Was Harper Lee's Atticus Finch A Classist?

The 50th anniversary of To Kill A Mockingbird is coming up in 2010, leading some to question whether Atticus Finch is really the champion of equality Harper Lee makes him out to be. Malcolm Gladwell takes the case.

In this week's New Yorker, Gladwell concludes that Atticus wasn't "a civil rights hero," but rather a white man of his time, a man "looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds." He compares Atticus to Big Jim Folsom, a 1950s Alabama governor, who pointedly shook hands with black men and said "all men are just alike," but who never came out against segregation. Gladwell says Folsom (like Atticus) "knew the frailties of his fellow-Alabamians in regard to race. But he could not grasp that those frailties were more than personal — that racism had a structural dimension." Atticus, Gladwell says, just wanted individual people to be nice to each other — he didn't want to change the world, and he didn't want to recognize that the world needed to be changed.

More damning than this is Gladwell's summary of the criticisms of Atticus's defense strategy. For those who don't remember To Kill A Mockingbird from their middle school English classes, it was written in 1960 but set in the thirties. In the book, Atticus Finch defends a black man, Tom Robinson, against the accusation that he has raped a poor white girl, Mayella Ewell. Of Ewell and her family, Harper Lee writes, "no truant officers could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms, and the diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings." Gladwell is blunt about Lee's portrayal: "the Ewells are trash." And Atticus uses this in Robinson's defense.

On the stand, Robinson says that Ewell bribed her siblings to leave the house on the day of the alleged rape, that she hugged and kissed him, and that she implied she had previously been raped by her father. Legal scholar Steven Lubet calls this the "she wanted it" defense — and indeed, Lee has Atticus say, "she knew full well the enormity of her offense, but because her desires were stronger than the code she was breaking, she persisted in breaking it."

Gladwell says, "for a woman to be portrayed as the sexual aggressor in the Jim Crow South was a devastating charge." He quotes scholar Lisa Lindquist Dorr, who says,

White men did not always automatically leap to the defense of white women. Some white men reluctantly sided with black men against white women whose class or sexual history they found suspect. Sometimes whites trusted the word of black men whose families they had known for generations over the sworn testimony of white women whose backgrounds were unknown or (even worse) known and despised. White women retained their status as innocent victim only as long as they followed the dictates of middle-class morality.

Atticus makes a "proud and lonely stand for racial justice" in To Kill A Mockingbird — but it's justice for one black man, not all black men. And, Gladwell alleges, he "does what lawyers for black men did in those days. He encourages [the jury] to swap one of their prejudices for another." He tries to defend Robinson by making Mayella Ewell sound suspect — because she is sexually aggressive, and because she comes from an incestuous family of "trash."

Most of us grew up thinking of Atticus Finch as a hero and champion of equality, so it's almost painful to hear him accused of classism. But rather than reading him as a white savior (or attempted savior — Robinson is convicted) of black people, it may be better to understand him as part of a complicated system of racial and class prejudice, a system which encompasses North and South, black and white, Harper Lee's time, Atticus Finch's time, and today.

The Courthouse Ring [New Yorker]