Fillet of Mockingbird in a Gladwell Reduction Sauce

August 5, 2009 | 4 books mentioned 11 4 min read

coverIn his most recent article for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that “one way to make sense” of To Kill a Mockingbird “is to start with Big Jim Folsom.” It’s a thesis that rings all the Gladwell bells. There’s the near-nonsequiter. There’s the insistence that to understand something you thought you already understood, you have to know about something Gladwell knows about (in this case James “Big Jim” Folsom, an Alabama governor of the 1950s). And there’s the hedge, the stab at plausible deniability: well, this is only one way to do it. But on the evidence of Gladwell’s obtuse reading, starting with Big Jim Folsom is precisely not a way to make sense of Harper Lee’s novel. Rather, it is a way to make a hash of it.

coverThe flaws in Gladwell’s scorched-earth positivism, in both its rococo and its populist moods, have been so amply documented – and not only in the Letters page of The New Yorker – that it may be time for a counter-backlash. The high dudgeon with which The New Republic took Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers, to task seemed to me to miss some of the charms that have landed it on the bestseller list. Disregard the sociological claptrap, and it’s clear that Gladwell is not a scientist, but an entertainer. The pleasure we take in his arguments – in which Laban Movement Analysis becomes the key to dog training, and football to teaching, and Lawrence of Arabia to Rick Pitino, or vice versa – is the pleasure of the high wire act, or, more aptly, that of the magic show. If things go well, the audience gets a little fizz of insight. If the trick goes wrong, nobody gets hurt, because, after all, there never really was a rabbit in that hat.

There is something unheimlich, however, about watching Gladwell bring his rhetorical illusionism to bear on the already illusory realm of literature. In his glib reduction of Harper Lee’s most enduring fictional creation to a “Jim Crow liberal,” he misses the forest for the trees.

The raison d’être for Gladwell’s debut as a literary critic, we are told, is that “a controversy… is swirling around the book on its fiftieth anniversary.” Well, now it is. This controversy apparently has something to do with “Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern liberalism,” and to resolve it, Gladwell decides to re-open the trial of the falsely accused Tom Robinson, which is the novel’s climax. Some historical evidence is dragged in, but we will pass over in silence Gladwell’s conflation of “cases of black-on-white rape” with “allegations of black-on-white rape.” The point is to re-examine Robinson’s defense attorney, Atticus Finch.

According to Gladwell, Finch has perpetrated a kind of ideological malpractice. To wit:

Finch wants his white, male jurors to do the right thing. But… 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.

More galling, to Gladwell, than this refusal to bait his jury is the turn-the-other-cheek ethic underlying it. Finch tells his daughter that it is not O.K. for her to hate anyone, even Hitler. “Really? Not even Hitler?” Gladwell asks. The question would be a gratuitous flourish, except that it discloses Gladwell’s supra-rational frustration with Finch’s “hearts and minds” approach to the world’s ills. You see, this approach “is about accommodation, not reform.”

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.

Well, obviously. Otherwise Harper Lee would have named him Thurgood Marshall, or Shmurgood Shmarshall, and would have made him a heroic civil-rights reformer. But in addition to not being Thurgood Marshall, Atticus Finch is also a fictional character. This is not a trivial observation. Contradictions, blemishes, and blind spots are to be cherished in characters (and, some would say, in real people). Indeed, one way of reading the end of the novel is not that Atticus Finch has hypocritically “decided to obstruct justice” with his crony the sheriff, as Gladwell would have it, but that he has come to see the shortcomings in the inflexible moral code for which Gladwell has earlier chided him. He has discovered that all men are not the same, that the criminal Bob Ewell (incest, assault) and the innocent Boo Radley (reclusiveness, pallor) must be held to different standards.

Certainly, Finch’s notions about racial equality do not match the liberal nostrums of our day. It would be weird if they did. Moreover, they may (or may not) be Lee’s notions. To Kill a Mockingbird certainly contains more than its fare share of racial stereotypes, which, like its accommodationist view of race, are worth discussing (as are the elements of Oliver Twist that today make us cringe). A more nuanced article might have made the argument that To Kill a Mockingbird has a didactic streak, and that it puts Atticus Finch forward as an allegorical figure of enlightenment. Or that readers of the book have mistakenly read him allegorically, rather than as a human being with human limitations. Or that To Kill a Mockingbird is not a very good book, and is racist to boot. Indeed, the latter may have been Gladwell’s reaction on taking up the book again in 2009.

coverBut he hasn’t chosen to make any of those arguments. And so his triumphant conclusion – “A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism” – rankles. No, we want to say, it tells Malcolm Gladwell about Jim Crow liberalism. Slighting the novel’s achievement on account of its anachronisms is like dismissing Huckleberry Finn because of the ways Twain caricatures Jim. There are good reasons why these books are on the most-banned list; that they record liberal blind-spots is not among them.

