Malcolm Finch and the Limits of Liberal Fiction

Or rather, Atticus Gladwell.

It’s telling that one of the most valuable pieces of criticism of fiction to come out of the New Yorker in a while was not written by any of its literary critics but by another staff writer, Malcolm Gladwell. It’s telling additionally that on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the central US novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a review of the novel and its fit in society was either declined by the entire lit crit staff and all adjunct literary reviewers of the New Yorker or was directed away from all of them. Maybe they were all on vacation, forced or otherwise. One can see why. After all, George Packer, James Wood, and Keith Gessen were recently exposed for their severe distortions of another socially central writer, George Orwell; and Louis Menand recently admitted in a review of Pynchon’s latest novel that “I could be missing something, of course. I could be missing everything” in regard to the existence of allusions in the text of a writer famed for allusions. Perhaps New Yorker subscribers don’t mind such cavalier attitude to their subscription funds.

Regardless, Gladwell’s article, “The Courthouse Ring,” goes only a small step forward in New Yorker criticism. Who knew that an early 1960s portrayal of an early 1930s Southern lawyer in a  small town would reveal “the limits of Southern liberalism” rather than “instruct us about the world”? Well but Gladwell may mean that the (white) masses hold this belief that goes against reason. But the masses encouraged and “led” by whom? The publishing and lit industry? The corporate-state, its media and schools? Surely not.

At least Gladwell usefully spells out some points of concern:

“The Alabama of Folsom—and Lee—was marked by a profound localism.”

“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. In the years since, he 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.”

“Finch will stand up to racists. He’ll use his moral authority to shame them into silence. He will leave the judge standing on the sidewalk while he shakes hands with Negroes. What he will not do is look at the problem of racism outside the immediate context of Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Levy, and the island community of Maycomb, Alabama.

“Folsom was the same way. He knew the frailties of his fellow-Alabamians when it came to race. But he could not grasp that those frailties were more than personal—that racism had a structural dimension.”

“One of Atticus Finch’s strongest critics has been the legal scholar Steven Lubet, and Lubet’s arguments are a good example of how badly the brand of Southern populism Finch represents has aged over the past fifty years.”

“It is useful, once again, to consider Finch’s conduct in the light of the historical South of his time.”

“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.”

“One of George Orwell’s finest essays takes Charles Dickens to task for his lack of ‘constructive suggestions.’ Dickens was a powerful critic of Victorian England, a proud and lonely voice in the campaign for social reform. But, as Orwell points out, there was little substance to Dickens’s complaints. ‘He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places,’ Orwell writes. ‘There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as “human nature”.’ Dickens sought ‘a change of spirit rather than a change in structure.’

“Orwell didn’t think that Dickens should have written different novels; he loved Dickens. But he understood that Dickens bore the ideological marks of his time and place. His class did not see the English social order as tyrannical, worthy of being overthrown. Dickens thought that large contradictions could be tamed through small moments of justice. He believed in the power of changing hearts, and that’s what you believe in, Orwell says, if you ‘do not wish to endanger the status quo.’

“But in cases where the status quo involves systemic injustice this is no more than a temporary strategy. Eventually, such injustice requires more than a change of heart.”

“A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism in Maycomb, Alabama.”

The sociopolitical limits of Harper Lee’s novel are much greater than Gladwell states above. Not only were “civil-rights activists…arriving in the South as Lee wrote her novel,” they had arrived in force for the Scottsboro trial (in Alabama) in the early 1930s, when the novel was set. However, as James A. Miller notes in “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: The Final Stage of the Scottsboro Narrative,” the novel guts the larger world from Lee’s trial of a black man falsely accused of rape by a white woman despite (or maybe because of) its echo of these same central features of the Scottsboro trial. In Lee’s novel, with its Scottsboro-type crime against the (black) people in guise of crime of the (black) people, Miller notes:

“There is no Helen Marcy [an organizer/journalist of the Communist Party] and no Hollace Ransdall [a western/northern investigative journalist for the ACLU]; no organizers from the International Labor Defense [ILD] …, no reporters from the national press, no national and international protesters, no U.S. Supreme Court hovering in the background. The case of Tom Robinson is a local matter…”

Tom Robinson, the falsely accused and Finch’s client, was convicted and then, fleeing in real fear for his life, killed. And Finch became a US hero:

“the number one hero in American movie history, according to a recent American Film Institute survey.” [Miller]


“According to a 1991 ‘Survey of Lifetime Reading Habits’  conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, Mockingbird was regarded by its 5,000 respondents as one of three most influential books in people’s lives, second only to the Bible.” [Miller]

So a novel that Eric Sundquist plausibly notes “is the most widely read twentieth-century American work of fiction devoted to the issue of race” guts from its story the key progressive realities, let alone possibilities, of the world in which it was set and published. The lit establishment is more inclined to smear Communism, as in Ralph Ellison’s highly acclaimed novel Invisible Man, and to delimit or to cut vital human rights actions and movements from history.  In regard to the sociopolitical elements of the factual Scottsboro narrative and the fictional To Kill a Mockingbird narrative, and keeping in mind that the sociopolitical not only impacts but actually makes up a large portion of the personal elements of life, the Scottsboro narrative is far more sweeping and revealing than the by comparison demoralized and demoralizing To Kill a Mockingbird narrative. But the literary establishment has come to embrace Invisible Man as a top or the top US literary novel of the 20th century and has done little to effectively critique To Kill a Mockingbird. While To Kill a Mockingbird has some great qualities, it badly guts and stunts not only reality but the imagination. “The limits of Southern liberalism” is the caption of Gladwell’s article on the famed novel but, as I noted in a previous post, the novel had huge New York and national imprint and involvement in its production and creation and further dissemination (the film), as well as having strong current relation (in a variety of ways). The work greatly typifies the limits of liberalism in general: limiting and “underselling” key human rights elements of fiction and life. Thus, Gladwell’s article itself is a study in the limits of liberalism but of the national or corporate-state variety and is not the beacon of enlightened norms it implies it is, except to very limited degree – albeit one that was too much for other parts of the liberal-conservative-reactionay establishment and fellow travelers to tolerate.

The article, as a stunted look back and around, mirrors the novel in unfortunate ways, and yet again like the novel, it has some value, in ways that writing would do well to build upon and move beyond. Far beyond.

I suppose that would take some guts. Guts or money. Guts like those of the lionized, the much vaunted Atticus Finch, perhaps, coupled with all too often opposed progressive scope, vision, and movement forward. Guts and money and progressive work to make up for and to surpass that which has been mentally cleansed, censored, or buried, quite professionally. Atticus Gladwell and the limits of liberal fiction. It’s long since time to move beyond that world.

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