Several weeks late, today I read Malcolm Gladwell's critical reappraisal of To Kill a Mockingbird. (I've resigned myself to the reality of always being weeks behind on my New Yorker reading.) As is usual with good man Malcolm, he makes fascinating points while simultaneously over-reaching. This isn't necessarily a bad thing--a more measured perspective would be more boring. Gladwell's general style is to push his arguments past the breaking point, presumably in full awareness that whatever he says will generate a backlash. Since that's the case, why not go for all the marbles?
Like countless children, growing up I read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. The standard lessons of the novel are that prejudice is evil (the kindly African-American Tom Robinson did not rape a white woman named Mayella Ewell) and that people in positions of influence must challenge prejudice even at great cost to their comfort and position (this is the example of Atticus Finch, the white lawyer who unsuccessfully defends Tom Robinson against a trumped up charge.)
Gladwell takes Finch off his perch, by arguing that he swaps one set of prejudices for another (a subtext of his rape defense for Tom Robinson is that Mayella Ewell is nothing but worthless white trash anyway) and that's he's not a racial freedom fighter so much as a racial accomodationist. Furthermore, the core of Finch's rape defense for Robinson is really weak; this corroborates the notion that he's an accomodationist more than an activist. And finally, what would have been the big deal if the ladies of Maycomb gave Boo Radley a mess of angel-food cake? He did save the life of Atticus's children, after all.
Let's take each argument in turn.
1. Mayella is trash: With support from legal scholar Steven Lubet and historian Lisa Lindquist Dorr, Gladwell persuasively argues that Finch does paint Mayella as white trash in the courtoom. (When Mayella takes the stand, Atticus tells her, "I won't try to scare you for a while" [emphasis mine]). Atticus's legal strategy is to make out Mayella to be the lowest of the low, and thus less reputable than kindly Tom Robinson. Dorr's research shows that with rape cases in early 20th centuty Virginia (not Alabama, where Mockingbird takes place), white men sometimes exonerated black men if they were accused of raping "trashy" women. Tom's own testimony implies that Mayella's father Bob rapes her, and also strongly hints that Mayella lured Tom to the house for thr purpose of having sex. While the reality of incest made me sympathize with Mayella, both Lubet and Gladwell argue that it's designed to make the jury loathe Mayella even more.
In Atticus's defense, this is a murder trial and he's Tom's attorney. Courthouses are rough places, especially for racially fraught trials. Even if we concede that he is too hard on Mayella, Tom's life is at stake.
2. Atticus is an accomodationist, not a radical on behalf of racial justice: I agree with Gladwell's analysis, but not his conclusion that this somehow reduces the worth of Atticus. Gladwell becomes enraged at Atticus's conversations with his daughter Scout that seem to excuse the motives of horribly racist white people; but as both Isaac Chotiner and Marshall Carter have pointed out, Gladwell forgets that Atticus is trying to sugarcoat painful truths for his child. Even so, the more general point that Atticus tries to see the good in very flawed people is valid.
But so what? This is what Martin Luther King Jr. did as well (as Chotiner also reminds us). I think that Atticus is trying to straddle his belief in racial justice with his painful recognition of the eternal flaws of human beings. And he can point out aspects of even the worst person that make him smile. Life is complex and people are multifaceted; Gladwell seems to want Atticus to be a raging soldier rather than a wise, decent and reflective adult.
Sorry Malcolm, I am with Atticus all the way. Contemporary case in point: Last fall's vote for Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California, was an abomination. But all the people who voted for it are not abominable.
3. The rape defense is pathetic: This is so true, although I never realized it until Gladwell--channeling Lubet--brought it to my attention. The crux of the defense: Mayella has bruises on the right side of her face, and Tom's left hand is worthless. So? This only means he couldn't have hit her from left to right. There are many ways a man with one good hand could have hurt her (her daddy is right-handed, though, so the argument is that he had a cleaner shot at Mayella. That still doesn't make sense). The only thing I can think of is Atticus's favor here is that he wasn't prepared to come straight out and say that Mayella wanted to sleep with Tom--he strongly implied it, but given his instincts to straddle the racial divide decided that a blunt statement would have been too explosive. Even so, the core of his defense is pretty lame.
4. Give Boo Radley his angel-food cake: After the trial, a humiliated Bob Ewell attempts to murder Atticus's children. Thankfully, the reclusive and mysterious Boo Radley emerges from his house just in time to prevent the carnage; he kills Ewell while he's outside. Sheriff Tate and Atticus concoct a story that Bob Ewell fell on his knife, and Atticus pressures Scout to go along with it. Why? Because wacky Boo Radley didn't want any attention (or any angel-food cake from fawning women). He just wanted to go back to his house.
While Boo is indeed a recluse, he still deserves acknowledgment. The fact that Bob Ewell was willing to murder children should be known. Yes, this would have exascerbated the racial divide even further (presumably this is the real reason for the cover-up, not the angel-food cake.) But in this instance Atticus's non-confrontational instincts fail him. If Bob's patheticness became public knowledge, perhaps--who knows?--this could have led to a surge of support (albeit too little too late) for Tom Robinson.
While I don't agree with Gladwell on all points, I'm glad he wrote this article. Mockingbird is a hoary old chestnut that I haven't thought about in years, and certainly not as closely as I did today. All good literature needs to be supple and open to changing interpretations, both individually and culturally. By this standard, Mockingbird remains very good indeed.