires lawmen, in all times and places, to make the judgments on whom to arrest, charge, and prosecute based at least partly on character. Setting aside the entire poetic point of this scene—comparing such an act to the monstrous killing of a creature that only brings beauty to others—how the hell is this situation not telling us about “life,” then, but instead solely about some parochial political view?
Finally, if Gladwell’s going to call Harper Lee a misogynist and eugenicist, why doesn’t he just come out and say it? His critique of her portrayal of Mayella Ewell approaches that line and might as well cross it. But, instead, mightn’t it be the case that, in this novel’s town, such a person as Mayella exists? That, in the real world of the Great Depression, such terrible poverty, ignorance, and suffering were present among poor whites? That such poor whites did seek to blame their misfortunes on blacks? That juries in the 1930s would plausibly be persuaded by pointing out the existence and habits of such people? Eugenics is wrong, and using such a defense to a rape charge is morally perilous. But the poverty that inspired eugenics can be pointed out (in the 1960s, no less, after we’ve already seen eugenics in operation) without one being a eugenicist, and the only sort of defense that might persuade a 1930s Alabama jury to acquit a black man might be employed (to no effect) without one being a misogynist. To paint such a wretched character as Mayella is not to endorse, or even fail to challenge, the “structures” that brought her low, and to imply that Lee’s description of white poverty is an endorsement of some of the 1930s’ errors on that score is, at best, negligent.
Why even write such an article? Hubris, entitlement, smugness, and false security come to mind.