New Yorker article on Atticus Finch, Southern Lit and Liberalism

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New Yorker article on Atticus Finch, Southern Lit and Liberalism

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ag. 3, 2009, 1:56 pm

Interesting piece in the New Yorker about Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
Malcolm Gladwell penned the article. There is plenty to think about (whether you agree or disagree with him) as Gladwell compares the book and other Southern Lit with Big Jim Folsom and some real-world events and people.
The one sentence that stuck out for me was:

"In the years since, he (Atticus Finch) has become a role model for the legal profession. But he’s much closer to Folsom’s side of the race question than he is to the civil-rights activists who were arriving in the South as Lee wrote her novel."

Anyone else read the piece?

ag. 4, 2009, 3:31 pm


Just wanted to thank you for posting the link to the article. There's indeed plenty to think about.

ag. 11, 2009, 9:58 am

I did read it, and I had some contrary thoughts.
I think there's a fundamental flaw in his comparison of Atticus Finch to Jim Folsom. It hits you in the face in the beginning of this paragraph: "Big Jim Folsom left office in 1959. The next year, a young Southern woman published a novel set in mid-century Alabama" Italics mine. To Kill a Mockingbird doesn't take place in mid-century, which I would define as the 1950's. It is set in the 1930's---a depression and a world war away from the time period when Jim Folsom was governor of Alabama. Gladwell describes the political climate of the "Alabama of Folsom---and Lee" (Harper, not Robert E.) in the 50's and 60's, contrasting civil-rights activists with old-style Southern liberalism, and then asks "On what side was Harper Lee's Atticus Finch?" I say that is not a valid question. Lee was writing about the Alabama of her youth, not the Alabama of the decade prior to publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, and certainly not of the decade AFTER its publication. Gladwell makes some valid points, but he weakens them with this sloppy rhetoric.

gen. 4, 2010, 4:29 pm

Here's what I wrote to Mr Gladwell regarding his article:

Mr Gladwell:

I enjoyed reading your recent article "The Courthouse Ring: Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern liberalism," but some points raised my dander.

Folsom's experience and Lee's fiction seem to show that individuals, even Southern whites, could be hamstrung by the same structural forces that oppressed their "colored brothers". These men, while granted a certain privilege to sidestep the pillars of Jim Crow segregation, would never have been able to pull them down. This is the lesson that George Wallace (formerly known as a progressive protege of Folsom's) publicly learned before he won his first statewide election. This is the reality that Folsom himself struggled with as the "noblesse" behind his "oblige" ebbed. Finch faces up to the same limitations at trial. You acknowledge all of this, but present nothing that I recognize as a viable alternative. I would suggest that perhaps there were prospective revolutionaries in the mold of what you look for, but that they were so ineffective as to have faded entirely from history without leaving much of a mark.

Secondly, and more particularly, in the borrowed deconstruction of the criminal case depicted in "To Kill a Mockingbird" it sounds as if the criticism accepts the fiction of the defense strategy but denies the fictional context of the crime. Can we not allow that Finch's defense employs the facts of the case rather than constructing a fiction designed to manipulate the jurors' prejudices? Perhaps we should be discussing how Lee, like Dickens, bears the ideological marks of her time and place rather than how Finch errs in framing his defense of Robinson. The "deconstruction" mistakes the literary construction for the cultural one.

The aftermath of the trial brings us back to the larger idea, which is, as you have noted, that the Southern liberal's sense of right and wrong is personal. What I would add is that it is also profoundly Christian. The structure which resists revolution is larger and more entrenched than Jim Crow or even the peculiar institution that undergirds it. It does not await a Folsom or a Finch to dismantle it, but Armageddon itself. The failures of Southern liberals are parallel to the perceived failures of Jesus of Nazareth in the eyes of his apostles. The gospels provide the precedent for what are described here as liberalisms failures. I would argue that its successes are there, too.

It was only WITHIN the very structure of prejudice, of blind spots and of virtue's power to sidestep an unjust code, that any kind of revolution ever did take place in the South. Rosa Parks wasn't the first woman to defy a Montgomery bus driver, she was just the first one of unimpeachable virtue. Addie Mae, Carole, Cynthia and Denise weren't the first victims of anti-integrationist terrorism, they were just the very pictures of innocence. Those were the figures who as martyrs most directly unlocked the limited successes we can claim today. The mythic heroes of the South, whether white or black, are men and women of sorrows.