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.

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