August 11, 2009


Drew Johson

I don't think that Gladwell is wrong in his article on Finch so much as that he is right in a way that typifies our time and place. Gladwell is, as much anyone, a mouthpiece for an very up-to-the-minute status quo. He seems very critical but he is unlikely to say anything we don't feel as if we were on the verge of hearing on NPR, or, more to the point, saying ourselves.

Case in point: Calling anti-Semitism part of the fabric of the Old South is a cheap shot. Anti-Semitism wasn't part of the fabric of the Old South in particular, it was part of the fabric of all of America and the rest of the world as well.

You can never go wrong saying the Old South was lousy--even for faults it shared with everyone else.

But for Gladwell to say anything more complicated than that would mean he was stepping out a very easy contemporary mode of finding fault with people who chose to find a way to exist in the society in which they found themselves--as opposed to apocalyptically opposing it.

Considering that Gladwell--by selling pap to America--thrived throughout the administration of George W. Bush, I would assume that he knows a lot about that--as do we all. Gladwell's career will certainly be easy pickings for some future, uncomplicated, strident writer in his own mold.


Gladwell's point about switching prejudice for prejudice is excellent, but, otherwise, his article is riddled with problems. To expect a novelist to fictionalize larger cultural, structural changes is a little outrageous. Do we fault attorneys when their closing arguments don't have enough plot drive? These professions involve different skills, and writers (often) excel at the level of interpersonal interaction, which would make them particularly apt to depict what Gladwell dismissively refers to as "the hearts and minds approach".
Additionally, Gladwell's contention that the only change we can deem "good" is that which occurs through absolute behavior and radical revision of the law is just painfully simplistic.


I usually don't cross-post, but here's the comment I posted to the thread on The Millions site:

I hate to say this, but I think part of the problem here is that Gladwell is Canadian, and he is approaching the whole issue from a rather shrill, Kantian perspective. Atticus Finch didn't do what a civil rights campaigner in Toronto would have done, so he must be awful. How very silly.

Another problem here is that Gladwell is attacking Jim Crow Liberalism as though it were still a going concern, an ideology that was still relevant and defended. Except that it's not. It's a relic of a bygone age, with no moral or political power. Given this fact, why does Gladwell think it's so important to discredit it? His argument here is not silly, even worse, it's *irrelevant*. Talk about beating a dead crow.

Lastly, his analysis is oddly unliterary. He keeps talking about Finch, instead of about his creator, Harper Lee. Throughout his piece, he writes about Finch as though he were a real person whose actions he was responding to, not a literary creation. By all logic, it should be Lee he is attacking and unmasking here, not Finch. Yet Lee herself plays no role in his analysis. This is a fatal flaw, because at no point does it occur to him to discuss whether Lee intended Finch's Jim Crow liberalism to be seen precisely as something deficient and ultimately tragic. Perhaps it's the point of the book to demonstrate that the Old South lacks the moral resources to correct it injustices, even when we look to the most high minded and morally concerned of its representatives? Perhaps To Kill A Mockingbird is intended to be a tragic work, not a piece of agitprop for Jim Crow liberalism?

That Gladwell doesn't ask these questions means he's not approaching the book as a critic, but as an editorialist. Which is another way of saying he doesn't understand literary criticism. He probably should go back to writing about data points and idiot savants.


That Gladwell piece made me nuts. Thanks for linking to a good rebuttal.

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