In the August 10, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes the following in his essay “The Courthouse Ring: Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern liberalism“:
One of George Orwell’s finest essays takes Charles Dickens to task for his lack of “constructive suggestions.” Dickens was a powerful critic of Victorian England, a proud and lonely voice in the campaign for social reform. But, as Orwell points out, there was little substance to Dickens’s complaints. “He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places,” Orwell writes. “There is no clear sign that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature.’ ” Dickens sought “a change of spirit rather than a change in structure.”
While Gladwell’s essay is itself quite interesting for what he’s chosen to discuss1, it was the Orwell quote re Dickens that piqued me.
I hadn’t read this Orwell essay about Dickens before2 nor had I any inkling that he had written about him at all. What I find intriguing about the quote is when I put it into the context of David Simon’s fifth season of The Wire. For those not caught up3, I won’t spoil this too badly for you: in season five, the folks at the newspaper keep referring to “the Dickensian aspect” of certain stories. Now, that has a meaning all its own and takes on its own baggage during that season without any help from the above quote by Orwell. But something always bugged me about the way Haynes echoed “Dickensian” so disparagingly to the editors. Re-casting that echo with the above Orwell, we get an interesting reversal with a sprinkled bit of irony: (1) that the newspaper, by being and/or valuing the “Dickensian” is exposing and criticizing without offering any substantive alternatives4 but also (2) try re-casting that criticism in light of how Orwell is the one making it — and how George “1984” Orwell is essentially synonymous with the kind of round-the-clock surveillance portrayed so centrally in The Wire.
Reading Gladwell’s essay and then considering the above, you get the sense that he’s maybe stopping a little short by ascribing To Kill a Mockingbird‘s main thematic thrust to a kind of fable about provincialism. Maybe just laser-focused on the thesis? Perhaps. But it seems incomplete, as though there is more to explore — viz., that it isn’t limited to “Jim Crow liberalism in Maycomb, Alabama”, that it (i.e., injustice and/or bias and/or double-standards etc.) is systemic and gets inflected even (and perhaps especially) when the scenario’s given actors have the best intentions.
Just consider Jimmy McNulty.
- Namely, a deconstruction of Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch and putting him into context re Southern populism a la James (a.k.a., Big Jim; a.k.a., Kissin’ Jim) Folsom. SHORT VERSION: Finch may not be Bull Connor but he was a far cry from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when it came to his mission for racial equality. [↩]
- And technically speaking, as I write this, I still haven’t. [↩]
- And seriously: by now, why aren’t you? [↩]
- See also: the Mike Fletcher/Bubbles sub-plot and how the editors down-play that story. [↩]