Malcolm Gladwell on Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird

I have two fundamental problems with Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker concerning To Kill a Mockingbird: one is philosophical/moral, and the other aesthetic. The philosophical/moral problem is that incrementalism is not necessarily an invalid approach to major social injustice. Gladwell says:

Old-style Southern liberalism—gradual and paternalistic—crumbled in the face of liberalism in the form of an urgent demand for formal equality. Activism proved incompatible with Folsomism.

That’s true: but it doesn’t mean that the James Folsom approach—who was progressive by southern standards in the first of the twentieth century—wasn’t an improvement over what came later as part of the unjustified backlash. Gradual change can set the stage for radical change, as it did with the Civil Rights movement, and pragmatism is sometimes more effective than attempting to radically alter social, economic or political life.

The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy describes the philosopher Richard Rorty this way: “Rorty is a self-proclaimed romantic bourgeois liberal, a believer in piecemeal reforms advancing economic justice and increasing the freedoms that citizens are able to enjoy.” Rorty gives a convincing defense of those piecemeal reforms in his various books, and I’m not wholly convinced of Gladwell’s interpretation that To Kill a Mockingbird is problematic for that reason.

And this idea applies to more than politics. Megan McArdle just posted a piece on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernacke that ended, “As it says in To Kill a Mockingbird, Bernanke did the best he could with what he had. It was not perfect. But looking around at the mostly employed people on the streets, I’m glad he was there.” From what I understand of the recent financial crisis, I basically agree with her assessment: Bernacke and the other players in Washington did the best they could given the information they had at the time, which is based on pieces like The Final Days of Merrill Lynch in The Atlantic and Inside The Crisis: Larry Summers and the White House economic team in the New Yorker.

The second problem is aesthetic: like Nabokov, I don’t think novels need to play the role of social arbiter or champion. A novel that is sufficiently abhorrent—like one that actively praises segregation in the fashion that Soviet novels would advance inaptly named social realism, or one that shills for retrograde religious ideals—would probably be bad by virtue of their social commentary, but I think To Kill a Mockingbird is subtler than that, and to me the novel’s most interesting component is the development of Scout as a person. That’s inherently tied up with morality and politics, of course, but how and whether the novel succeeds in that respect ought to be the major consideration in evaluating a novel.

In other words, once the novel passes the relatively low bar of not being actively abhorrent, it should be judged on other principles than whether it conforms to what appear to be a person or age’s moral norms.

Malcolm Gladwell on Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird

I have two fundamental problems with Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker concerning To Kill a Mockingbird: one is philosophical/moral, and the other aesthetic. The philosophical/moral problem is that incrementalism is not necessarily an invalid approach to major social injustice. Gladwell says:

Old-style Southern liberalism—gradual and paternalistic—crumbled in the face of liberalism in the form of an urgent demand for formal equality. Activism proved incompatible with Folsomism.

That’s true: but it doesn’t mean that the James Folsom approach—who was progressive by southern standards in the first of the twentieth century—wasn’t an improvement over what came later as part of the unjustified backlash. Gradual change can set the stage for radical change, as it did with the Civil Rights movement, and pragmatism is sometimes more effective than attempting to radically alter social, economic or political life.

The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy describes the philosopher Richard Rorty this way: “Rorty is a self-proclaimed romantic bourgeois liberal, a believer in piecemeal reforms advancing economic justice and increasing the freedoms that citizens are able to enjoy.” Rorty gives a convincing defense of those piecemeal reforms in his various books, and I’m not wholly convinced of Gladwell’s interpretation that To Kill a Mockingbird is problematic for that reason.

And this idea applies to more than politics. Megan McArdle just posted a piece on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernacke that ended, “As it says in To Kill a Mockingbird, Bernanke did the best he could with what he had. It was not perfect. But looking around at the mostly employed people on the streets, I’m glad he was there.” From what I understand of the recent financial crisis, I basically agree with her assessment: Bernacke and the other players in Washington did the best they could given the information they had at the time, which is based on pieces like The Final Days of Merrill Lynch in The Atlantic and Inside The Crisis: Larry Summers and the White House economic team in the New Yorker.

