In Defense of Atticus
Today I came across this article by Malcolm Gladwell on Atticus Finch: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/08/10/090810fa_fact_gladwell?currentPage=all. In the following paragraphs, I’ll explain why I disagree with Gladwell’s analysis of Atticus and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Let me qualify my statements by saying I’m working in rural Maine right now, and I have no access to a To Kill a Mockingbird book. I did teach the novel a year-and-a-half ago to ninth graders, however, so I do remember the passages I’ll reference here.
Gladwell spends the first third of his article describing Jim Folsom, an Alabaman governor of the 1950’s–who had a “gradual and paternalistic” view toward bringing about racial justice, “a prodigious drinker, and a brilliant campaigner,” and a man who said “All men are just alike.” And then Gladwell claims that Harper Lee based Atticus Finch’s character off Jim Folsom, that Atticus was an “Old-style Southern liberalist” instead of a Civil Right’s activist, and that, therefore, Atticus shouldn’t be toted as a such a hero, since he wasn’t radical enough.
Although Atticus wasn’t a large scale Civil Right’s activist, he also was not the passive, stuck-in-social-mores “Old-style Southern liberalist” that Malcolm Gladwell claims. I’ll take a closer look at the To Kill a Mockingbird passages Gladwell cites in order to debunk Gladwell’s claims.
Gladwell says the scene in which Atticus quietly leaves court after the jury pronounces Tom Robinson guilty shows Atticus couldn’t be a Civil Right’s hero. “If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict. But he isn’t. He’s not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law. He’s Jim Folsom, looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds.”
Why must Gladwell write in dichotomies? To him, if Atticus isn’t Thurgood Marshall then he must be Jim Folsom. But does Gladwell forget that Atticus doesn’t bow under the jury’s verdict? As Atticus says, he knew the jury would convict Tom Robinson; only Jem, Atticus’s son, in his naivete and youthful inexperience with racism, thinks Atticus stood a chance. Even before he lost, Atticus planned to take the case to a higher court, and he has hope to win in that court. But then Tom Robinson escapes, and is shot and killed, and Atticus’s work abruptly ends. He would have taken his case further if he had the chance; he doesn’t have the chance, so he continues his work as a small-town lawyer. Lee didn’t portray a governor like Folson or a big-time Civil Rights activist; she portrayed a small-town lawyer who did his best against racial prejudices.
At the end of this same section Gladwell writes that, “All men [Atticus] believes, are just alike.” Atticus never says or implies he believes all men are alike; his closing speech in court suggests this simple statement is ludicrous. All people are not or never will be equal in ability, he says, but everyone should be equal before the law. I wish I had before me this excellent speech–to which Gladwell never even mentions. Here, Atticus appeals to Tom Robinson’s innocence before the law, not just the “hearts-and-minds” approach for which Gladwell derides Atticus. Atticus doesn’t tell the jury to let Robinson off because they’re good people, Atticus tells the jury to let Tom Robinson off because he has proved Tom innocent, so it’s their duty before the law.
Gladwell, amazingly, admits that Atticus stands up to racism. Yet he qualifies this praise by citing instances where Atticus admits that some men who are racists also have good traits. Gladwell also qualifies this praise by saying “What [Atticus] will not do is look at the problem of racism outside the immediate context of Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Levy, and the island community of Maycomb, Alabama. Folsom was the same way.”
To Kill a Mockingbird is a good novel, and a good novel has complex characters. Thus, Atticus can applaud how Walter Cunningham lives independently of WPA handouts and rebuke him for leading a potential lynch mob. Atticus’ attitude doesn’t mean he applauds Cunningham’s racism; it just shows how any human being, with some admirable qualities, can also be racist. Gladwell ignores one of the excellent messages in Lee’s novel–that a racist can lurk within even the best of us–and complains that Lee didn’t go far enough in her condemnation.
Folsom was a governor; if he only looked at one town he wouldn’t have been doing his duty. But Atticus was a lawyer in one town whose first priority was that town. Plus, he would have looked beyond that town if he’d had a chance to take his case higher. Gladwell argues that Folsom (and by a weak extension, Atticus) couldn’t see that “racism had a structural dimension,” that it must be changed at a political, not just personal level. Atticus started with the personal level, but he also worked in the political realm. He worked for justice among his neighbors and then in the courts, leading to the larger world.