Moreover, Gladwell’s thinly veiled hostility toward To Kill a Mockingbird betrays a fundamental misapprehension about the novel, as distinct from the satire or the polemic. Following George Orwell, he seems to want novels to provoke “a change of structure” rather than “a change in spirit.” That is, he wants them not to be novels.

No one is going to canonize Harper Lee as the high priestess of negative capability (just as no one would nominate Orwell for high priest.) But the durability of To Kill a Mockingbird would seem to vindicate her method. Despite the “limitations” of Atticus’ worldview, the narrative that encompasses it has – no less than the righteous rage of reformers – paved the way for an epochal, and as yet incomplete, revolution in the way Americans think about race. And unlike a legal verdict, no one can overturn it. Not even the Roberts court. Not even Malcolm Gladwell.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. THANK YOU! I just read Gladwell's piece last night, and although I'm not a huge fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, I couldn't help thinking to myself, "This man's point is just NOT worth making! Why am I reading this?" Of course, you've said that much more intelligently, and I appreciate it.

  2. Yes, thank you for calling a Gladwell a Gladwell; or an entertainer an entertainer, as the case may be. It's fine, and good, until he begins posing as something else, without irony, without winking an eye–when there's an actual rabbit in the hat (or a beloved character's character, or a gifted writer's reputation). Or maybe in that case the joke is on us, for our gullibility, our desire to be entertained or razzle-dazzled at the EXPENSE of lucidity or knowledge (these things of course need not be mutually exclusive in the norm). Let novels be novels!

  3. Eh, I don't know… To Kill a Mockingbird strikes me as exceedingly paternalistic (granted, I think I saw the movie before I read the book, so maybe that shades my perception here) — and hence the reputation of the book makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I'm glad Gladwell wrote this admittedly flawed article.

    It's fine and good to say that maybe Lee intended Finch to be a flawed character, but most of the book's fans seem to see him as a saint, so at least to some extent what Lee intended is neither here nor there.

    And do you really think that because people are different, they should be held to different standards — before the law? That's what Finch is doing with Ewell and Radley, and it's pretty dubious.

  4. Am I the only one who got a little grossed out by the idea of a "Gladwell reduction sauce?" I was? Oh. Carry on, then.

  5. I like to think that society moves forward at least in some part due to characters like Finch, flaws in all. If with luck and hard work society moves beyond the character's example, it doesn't seem entirely fair that we look back on them overemphasizing their flaws.

  6. I don't get this anti-Gladwell-hysteria in American press and blogosphere. Since when did writing popular non-fiction become dishonest, anti-intellectual and non-cool?

    An entertainer? Yes, but then most pop-science, pop-psychology and pop-history is written by entertainers.

  7. The point of the Gladwell piece, I agree with Anonymous 1, is hardly worth making. But I also agree with Johann that the anti-Gladwell backlash has gotten a bit out of hand of late.

    What is most irritating about Gladwell’s piece is that he elides whose responsibility the rape is in the novel. Because, stripping away the legal case for a second, there were only two people in that room. So, either “she wanted it” — a defense Gladwell and some legal scholars find distasteful — or Tom did it — a position nearly impossible to take based on the text. And so he muddles his way through the issue, blaming Finch for not being revolutionary enough, and an obstructor of justice instead. But if Harper Lee’s (and Atticus Finch’s, and Big Jim Folsom’s) sin is a progressive form of pragmatism, does that a controversy make?

    Gladwell’s sin here is, as you’ve said, attempting a high-wire act when the wire is really only curb-high. Sure he fell off, but should we really be paying attention?

  8. I don’t understand the compulsion to face Tom off against Mayella. Tom himself seems to bear no ill will towards his accuser – remember – he pities her. It’s kind of an important point in the novel. The point Gladwell aims to make about sexism is weak. She’s a victimized kid who misplaces feelings of gratitude toward one of the few people who had ever been decent to her into sexual attraction. How is this depiction an example of “classism”?
    As for Atticus’ perceived short-comings, give me a break. Readers don’t hold him in such esteem because of his progressive views – though obviously they are what get his foot in the door – they revere him because of his patience and tolerance. That patience extends to his white peers. Perhaps that is a flaw, but it is not a spiritual one. Not when Atticus does everything in his power to negate their wrongs and teacjh his children to be better than them, and himself.

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