Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Case of Wall Street Journal Vs. To Kill a Mockinbird

The next case before the court; Wall Street Journal vs. To Kill a Mockingbird.

In this piece in last Thursday's Wall Street Journal, Allen Barra takes on the pressing journalistic task of attacking a 50 year old book. Critiquing literature considered to be sacrosanct isn't so much the job of journalists as it is of undergrad lit. majors, but let's put that aside and take the piece on its merits. The thrust of Barra's critique is that the book is juvenile because the points it makes are obvious. "There is no ambiguity in 'To Kill a Mockingbird'; at the end of the book, we know exactly what we knew at the beginning: that Atticus Finch is a good man, that Tom Robinson was an innocent victim of racism, and that lynching is bad." In contrast, Barra praises books which contain "...some quality of moral ambiguity, some potentially controversial element that keeps the book from being easily grasped or explained. One hundred years from now, critics will still be arguing about the real nature of the relationship between Tom and Huck, or why Gatsby gazed at that green light at the end of the dock across the harbor."

I teach Mockingbird, and will continue doing so despite Barra's dismissal. For one thing, I teach the book to 9th graders. Not to insult the intelligence of my students, but they are learning to read literature, and what a more experienced reader calls "moral ambiguity", a younger reader often calls "confusing". It's wonderful when a class can really get into a rip-roaring debate about why Gatzby fixated on the green light, what it symbolized, and how their interpretations changed their reading experience, but contemporary students lose interest not just in the story they are reading when faced with such ambiguities, but may also lose interest in reading literature all together. Books like "Mockingbird" give them a foundational positive reading experience which they can fall back on when they want to dismiss all literature as a waste of time; it produces a fond memory of a book they understood and enjoyed. Moreover, the book is not easy. In the first chapter, Lee uses words like "taciturn". Students may not wrestle with moral ambiguity in the book, but they do have to struggle with comprehension, so that when they understand the text they feel they've earned something, and that confidence follows them into more intellectually demanding books.

Clearly Barra isn't a teacher, and doesn't make claims about when the book might be developmentally appropriate. Instead, one gets the sense that he finds the book so lacking in value that it should be shelved all together. First of all, good luck with that. Does he think public schools can afford to buy more books? I'm sure he would dismiss that concern as more "bloodless liberal humanism [which] is sadly dated". In education, we call that reality.

But his critique is fundamentally flawed. The notion that the injustices presented in the book are too obvious ignores the way literature often works. Symbols are often obvious, but gain their power from the fact that they represent signified which can be incredibly complex. When this is done poorly, it's reductive. It can make the reader feel like solutions are simple because the symbols are transparent. But Mockingbird does nothing of the kind. When we recognize the injustice done to Tom Robinson, this does not immediately translate into justice for him. When we recognize Atticus' virtue, this does not provide him with success or happiness. This incongruity produces complex questions just as challenging and far more relevant than Gatsby's green light. Why, when we know something is unjust, can't we simply make it right? Why does virtue not produce success? Why doesn't goodness necessarily lead to happiness? If the morals of the story are easy enough for ninth graders, I would challenge any adult of any age, any level of education, or any position with any newspaper of any reputation, to provide answers to these questions that aren't replete with ambiguity.

Beyond this literary analysis question, I doubt Barra's central assumption that the ideas he dismisses as overly obvious are so straightforward to all readers. Perhaps he's unaware of some facts:

Our country, over the last decade, has repeatedly taken innocent people from their homes here in the U.S. and abroad, prevented them from having legitimate trials wherein they could prove that innocence, tortured them (using the same techniques we deemed to be torture when prosecuting those who did the same things to our solders during WWII), and in a few cases killing them. If lynching is bad, a kangaroo court producing a ridiculous verdict is bad, Tom Robinson getting shot while ostensibly escaping from jail is bad, and we all find these to be so obvious, why do we allow the terror policies of our government to remain?

During the last election some students at George Fox University (where, full disclosure, I received my Masters-in-Teaching) hung an effigy of Barack Obama from a tree. If it's obvious that lynching is bad, why didn't they know better?

In the state of California, in the next few days or weeks, a judge may allow the voters of that state to strip legally married individuals of the social contract conferred in their marriage licenses because of the voters' prejudice against them. If it's so obvious that Tom Robinson is an innocent victim of racism, and if we should teach superior literature which contains more moral ambiguity, wouldn't we assume that adults possess the skills necessary to abstract from one straight forward symbol to a similar instance of injustice?

I will concede to my dated, liberal humanist beliefs, but they aren't bloodless. In fact, it gets my blood pumping pretty fast when anyone implies that we don't need to keep on hearing lessons we've still failed to grasp.

14 comments:

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Michelle said...

I happened upon your blogpost whilst searching for some interesting questions for my book club tonight, and I was really inspired! I'm going to raise some of your 'moral questions' as an alternative to the typical questions about character and plot. Thanks!

Benjamin Gorman said...

Michelle,
Glad I could help! If it's not too late, here's one you can try out: Harper Lee chooses to have the story told from an interesting perspective. Rather than tell the story from the point of view of the young Scout in the story, she tells it from the POV of Scout as an adult, looking back. Now, as much if the book is autobiographical, this was surely most comfortable for Lee who was an adult looking back on these events, but let's give her some credit for being the fine writer she is and assume she could have told it from a host of other perspectives. what if she'd told it from the young Scout's perspective? From Atticus'? From Dill's? An omniscient third person narrator? How would the story have been different? What might these perspectives have allowed her to say, and what might they have prevented her from saying? Ultimately, why did she choose this one?

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William,
Sorry your post was initially accidentally flagged as spam by the system. I updated the link. Hope it works for you, and thanks for reading!

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