Thursday, August 6, 2009

Fiction and Reality

In his article "The Courthouse Ring" in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes about Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Gladwell does not cite literary critics on the work; instead, he cites "the legal scholar Monroe Freedman," "the legal scholar Steven Lubet," and "the scholar Lisa Lindquist Dorr" who "has examined two hundred and eighty-eight cases of black-on-white rape that occurred in Virginia between 1900 and 1960."

I think there is insight to be found in this approach. However, I think in treating Atticus Finch as if he were a real life Alabama lawyer/politician of a particular time, Gladwell misses any of the real insights to be found in Atticus Finch as a fictional, imaginary character. If he wants to focus on a real time and place, his approach might help us to construct an understanding of Harper Lee's own values, biases, and limitations; instead of using real history and law to expose the flaws of the fictional Atticus Finch, he might use real history and law to expose the flaws of Harper Lee. However, Gladwell doesn't explicitly do this.

In this way, I think Gladwell combines two worlds. He tries to bring real Alabama history and society into the world of To Kill a Mockingbird, and he tries to pull the imaginary Atticus Finch out of a novel and set him in real Alamaba history and society. I don't think the approach quite works.

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