Monday, August 3, 2009

Andy, Atticus, and Our Inheritance

In this interesting essay, Malcolm Gladwell reconsiders To Kill a Mockingbird's Atticus Finch, suggesting ways in which Finch is complicit in the unjust practices of his society.

Having just finished Douglas A. Blackmon's Slavery By Another Name, I've been re-thinking Atticus Finch as well, along with Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show.

Blackmon makes a compelling case that the label "Jim Crow" trivializes the terror and oppression of the period from the end of the Civil War to WWII. He proposes "the Age of Neo-Slavery" as an alternative that adequately describes the system of forced labor and political disenfranchisement that blocked the promise of freedom to African Americans.

It's a great book, horrifying at times in its detail, and it makes clear how different Atticus and Andy are from the more familiar images of the Southern lawyer and sheriff at the time. Blackmon narrates the stories of Southern lawyers who defended their clients against charges of holding black workers in involuntary servitude by arguing, cynically (but ultimately successfully), that no federal laws actually forbade the holding of slaves. Blackmon explains the legal system of the South that set up sheriffs with nearly absolute power over their tiny jurisdictions, allowing them to reap profit by arresting blacks on flimsy or fabricated charges and then leasing them out to mining companies, turpentine manufacturers, farmers, and others.

In this disturbing historical context, Atticus and Andy look like liberal fantasies—the lawyer who does his best to help a black defendant, or the wise, understanding sheriff who gently keeps the peace in his small town (which, as far as I can recall, had no black people in it). At the time, perhaps, these characters were conceived in contrast to their less attractive counterparts in the real world. As dominant images in Americans' collective memories, however, they run the risk of obscuring reality.

Gladwell's piece offers a nice alternate interpretation—and Blackmon's book digs up the bones of the past, forcing us to account for how the violence of our history relates to the present time.

Blackmon writes, near the end of the book:

When white Americans frankly peel back the layers of our commingled pasts, we are all marked by it. Whether a company or an individual, we are marred either by our connections to the specific crimes and injuries of our fathers and their fathers. Or we are tainted by the failures of our fathers to fulfill our national credos when their courage was most needed. We are formed in molds twisted by the gifts we received at the expense of others. It is not our "fault." But it is undeniably our inheritance.


Anonymous said...

I have to say that I don't buy it. I haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird in about twenty-five years, and I suspect that I'd find it flawed in all sorts of ways if I were to go back to it now, but Gladwell's reading is so shallow it makes me sad. It is true, of course, that there are limits to the sort of Aurelian stoicism that Atticus Finch is famous for. One cannot bring about radical social change by behaving nobly--whatever that may mean. But Gladwell's confidence in his own kind of liberalism (his belief in the technocratic application of the principles of social science, I guess) blinds him to the limitations of engineering social change by "using the full, impersonal force of the law to compel equality." I find it chilling when such blindness leads him to fault Atticus for his lack of hatred and rage. Isn't that just what America needs: the full, impersonal force of the law in the hands of those who are "brimming with rage" over injustice? I'll take King over Atticus, but give me Atticus over Robespierre.

Still, beyond such political smugness, my real quarrel with Gladwell is that he seems to understand almost nothing about what novels are. Like the proverbial hammer-bearer who sees a world full of nails, Gladwell, the journalist with a bent toward social science, can imagine no purpose for art beyond documenting inequality and inciting social change. Under such circumstances, his disappointment with Lee is inevitable. Dickens, too, disappoints such expectations. So must Austen, Balzac, and Tolstoy. I am left wondering what sort of novelists Gladwell admires--these novelists who are less concerned with "human nature" than with challenging the "systematic injustice of the status quo." Are we talking Upton Sinclair? Novels may have social and moral implications, but they are first and foremost aesthetic objects, imitations of some arc of human action. In this case, the action imitated is one of failure. Again, my memory may fail me to some extent, but it seems to me that Harper Lee, like many white southern writers of the twentieth century, is interested in the type of the noble failure and is exploring that type in Atticus Finch. Gladwell raises fair questions about whether Atticus's nobility is worthy of the name, but his main point--that Atticus would make a poor political activist--is a moot absurdity.

Liz said...

not to trivialize this post or your comments (i intend to read the gladwell piece soon), but where does the andy griffith as ben matlock fit into this scenario?

framiko said...

Interesting question, Liz. Hmmm. In one sense, I suppose, Ben Matlock is Andy Taylor and Atticus Finch rolled into one. I suppose you could also see Matlock's staff of investigators (white woman, black man), as evidence of equal employment policies that perhaps weren't in effect in the Mayberry sheriff's office (surely there were more qualified candidates for deputy than Barney Fife?). ;-)

Anonymous, I appreciate your comments, too. It's been over 20 years since I read TKAM, so my memory is a bit fuzzy. But I did like the way that Gladwell reads against the grain of the book—which in my memory, and most readers', it seems, encourages us to see Atticus as the wise hero and doesn't really look at the problems with his stance toward his society. Gladwell complicates this reading by comparing Atticus to Gov. Folsom, suggesting the limits of moderate progressivism in the face of severe injustice.