DON’T SHOOT THAT MOCKINGBIRD!

by Bill Kauffman on May 28, 2010 · 36 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Region & Place,Writers & Poets

Atticus and Scout_to_kill_a_mockingbird

BURNED-OVER DISTRICT, NY. Collin Wilcox died last October, just as we were about to settle in for our annual viewing of To Kill a Mockingbird. Wilcox was the North Carolina actress whose surly white-trash ejaculation Gregory Peckwards—-“A chiffarobe!”—-is one of several lines from the movie that have entered our family lexicon.  (It’s just ahead of “He’s gone and drownded his dinner in sirrup” and behind “You wrong, man—-you dade wrong.”)

I don’t think any American is permitted to exit teenagerhood without visiting the “tired old town” of Maycomb. My daughter’s tenth-grade class has gotten around to Harper Lee’s novel, though she and I read it together a couple of years ago, for in my own high-school days I dodged the Mockingbird draft, lighting out instead for the era’s Kurt Vonnegut-Richard Brautigan territory.

An uprooted Southerner once told me that TKAM was the Southern novel for people who hate the South, but I don’t think so. The racial injustice done Tom Robinson disfigures Maycomb, but it doesn’t define Lee’s town.  Besides, the harshest criticisms of any place come from those who truly love and belong to it. For American examples, see Gore Vidal, Edmund Wilson, William Appleman Williams, Sinclair Lewis, and Edward Abbey.

Harper Lee, who turned eighty-four on April 28th, still resides in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, an act that says everything that needs to be said about her loyalty to her place. A mutual friend tells me that she is a witty lady with a generous streak and a fondness for Christian charities.

What struck me about the novel was young Scout’s love of her father, the noble lawyer Atticus, and that father’s love of his town. In one of the book’s loveliest lines—-not uttered in the film, alas—-Atticus asks Scout to “remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.” There is a world of meaning in that sentence.

Lee told the story of Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson and the recluse Boo Radley not to damn her people but to commemorate them.  She confessed her desire to “chronicle something that seems to be very quickly going down the drain. This is small-town middle-class southern life as opposed to the Gothic, as opposed to Tobacco Road, as opposed to plantation life.”

“As you know,” said Lee in the early 1960s, “the South is still made up of thousands of tiny towns. There is a very definite social pattern in these towns that fascinates me. I think it is a rich social pattern. I would simply like to put down all I know about this because I believe that there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing.”

Late as we are in the American derangement—-or are we early in its salutary realignment?—-this cherishing of the small-town South, even while acknowledging historic cruelties, is all to the good.

I must have seen the movie twenty times, and spare me your sneering about arrested middlebrowism. Was there ever a more startling film debut than Robert Duvall’s turn as Boo Radley? Has there been a better children’s ensemble than Alabama actors Philip Alford and Mary Badham and Connie Stevens’s half-brother (!) John Megna as Dill, little Truman Capote? (Megna went on to chant “bonk bonk on the head” in a famous Star Trek episode.) Ever hear the word “chiffarobe” used in another film?

The occasional cringe-inducing moments of liberal fantasy—-as when the black citizenry, packing the segregated courtroom balcony, stands as one when Atticus passes by—-I chalk up, perhaps unfairly, to the vanity of Gregory Peck, who, as Charles J. Shields revealed in his 2006 Harper Lee biography Mockingbird, complained at diva-ish length that his character didn’t have enough screen time. Peck’s sanctimony works very well in the film, however; it infuses, rather than embalms, Atticus Finch. Thank the casting gods that Universal’s first choice—Rock Hudson—didn’t get the part.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever read the book again, but many elements of the movie repay repeated exposure, from Elmer Bernstein’s superb score to Horton Foote’s screenplay, a model of concision and concinnity from which extraneous characters in the novel (such as annoying Aunt Alexandra) are wisely excised. And the supporting performances are magnificent. James Anderson, who played the malevolent Bob Ewell, was a drunken Alabama-born Method actor so lost inside his part that he came to hate Gregory Peck.

For all this we can thank the tomboy who worshipped her father and aspired to be “the Jane Austen of south Alabama.” Happy birthday, Nelle Harper Lee.

* This appeared in the May issue of The American Conservative, a magazine far too interesting to be burdened with that hopelessly corrupted word conservative. Do subscribe, please: www.amconmag.com.

