Saturday, August 8, 2009

Reexamining Literary Icons of My Youth

This week's New Yorker included two articles that discussed two iconic characters from my youth: Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird and Laura Ingalls Wilder, the supposed author of the Little House books. Both articles were well-written and informative, but I can't help but think that a little part of my childhood died when I put down the magazine.

It doesn't surprise me all that much that Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, come off as brusque and domineering, but I don't think that I will ever be able to re-read any of the Little House books without comparing the character of Laura (spunky, determined, hard-working, and curious) with my newly acquired knowledge of real life Laura (austere and unaffectionate). An added, and curious, layer of context is the revelation by Sarah Palin's sister that the only book she remembers Palin reading as a child was Little House on the Prairie. If that book is what shaped Palin into the person she is, perhaps it would be prudent to read it with some caution.

Malcolm Gladwell's article on Atticus Finch is even more problematic, at least in my mind. In it, Gladwell argues that Finch is not a true civil-rights activist but is someone who seeks accommodation by appealing to people's "hearts and minds" rather than true reform. Although I agree with Gladwell that Finch is not an activist in the Thurgood Marshall sense, I also think that the author tries too hard to rail against Finch's status as a heroic figure in American literature. However, Gladwell completely lost me in the final paragraph, in which he discusses Finch's decision to lie about Boo Radley's role in Bob Ewell's murder. Gladwell states:
“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.
This final indictment of Finch suggests that Gladwell's worldview prevents him from understanding To Kill a Mockingbird's genius and subtlety. As a commenter to the article noted on Facebook, there is more to this problem than just cake. Rather, Radley's very existence is what is at stake. I suppose that Gladwell would like to think that he, and any activist worth his or her salt, would be the first to publicly commend Radley without a thought to the consequences. However, this view looks at the world in completely black or white terms, which is ironic considering the article's argument.

Ultimately, Gladwell wants justice and truth at any cost, while Finch demonstrates mercy, which to him is its own form of justice. Although both rationales have credence, in the end I would rather go with Finch's decision to spare Radley the terror of the spotlight than Gladwell's argument for blind justice.