As mentioned here before, I (like millions of other people) hold "To Kill a Mockingbird", both as a novel and movie, in very high regard. Thus, it is always interesting to read an article considering the work in a new way.
The above New Yorker piece starts well, explaining the nature of racial politics in the South in the 1950's.
But then it takes a strange turn when it starts noting, and seemingly agreeing with, criticism of the fictional Atticus Finch for not having the "top down" civil rights activist attitude that came into being in the 1960's. The article provides quotes from the novel that, quite accurately, show Finch as believing racism would be overcome by getting people to realise the error of not recognising the humanity of their black neighbours. As the articles says:
[In relation to the guilty finding in the centrepiece trial in the story] 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. He’s Jim Folsom, looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds...
Finch will stand up to racists. He’ll use his moral authority to shame them into silence. He will leave the judge standing on the sidewalk while he shakes hands with Negroes. What he will not do is look at the problem of racism outside the immediate context of Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Levy, and the island community of Maycomb, Alabama.How much sense does this make, though, when Mockingbird is set in the 1930's? The article mentions the period of the novel, but never seems to acknowledge that it may be quite unrealistic to have a small town lawyer sprouting a civil rights activist agenda in that setting.
Besides which, how can you really object to the philosophy of Atticus Finch when it is, at its core, the true explanation of racism? The book is so appealing partly because of the truth people recognise in that.
The article ends on what I think is a very peculiar note. It criticises the way the novel ends with Atticus Finch agreeing to let the Sheriff lie to the town about how the villain died. (He will say that it was an accidental self-inflicted stab wound, whereas the reader knows the reculsive Boo Radley did it to save Scout.) Here's what the article says:
“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?”This is just silly. Boo Radley is not your average citizen, for one thing, and the Sheriff's decision makes perfect sense, and is perfectly just, in terms of the story.
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. A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism in Maycomb, Alabama.
What the hell does this article's author want Atticus Finch to do - tell the Sheriff "No, no, that's not right. I want you to take Boo, the man who has been so cripplingly shy that he hasn't come out of his house in daylight for the last 20 years, but nonetheless just saved my daughter's life, down to your office in the morning for a good and thorough statement to be taken"? Yeah, like readers would think that makes emotional sense.