Academic journal article Journal of Intercultural Disciplines

Father's Day in Maycomb County

Academic journal article Journal of Intercultural Disciplines

Father's Day in Maycomb County

Article excerpt

To Kill a Mockingbird, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is an iconic American novel that demands repeated readings and, upon each reading, transforms itself into a new, more deeply textured encounter. As child readers, we want to explore Maycomb with Scout, Jem and Dill. We want to draw out Boo Radley and thank him for his hidden treasures. We don't want to go to school. We want our father to be younger and cooler. As adolescent readers, we may want the same, but now our adventures are tainted by that other reality that is Maycomb - the racism, the poverty, the gossip, the elitism, the injustice. Our father may still be old, but he's a good lawyer and an even better shot. As adult readers, however, the gauze is completely lifted from the idyllic portrait of small-town America, and Atticus Finch walks down Main Street with clay feet. He may be empathie when he says that we can't know another person until we "climb into his skin and walk around in it" (Lee, 1982, p. 30); he may be compassionate when he reminds us why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird. But when this is the "only [emphasis added] time [Scout] ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something" (Lee, 1982, p. 90); when he dismisses the Ku Klux Klan as "a political organization"...that couldn't find anyone to scare" (Lee, 1982, p. 147); when he does not distinguish Hitler from among those "it is not okay to hate" (Lee, 1982, p. 246); when he agrees that he is a "nigger lover," acceding that it is "a common, ugly term to label somebody" (Lee, 1982, p. 108), yet, nonetheless, not disassociating himself from it; when Dill is upset at Mr. Gillmer's treatment of Tom on the stand - "[t]he way that man called him 'boy' all the time an' sneered at him" - Scout consoles him. "Well, Dill, after all he's just a Negro" [emphasis added] (Lee, 1982, p. 199). If she can quote Miss Maudie here to defend Atticus as a different kind of lawyer - "He's the same in the courtroom as he is on the public streets" (Lee, 1982, p. 199) - whom is she quoting, remembering having said, that Tom was "just a Negro."

No doubt the occasion of the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird will inspire nostalgic rereadings and revisits to Maycomb. This paper will revisit the novel as well to determine how Atticus Finch's wisdom and equanimity survive a close reading of his memorable, but often flawed counsel. The genesis of this examination is an article published in The New Yorker in August 2009, in which Malcolm Gladwell discusses what he perceives as thematic weaknesses in To Kill a Mockingbird. Comparing the novel, published in 1960 but set in 1935 Alabama, to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Gladwell criticizes Harper Lee for making Atticus Finch too much of a populist and not enough of a progressive. Much of Gladwell's criticism is grounded in a literary fallacy, i.e., that Lee should have imported 60s-style activism into her 1935 setting; nevertheless, some of his observations about the iconic Atticus Finch are troubling. Though he may not have been able to stand in the Maycomb town square and paraphrase Martin Luther King, Finch could have been more straightforward with his children. There are too many missed opportunities for specific lessons about race that the precocious Scout and Jem would have understood.

In his article, "The Courthouse Ring", Malcom Gladwell establishes the historical context for Harper Lee by discussing the politics of [Big Jim] James Folsom, governor of Alabama from 1947-1951 and 1955-1959. Fond of saying, "All men are just alike", Folsom sought accommodation between blacks and whites rather than a complete overhaul of race relations (Lee, 1982, p. 26). According to his biographer, George Sims, "Folsom operated out of a sense of noblesse oblige: privileged whites ought to adopt a more humanitarian attitude toward blacks" (Gladwell, n.d., p. 26). However, Gladwell writes that Brown v the Board of Education "ended Folsom's career" (Lee, 1982, p. …

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