You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

What Is Malcolm Gladwell Talking About?

In The New Yorker this week, Malcolm Gladwell has an alternately confusing and maddening essay about To Kill a Mockingbird and what he calls "the limits of southern liberalism." According to Gladwell, the Atticus Finch character in Harper Lee's book--later immortalized onscreen by Gregory Peck--was the novelistic version of an all-too-common southern politician in the days of Jim Crow. Gladwell's piece begins with the story of Big Jim Folsom, the Alabama governor who sympathized with the plight of black citizens, but resisted profound change. According to Gladwell, Atticus Finch was a fictionalized Folsom, a good and decent man who believed in racial equality but was unwilling to push hard for it.

Folsom was not a civil-rights activist. Activists were interested in using the full, impersonal force of the law to compel equality. In fact, the Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ended Folsom’s career, because the racial backlash that it created drove moderates off the political stage...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.

On what side was Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch? Finch defended Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of what in nineteen-thirties Alabama was the gravest of sins, the rape of a white woman. 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.

As is so often true of these Gladwellian comparisons, this one is extremely tough to swallow (perhaps this is not surprising: Gladwell recently wrote on his blog that, "[O]f course non-symetrical comparisons are far more interesting and thought-provoking than symetrical comparisons.") Putting side-by-side a famed populist governor and an intensely self-controlled yet also passionate fictional lawyer is bound to cause some strain, but Gladwell's case here is particularly weak:

Think about the scene that serves as the book’s centerpiece. Finch is at the front of the courtroom with Robinson. The jury files in. In the balcony, the book’s narrator—Finch’s daughter, Jean Louise, or Scout, as she’s known—shuts her eyes. “Guilty,” the first of the jurors says. “Guilty,” the second says, and down the line: “guilty, guilty, guilty.” Finch gathers his papers into his briefcase. He says a quiet word to his client, gathers his coat off the back of his chair, and walks, head bowed, out of the courtroom.

“Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle,” Scout relates, in one of American literature’s most moving passages:

“Miss Jean Louise?”
I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s:
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict. But he isn’t. He’s not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law. He’s Jim Folsom, looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds.

Here is Gladwell's analysis of one of American literature's (and American cinema's) most moving scenes. For starters, he seems to be confusing or conflating political passion with personal passion. Must all civil rights heroes yell and scream? Must all southern gentleman be weak-kneed appeasers of racism? And how does keeping silent--as opposed to "brimming with rage"--show a more concrete desire for radical change? What does the disposition of Atticus Finch have to do with a bias toward "hearts and minds" rather than the law (which is a false distinction anyway). It must also be said, again, that Finch is a lawyer.

Gladwell continues:

Here is where the criticism of Finch begins, because the hearts-and-minds approach is about accommodation, not reform. At one point, Scout asks him if it is O.K. to hate Hitler. Finch answers, firmly, that it is not O.K. to hate anyone. Really? Not even Hitler?

What is Gladwell arguing? Surely he is not saying that the sentiment voiced above is incongruent with a passion for civil rights. Martin Luther King Jr. said a version of this all the time. For example:

"Let no man pull you low enough to hate him."

Gladwell then turns to Atticus' speech to Scout (Atticus' daughter) about the presence of the KKK in their small town, which Atticus minimizes. According to Gladwell, this shows that Finch is unwilling to face the evil of southern racism. Maybe. I always thought the scene showed Atticus' mixed feelings about revealing to his children the awful truth regarding hatred and bigotry.

Gladwell concludes with an analysis of the book's final passages. The real rapist, Ewell, has attacked Finch's children, but they have been rescued by the reclusive Boo Radley, who kills Ewell in the process. Gladwell sees these scenes through the prism of class: Radley, although strange and private, is richer than Ewell.

Finch’s moral test comes at the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”...As the Sheriff explains:

Maybe you’ll say it’s my duty to tell the town all about it and not hush it up. Know what’d happen then? All the ladies in Maycomb includin’ my wife’d be knocking on his door bringing angel food cakes. To my way of thinkin’, Mr. Finch, taking the one man who’s done you and this town a great service an’ draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight—to me, that’s a sin. It’s a sin and I’m not about to have it on my head. If it was any other man it’d be different. But not this man, Mr. Finch.

“Scout,” Finch says to his daughter, after he and Sheriff Tate have cut their little side deal. “Mr. Ewell fell on his knife. Can you possibly understand?”

Understand what? That her father and the Sheriff have decided to obstruct justice in the name of saving their beloved neighbor the burden of angel-food cake? Atticus Finch is faced with jurors who have one set of standards for white people like the Ewells and another set for black folk like Tom Robinson. His response is to adopt one set of standards for respectable whites like Boo Radley and another for white trash like Bob Ewell. A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism in Maycomb, Alabama.

Boo Radley is a hero. Bob Ewell is a racist and a rapist and an attempted murderer. And yet Gladwell thinks the reason that Atticus has a different "standard" for each man is that Radley has more money! Or maybe it has to do with the fact that Radley saved the life of his children. Now notice how quickly Gladwell changes directions: "A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism in Maycomb, Alabama." What does the class argument have to do with "Jim Crow liberalism"? Big Jim Folsom was famously known as "the little man's big friend." Gladwell has managed to recycle all the old criticisms of this novel, but somehow he has translated them in such a way as to make them appear less convincing, less serious, and less interesting than one would have thought possible.

--Isaac Chotiner