Next, Gladwell argues that Atticus wants the jurors to “swap one of their prejudices for another,” i.e. Atticus wants the jurors to be prejudiced against the white trash Ewells whereas they would usually be prejudiced against a black man. Yes, the Ewells are white trash, but in the courtroom Atticus never once refers to, let alone derides, the Ewell’s social class. He sticks strictly to facts of the case, and he gains no pleasure–personally or in the context of his case–in humiliating the girl Mayella, who says Robinson raped her but was in actuality raped or beaten by her father. Galdwell cites other cases of the time period that use class as a way to argue for guilt or innocence, but he uses no evidence of Atticus doing so in To Kill A Mockingbird’s court case.
And lastly, when I was sick of Gladwell picking apart the novel for his own argument, he completely misconstrues the book’s ending. A kind, eccentric neighborhood recluse, Boo Radley, kills Bob Ewell when Ewell is trying to hurt, or even kill, Scout and Jem, Atticus’ kids. The Sheriff and Atticus decide not to bring the events to the limelight. Gladwell claims that this final event means, “Maycomb would go back to the way it had always been,” that the Sheriff and Atticus have “cut their little side deal” and “decided to obstruct justice in the name of saving their beloved neighbor (ie. Boo Radley) the burden of angel-food cake.” This conclusion may be cute word choice yet it’s untrue to the novel and the characters’ motivations.
If they took Boo to court, he’d get off in self-defense, but they decide he should be left alone. Boo Radley’s character is a parallel to Tom Robinson’s character. Both men have quietly done good to others and deserve to be left alone. Robinson is brought to the spotlight and convicted of a crime he didn’t commit; Boo would be brought to the spotlight and acquitted of an act of self-defense. The Sheriff and Atticus want to spare him of this exposure to which they couldn’t spare Tom Robinson. Furthermore, Maycomb can’t revert to the way it has been, because it never changed in the first place. It still doesn’t understand the best citizens among it, and it still needs people like Atticus and the Sheriff (who asked Atticus to take Tom Robinson’s case) to defend its falsely accused and misunderstood people.
Gladwell’s last two sentences say that Atticus adopts “one set of standards for respectable whites like Boo Radley and another for white trash like Bob Ewell. A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism in Maycomb, Alabama.” I’ll discuss each sentence separately.
Let me reiterate that Atticus never acts on social conventions; he looks at peoples’ actions and characters. Ewell both raped or beat his own daughter as well as tried to killed Atticus’ children. Boo Radley saved Atticus’ children’s life. Their social class was completely incidental to his views of the people. And who thought Boo Radley was a respectable white anyway? The whole town except Atticus wanted Boo thrown in an asylum and said that he sliced his own father’s leg open with scissors. Boo Radley is only deemed “respectable” in order to fit Gladwell’s argument.
And that last sentence–meant to be revelatory and stunning–doesn’t make sense. The first and the second potential functions of the book aren’t mutually exclusive. Even if the book did only tell us about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism, wouldn’t that be a way of “instructing us about the world?” (A very vague phrase, by the way.) The world of Alabama, in the fifties, placed limits on Jim Crow liberalism, and To Kill a Mockingbird, through specific characters and situations, could show these limits so that political reformers and others could make things how they should be. Although, as I’ve proved, Atticus wasn’t the passive man, ignorant of the outside world, that Gladwell thinks.
So, why was Atticus a hero? It would take someone more learned than I to scratch the surface of that complex character. But, as a teacher, I taught him as an admirable character because he treats people the same despite their race, social class, or differing viewpoints. Atticus has progressive views and hidden talents and yet, unlike Gladwell’s description of Folsom, Atticus uses these views and talents only when occasion arises, not vainly, nor superfluously. He is a man who works for family justice all the time and neighborhood and community justice and national justice when occasion arises. I could give multiple examples which prove these traits, but I’ll spare you here. Other real Civil Right’s heroes could have had different, maybe better, qualities, but these are Atticus’ fictional ones.
This complex, classic novel and novel’s hero deserves a more nuanced perspective than this article gives it and him.