The second problem is aesthetic: like Nabokov, I don’t think novels need to play the role of social arbiter or champion. A novel that is sufficiently abhorrent—like one that actively praises segregation in the fashion that Soviet novels would advance inaptly named social realism, or one that shills for retrograde religious ideals—would probably be bad by virtue of their social commentary, but I think To Kill a Mockingbird is subtler than that, and to me the novel’s most interesting component is the development of Scout as a person. That’s inherently tied up with morality and politics, of course, but how and whether the novel succeeds in that respect ought to be the major consideration in evaluating a novel.

In other words, once the novel passes the relatively low bar of not being actively abhorrent, it should be judged on other principles than whether it conforms to what appear to be a person or age’s moral norms.

Commencement — J. Courtney Sullivan

J. Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement is a less accomplished version of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, and it has all the narrative tension of an overcooked noodle. It shoots for modern-day Jane Austen and hits something closer to the chick-lit bulls-eye. I noted this to my girlfriend, who said that she could’ve told me it was chick-lit based on its teal dust jacket. I try not to judge a book by its cover, but in this case apparently my principles apparently wouldn’t have mattered.

The writing in Commencement isn’t bad, but it also isn’t good; I’m searching through pages, looking for a representative quote, or something that’s at least stylistically unusual enough to merit consideration and am finding… nothing. The prose conveys information effectively but without any pizzaz; it is what James Wood might call an efficient literary/commercial novel, having absorbed a few conventions of modernism while retaining a passionate eye and penchant for understatement. Wood says that “There is a familiar American simplicity, for instance, which is Puritan and colloquial in origin, ‘a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to the essentials,’ as Marilynne Robinson has it in her novel Gilead.” Sullivan doesn’t have that. She works for the New York Times, which might explain why Commencement reads like a long piece for the Sunday Styles or one of the other less rigorous sections.

I read Commencement based on a mostly positive review in the same paper. It says, for example, that “Sullivan’s characters are often motivated by urges that are taboo to admit in certain quarters: getting love and nurture from men, or staying protected in a cocoon of female friendship rather than confronting the larger world.” Outside of the Mormon church and some university Women’s Studies departments, I can’t imagine what those “certain quarters” might be. In an age of Sex and the City and Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl (And I Liked It),” taboos aren’t very strong. One notable thing about the review is that while it comments extensively on the novel’s social content, it says virtually nothing about its style or prose. Perhaps that’s because the reviewer drew a blank, just as I did, and therefore fell back on sociology when aesthetics failed to rouse any feeling whatsoever.

The death of literature part 11,274, from Saul Bellow

“From the first, too, I had been warned that the novel was at the point of death, that like the walled city or the crossbow, it was a thing of the past. And no one likes to be at odds with history. Oswald Spengler, one of the most widely read authors of the early ’30s, taught that our old tired civilization was very nearly finished. His advice to the young was to avoid literature and the arts and to embrace mechanization and become engineers.”

That’s from Saul Bellow’s “Hidden Within Technology’s Empire, a Republic of Letters” for the New York Times’ Writers on Writing collection. Fortunately he didn’t listen to the various Spenglers of his day. I often find it amusing to read the various predictions of literature’s demise, which have so frequently been trumpeted in the 20th Century and now the 21st; Orwell does a good job with the same theme in his collected essays.

Although being wrong in the past doesn’t necessarily equate to being wrong in the present, the poor track records of both religious apocalypse and the demise of reading tend to make me skeptical of new claims about either.

(Legitimately) free music: The Orange Mountain Music Philip Glass Sampler Vol.I

Amazon is currently giving away The Orange Mountain Music Philip Glass Sampler Vol.I, which caught my attention because I’ve liked Glass since really hearing him for the first time last year during a University of Arizona dance showcase when some of the students used “Metamorphosis.”

I’m listening to the “sampler” now, which has more variation in style than a complete album for obvious reasons. While some transitions between songs verge on jarring, but the album still seems worth downloading.

(Hat tip Crooked Timber.)

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