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October 25, 2010


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Tim Zinnecker

Al, our Lounge friend Lance McMillian recently wrote a paper on Gladwell's take on the book. See our blog post here:
Lance's article is well worth reading.

Jeff Baker

In Law & Lit this summer at Faulkner (in Montgomery, where Atticus read the law), I explored this by assigning a compare-and-contrast paper, pitting Atticus against Clarence Darrow in his closing in People v. Henry Sweet. In the Sweet case, in Detroit, real-life Darrow harangued the jury by calling them (and himself and everyone) racists and challenging them to overcome their demons for their better angels. He deployed shame and encouraged them to be realistic and to claim their place as the righteous, daring to compare them to the South. It worked. He called them out, and they responded.

Atticus, on the other hand, had a very different context and audience. By fictional and nonfictional comparison, we might see the effect of a carpet-bagging demonstration in the Scopes Monkey trial, demonstrated in Inherit the Wind, when Darrow/Drummond comes into town to “save the South.” It hardened the town and the jury, made a spectacle of a proud, quiet people, and forced them dig in. Had Atticus given the same sermon, he would have been run out of town on a rail. Then where would his client have been?

I think Atticus is judiciously advocating for his client’s case, consciously, strategically. He has a range of options, including Gladwell’s longing for a prophetic firestorm, marching on the Maycomb square, calling in Northern media, railing against the jury and his neighbors, indicting his entire culture, but what would have been Tom’s fate or chances at law? The raggedy lynch mob that Scout disperses with neighborly inquisition would have been the Klan instead, and they would not have stopped with Tom.

Gladwell is probably right that Atticus is asking the jury to trade one prejudice – race – for another – white-trash sexism. In this, though, Atticus may not be pure and righteous, but he was trying to impeach the principle witness against his client. That is a genuine lawyer move. I’m convinced Atticus was playing for the appeal, certainly a legitimate strategy. He could do better in the appeals court in Montgomery, where he was a respected legislator and presumably well known.

Atticus may not have been a crusader for racial justice in the South, but he certainly was loyal and zealous for his client. He took the case, after all; perhaps the maximum measure of courage he could muster without knowingly endangering his family – who were endangered after all.

I don’t think Malcolm Gladwell has been to the South; bless his heart.

Anders Walker

Al, just working on this for a draft chapter of an upcoming book project. On January 5, 1966, the Hanover County (Virginia) School Board banned To Kill A Mockingbird on grounds that it constituted "immoral literature," the implication being that it was unacceptably liberal on questions of race. Incensed, Harper Lee contacted James Jackson Kilpatrick (the editor of the Richmond News Leader and one-time architect of interposition), sending him money to distribute copies of the book free to the School Board through his "Beadle Bumble Fund." Kilpatrick had established the fund in 1959, the same year that he abandoned massive resistance to Brown, using it to embarrass segregationists who failed to understand the importance of presenting a positive image of the South to the nation. Needless to say, Lee included with her gift a letter stating that Mockingbird actually aimed to articulate "a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic," governing the way white southerners treated African Americans in the South. This, of course, was her way of challenging claims made by civil rights activists like Roy Wilkins (see M is for Mississippi and Murder (1955)) that southern whites were not only indifferent to black demands, but consciously subjugating them. Lee, who grew up in Monroeville, Alabama (not far from Montgomery), began her book in 1956, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as a response to what she viewed to be movement propaganda. She believed, as most southern moderates did, that whites and blacks lived in a type of romantic harmony, mutually agreeing to remain segregated and committed to preserving what Kilpatrick (who just passed away this year) called the South's "dual society." As flawed as this worldview was, I argue in my upcoming book that it actually represented a form of southern pluralism that eventually eclipsed Brown, canonized in Regents v. Bakke by Lewis F. Powell, Jr., a living embodiment of Atticus Finch.

Alfred Brophy

Thanks for all three comments; Anders your paper sounds fabulous. Always glad when someone uncovers new evidence, particularly about an author's intention and where she sees her work fitting into debate.

In response to Jeff in particular -- I guess what I was thinking is not so much that Atticus was a representative of moderate southern legal culture, but that he was needlessly provocative during the trial. Instead of making the point that Tom couldn't possibly have attacked Mayella, Atticus tried to point up reasons why Mayella might have been interested in Tom. This made a point about inter-racial love in the Jim Crow south, but I wonder if tended to entrench the jury? To find Tom not guilty they would endorse a view of the world that was tough to do.

My fear is not that Atticus wasn't more of crusader; it's that he was too much of one. But this isn't an informed opinion on my part -- it was just a thought I had after seeing TKAM this summer.

Jeff Baker

That is interesting and, in my view, completely feasible.

I have two thoughts now. First, to complicate matters, we should appreciate that there is not a single “whiteness” at work here. The Ewells were as “other” as the black community would be to most of the jury and town. They lived “down there,” and were isolated and depraved. Bob Ewell had nothing but the power over his own family to keep him from utter humiliation (which feeds my other field of domestic violence, but I digress). Thus, I think Atticus is asking less of the jury than you suggest, because the white-trash class would not be expected to live up to the Southern ideal. Rather than asking the jury to displace their worldview, I think he is trying to pit their prejudices against each other, in the hopes that their disdain for the white-trash might reinforce his evidentiary presentation of Tom’s disability, etc., banking that they wouldn’t consider Mayella the kind of white woman worth protecting.

Perhaps Atticus made a mistake by entrenching the jury, as you suggest, but I think it is because of his strategy of impeaching the Ewells as white-trash class, rather than asking the jury to re-imagine a Southern culture where a white woman might be attracted to a black man. He was not that activist on purpose. He was trying to impeach them as best he could. Although, I grant you that the jury could probably indict Bob Ewell for molesting his daughter faster than they would believe she would proposition Tom.

Second, Atticus did try to show that Tom could not have done it, but had to impeach those adverse witnesses somehow or surrender.

(Thanks for this exchange. I’m an Alabama lawyer with a daughter named Scout, so I get excessively excited about TKAM. Cheers.)

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