Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell's Southern Problem

Malcolm Gladwell is a writer who has gained fame by suggesting innovative new ways at looking at the world around us. In his books The Tipping Point, Blink, and, most recently, Outliers, Gladwell has used the tools of the social sciences to promote new perspectives and suggest new possibilities.

All of this makes a new article by him all the more puzzling. In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Gladwell writes about Atticus Finch, the lead character of To Kill a Mockingbird, and complains that he is, well, Atticus Finch. Near the beginning of the article -- which is titled, "The Courthouse Ring: Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern Liberalism" -- Gladwell points out that Harper Lee's famous novel was published in 1960 and is set even earlier in the century. He then seems to immediately forget this point and complain that Atticus represents a mode of Southern thought that is more at home in the era of Jim Crow than it is the era of the Civil Rights movement.

Well, of course; Mockingbird is set in Jim Crow Alabama. It is not a novel of the Civil Rights era, nor, to my knowledge have such claims ever been made for it. Gladwell says that the character of Atticus Finch "has become a role model for the legal profession," though he doesn't say how or why. Not being a lawyer myself I can't speak to this, but Gladwell's problems with Atticus go beyond his role as attorney. Atticus represents "old-style Southern liberalism -- gradual and paternalistic," and thus not as confrontational and transformational as the liberalism of Civil Rights.

Again, all this is true enough, but how is this a criticism of Atticus the literary character? Gladwell discusses George Orwell's criticism of Charles Dickens for being too much a product of his Victorian times despite his desire for reform, and implicitly casts himself as Orwell and Harper Lee as Charles Dickens. "Orwell didn't think that Dickens should have written different novels," says Gladwell, "he loved Dickens." Yet Gladwell does seem to think Harper Lee should have written a different novel; otherwise, what's the point of his article?

Part of my problem with this article may be that I see the same trait in Gladwell that he criticizes in Atticus Finch -- paternalism. His disparaging view of "Southern liberalism" -- which, of course, is seen as inferior to just plain "liberalism" -- and an oversimplified view of Southern modes of thought suggests someone who thinks that all of us below the Mason-Dixon line are still sitting on our verandas sipping juleps and complaining about the War of the Northern Aggression. All of this is particularly ironic in view of what recently happened to Henry Louis Gates -- last time I checked, Cambridge, Massachusetts is not normally considered part of the Deep South.

But judge for yourself -- Gladwell's article is here.

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