Dear Mr. Gladwell,
Sir, you are one of my favorite minds of the 21st century - or any century for that matter - and I have used your words and ideas in countless conversations, student assemblies, and writings. You have inspired and encouraged my thoughts and actions beyond quantifiable measure. However, you have also challenged the character of Atticus Finch. And for that Mr. Gladwell, I think you owe Atticus Finch an apology.
So do my 10th grade class.
After reading How to Kill a Mockingbird to my 10th graders, Mr. Gladwell, we listened to your podcast, Stave vs Johnson. It’s a great podcast, and not because of its content, but because of, well . . . yes, because of its content. What I mean is this. The story of Tom Robinson is abhorrent and terrifying and absolutely shameful, I think it obvious that you would agree on that. So too would anyone who reads TKAMB. But from my experience, what often times happens is that once the dull pages of the tattered and worn out book are closed resting comfortably on the shelf, so too does the story of Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch, and the rest of the TKAMB characters.
Then comes your podcast and the story of Nathanial Johnson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, and suddenly those fictional characters and places and hard discussions are in our current lives and colorful living rooms. Suddenly, they cannot be easily closed or quickly forgotten because they are disturbingly real. My students were appropriately shocked and horrified with this discovery and we had some deep and truly meaningful conversations around it.
But then, Mr. Gladwell, you make a critical assertion, that Atticus may not be a racist but he is indeed a sexist, and my students were once again appropriately shocked and horrified. Me too. But because I trust and respect you, Mr. Gladwell, and because it only made sense for my students to practice their critical thinking and analytical skills, we decided to hear your accusation and put Atticus Finch on the stand. “Is he a sexist?” I ask, “Or does Mr. Gladwell owe him an apology?”
Mr. Gladwell, you did not fair well.
#1: He has Integrity
When asked by Scout why he was defending Tom Robinson, even though there was “high talk around town to the effect that he shouldn’t”, Atticus responds with, “. . . if I didn’t I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again” because his word, his character, and his moral ground would be compromised. For his kids to grow up to be the type of men and women he wanted them to be, he had to be the type of person he expected them to be, even when - especially when - it was hard.
What we say and believe about ourselves from the comfort of our living room chair or the safety of our internet lives does not reveal our true selves. How we treat those who cannot defend themselves or provide us any gain does.
#2: He is Honesty
“What’s a whore-lady?” Scout asks her Uncle Jack.
In response, Uncle Jack “plunged into another long tale about an old Prime Minister who sat in the House of Commons and blew feathers in the air and tried to keep them there when all about him men were losing their heads. He was trying to answer the question, Scout believes, “but he made no sense whatsoever.”
Later, while sitting with Atticus in the living room, Uncle Jack admits that he didn’t answer Scout directly.
“Jack!” Atticus responded, “When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ‘em.”
No matter how difficult the situation or the answer, Atticus always tries answers his kids as honestly and straightforward as he can. Which is why they keep coming to him for answers, because they trust that he will tell them the honest answer. Even if it isn’t pretty.
#3: He is courageous
In chapter 11, Jem has to read to Mrs. Dubose for ruining her flowers. It isn’t until the end of the chapter that Scout and Jem discover why them reading to her was so important. Mrs. Dubose was addicted to pain-killers. She was also ready to die, but before she did, she made sure she was able to “leave this world beholden to nothing and nobody.” Jem’s reading was her way of weaning herself off the painkillers. couragous
“You know,” Atticus says to Jem, “she was a great lady.”
“A great lady?” Jem raised his head. His face was scarlet. “After all those things she said about you, a lady?”
“She was. She had her own views about things, a lot different from mine, maybe” but still a lady. “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.” Courage isn’t carrying around borrowed power, “It’s when you now you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her . . . She was the bravest person I ever knew.”
#4: He is reliable
“There are men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs. is one of them,” Ms. Maudie argues to Jem.
“I always thought Maycomb folks were the best folks in the world, least that’s what they seemed like,” Jem responds, knowing full well his father is a great man but suffering under the weight of disappointment.
“We’re the safest folks in the world,” Ms. Maudie responds, “We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us.”
This, said by a woman. Wouldn’t she, more than Gladwell, know if Atticus was a sexist? And if he was, could she really say such a thing about him?
#5 : He is sacrificial
Bob Ewell is beginning to make threats against Atticus and the family, and Jem and Scout are scared. Atticus isn’t. Not because the Bob isn’t a scary dude who can do bad things, but because Atticus isn’t thinking about his danger or what might happen to him. He’s considering someone else. And that someone else, for now, is safe. Because of Atticus.
“What’s bothering you son?” Atticus asks Jem, shortly after Mr. Ewell took the stand.
“Mr. Ewell.” Jem replies.
“What has happened"?” Atticus asks.
“Nothing has happened. We’re scared for you and we think you oughta do something about him.”
Atticus smiles wryly, “Do what? Put him under a peace bond?”
“When a man says he’s gonna get you, looks like he means it.”
“He meant it when he said it,” says Atticus. “Jem, see if you can stand in Bob Ewell’s shoes a minute. I destroyed his last shred of credibility at that trial, if he had any to begin with. The man had to have some kind of comeback, his kind always does. So if spitting in my face and threatening me saved Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that’s something I’ll gladly take. He had to take it out on somebody and I’d rather it be me than that houseful of children out there. You understand?”
This might be my favorite story of Atticus. Good God that’s good!
#6: He is Just
“The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into the jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t forget it - whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”
Atticus was speaking so quietly his las word crashed on our ears. I looked up, and his face was vehement. “There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance.”
I believe he would say the same for anyone taking advantage of a woman too because the greater and deeper truth Atticus is explaining is that he has no tolerance or respect for anyone who abuses his or her power. Preying on the poor is what cowards do.
#7: He is Reliable
“I can’t say I approve of everything he does, Maudie, but he’s my brother, and I just want to know when this will ever end.” Her voice rose: “It tears him to pieces. He doesn’t show it much, but it tears him to pieces. I’ve seen him when - what else do they want from him, Maudie, what else?”
“What does who want, Alexandra?” Miss Maudie asked.
“I mean the town. They’re perfectly willin to let him do what they’re too afraid to do themselves - it might lose ‘em a nickel. They’re perfectly willing to let him wreck his health doing what they’re afraid to do, they’re -”
“Have you ever thought of it this way, Alexandra? Whether Maycomb knows it or not, we’re paying the highest tribute we can pay a man. We trust him to do right. It’s that simple” (pg 236).
It truly is, just that simple.
Mr. Gladwell, I have the deepest respect and awe for you and what you do and how you think. I love your books, podcasts, and mind. But on this, and perhaps this alone, I strongly disagree and I think you owe him an apology.