The selection of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird for this year's "One Book, One Denver" city-wide book club program must have seemed like a safe bet politically. The book's long been entombed in the shrine of high literature, a staple among middle-school curricula everywhere. Plus, this year is the book's fiftieth anniversary -- time for a birthday party, whoopee!
Too bad Malcolm Gladwell, aka "the smartest man in the universe," thinks it sucks.
That's more or less what cerebral superstar Gladwell argues in his August10 New Yorker article, "The Courthouse Ring: Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern liberalism." Utilizing one of his signature quirky, thought-provoking comparisons, Gladwell lines up Lee's fictional character Atticus Finch, a do-gooding Alabama lawyer who represents a black man falsely accused of raping of a white woman, with Big Jim Folsom, the liberal 1950s Alabama governor who was critical of Jim Crow standards. According to Gladwell, Folsom and other social liberals in the South at the time were only willing to take civil rights and desegregation so far -- and were eventually replaced out by true activists, those willing to fight for equality, come hell or high water. Or as Gladwell puts it:
Old-style Southern liberalism--gradual and paternalistic--crumbled in the face of liberalism in the form of an urgent demand for formal equality. Activism proved incompatible with Folsomism.
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And what about Finch, Lee's fictional hero? He's no better, says Gladwell, since the lawyer's "hearts-and-minds approach is about accommodation, not reform." Gladwell's reasoning is an interesting read, though not terribly compelling, as others have already argued.
Gladwell's critical of Finch's reluctance to push too hard against racial injustice. He's struck, for example, that the lawyer isn't "brimming with rage at the unjust verdict" when his client is found guilty.
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But as my esteemed colleague Alan Prendergast put it, Gladwell is guilty here of "presentism" -- projecting modern-day values onto depictions of the past. Lee published To Kill A Mockingbird in the late 1950s, at the end of Folsom's tenure and concurrent with the first inklings of the civil-rights movement. But the novel's set two decades earlier. Sure, a guy like Finch these days might be up in arms over the trial (especially if there were television cameras around to capture the attention-getting histrionics), but in the 1930s, in the heart of the deep South? For a single, struggling dad like Finch who's trying to keep his ass from getting lynched, it's not surprising he kept any such racial-equality passions under wraps.
Today, Finch might be a more laudable character today if he'd staged a sit-in. But that wouldn't fit in with the subtle, complex world Lee created. Granted, that doesn't make for a very good Gladwellian metaphor -- but it does make for a good read.