For the Defense
Isaac Chotiner says a lot of what needs to be said about Malcolm Gladwell’s latest strained analogy-cum-article on To Kill a Mockingbird and the Jim Crow South. As best I can tell, Gladwell’s argument – that the genteel liberalism of men like Atticus Finch helped perpetuate Jim Crow – rests on the colorful biography of an Alabama governor and three tenuous observations about the book.
Let’s take each one separately. First: Finch’s muted response to the Robinson verdict. According to Gladwell, this is at odds with the fiery passion of the Civil Rights Movement, which “us[ed] the full, impersonal force of the law to compel equality.” This seems an odd criteria for assessing a fictional character’s credibility on race; throwing a fit in the courtroom wouldn’t have actually done anything for Finch’s client, Tom Robinson. Moreover, Finch was quite committed to using “the full, impersonal force of the law” to compel a favorable verdict – he was working on an appeal when Robinson was killed in prison.
Gladwell’s second argument – that Finch won’t unequivocally condemn his racist neighbors – is equally unconvincing. Finch does admonish his daughter, Scout, not to hate. He may also be guilty of downplaying the influence of the Ku Klux Klan. As Chotiner notes, these are the sort of things you would expect to say to your pre-adolescent daughter. As for Gladwell’s argument that Finch’s willingness to excuse racism from poor white farmers like Walter Cunningham represents some great moral failure, no less an authority than Barack Obama believes that ” . . . a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street” can also be a caring and loving grandparent. To Kill a Mockingbird’s great lesson is that people cannot be reduced to caricatures; this happens to apply to everyone, racists included.
Gladwell’s third argument is more interesting, probably because it contains at least a grain of truth:
This is essentially the defense that Atticus Finch fashions for his client. Robinson is the churchgoer, the “good Negro.” Mayella, by contrast, comes from the town’s lowest breed of poor whites.
The Ewells are trash. When the defense insinuates that Mayella is the victim of incest at the hands of her father, it is not to make her a sympathetic figure. It is, in the eugenicist spirit of the times, to impugn her credibility—to do what A. A. Sizer did in the John Mays case: The victim, coming from the same inferior stock, would likely share her father’s moral character.
Finch wants his white, male jurors to do the right thing. But as a good Jim Crow liberal he dare not challenge the foundations of their privilege. Instead, Finch does what lawyers for black men did in those days. He encourages them to swap one of their prejudices for another.
Bob Ewell embodies the Jim Crow South’s worst excesses, so perhaps there’s some merit to this. But surely the credibility of a key witness is a relevant line of inquiry in a courtroom? Moreover, the decisive evidence at trial is physical, not character-related, which is why Jem says “we’ve got him” after Finch establishes that Ewell is left-handed on the witness stand. Gladwell may be right to argue that this exculpatory physical evidence wouldn’t cut it in a real courtroom, but this is a novel, and the (fictional) context implies that Ewell’s inconsistent testimony and Robinson’s limp left arm prove his innocence.
In short, Finch is about as committed to his client as one could reasonably expect from an isolated Southern liberal in the midst of the Great Depression. Gladwell gets closer to the truth of Jim Crow when describing Alabama’s political make-up:
Alabama was made up of “island communities,” each dominated by a small clique of power brokers, known as a “courthouse ring.” There were no Republicans to speak of in the Alabama of that era, only Democrats. Politics was not ideological. It was personal. What it meant to be a racial moderate, in that context, was to push for an informal accommodation between black and white.
I suspect that this insular tradition, not the genteel liberalism of Finch and others like him, is why the post-war South could not be reformed from within. Criticizing Atticus Finch for not doing enough to end Jim Crow is a bit like blaming Mayella Ewell for her awful lot in life; surely context ought to count for something?