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Allen Mendenhall May 28, 2010 at 7:22 am

I read this novel once every year. My grandfather grew up with Nelle, as he calls her, in Monroeville, Alabama. He has all sorts of wonderful stories about Nelle and Truman Capote. This book is, I think, one of the greatest contributions to American literature.

avatar John Médaille May 28, 2010 at 10:03 am

The movie is great, but the book is better. Indeed, it is a loving tribute to the South, and also (in context) a tragedy of “what might have been.” Over on the Chronicles site, Tom Fleming says he opposes the Civil Rights Act because “it set the races against one another.” I think that is the most astounding statement I have read about the problem. Surely there were some minor tensions before this bill, Mr. Fleming?

The South had 100 years to deal with this problem before the Civil Rights movement. Had it produced a few more Harper Lee’s and a few less George Wallace’s, it might have needed a few less Martin Luther King’s. Had the gentry produced a few more Finch’s, it would have needed a few less federal laws. During the time of the civil rights movement, I opposed the bill and sided with the segregationists. I think that I was wrong, and wrong even from the standpoint of a true Southerner.

I have come to believe that the tragedy of the South is not that it lost the Civil War, but that it won it. Not the first one, but the second one, the Northern occupation of the South. When the troops were withdrawn, they did their best to recreate a simulacrum of the antebellum South based on sharecropping rather than outright slavery. This is a problem for localists like ourselves. What do you do in such circumstances, when localism results in injustice? I think we ought to discuss this subject in some detail, perhaps with a little more attention to history than Fleming has offered. Otherwise, it stands as an accusation against localism and FPR values.

Atlanta now looks like L.A., only worse, and Blacks are, by and large, no freer in fact and if anything more dependent then they were. But they are legally free and equal, and that has to count for something.

avatar Jeff Taylor May 28, 2010 at 11:05 am

Bill, Wonderful the first time I read it in TAC and still so here. I agree, everyone would benefit from a subscription to the magazine.

John, You put things very well here. “The South had 100 years to deal with this problem before the Civil Rights movement.” If anything, you underestimate the time–we could say 350 years. Although I cringed when Rand Paul dumbly sparked the CRA controversy, it does force us to take another look at the whole issue. What was the alternative? A more honest and constitutional approach would have been to amend the U.S. Constitution to accomplish the same, but I welcome the intent and outcome of the federal bill (although it obviously couldn’t change everything on the ground). Moving to north Alabama has given me a different perspective on slavery, the Civil War, segregation, and Civil Rights. Not so much new as more nuanced.

When I have more time, I’d like to join the discussion you propose. While I’ve gained a lot from Chronicles over the years, I get the feeling that Fleming, and Clyde Wilson even more so, are nostalgic for the Old South, perhaps up to and including plantation society and chattel slavery. That’s detestable to me. I’ll take Jefferson or Benton over Calhoun any day.

BTW, I’d never seen a mockingbird until moving to Alabama. We didn’t have them in the upper Midwest. Beautiful birds.

avatar Rob G May 28, 2010 at 12:40 pm

There is a saying that runs something like, “The South didn’t care how close the blacks were provided they didn’t get too high, the North didn’t care how high they were provided they weren’t too close.” Remember that segregation was by-and-large a post Civil War development, a result of Reconstruction. It was a response to the enforced implementation of the “bottom rail on top now” mentality. This does not, of course, justify it, but it does help explain it.

I am a Northerner born and raised, and I sympathize with the South in every area except slavery and segregation. One can be have a favorable view of the South without being either a Lost Causer or a moonlight-and-magnolias Golden Ager. Frankly, I don’t think Fleming and Wilson are either of those. They are realists, in the sense that they recognize that the entire discussion of the thing has been tainted by political correctness, and wish to discuss it without that stricture.

That the South had 100 years to clean up its act in this matter and didn’t do so is definitely a bad thing. But we shouldn’t fall into the error that the North was all purity and light here, and that its actions during and after do not bear some responsibility for the problem.

Three good reads related to this:

Robert Penn Warren — “The Legacy of the Civil War”
Richard Weaver — “The Southern Tradition at Bay”
Eugene Genovese — “The Southern Tradition”

avatar John Médaille May 28, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Rob, I have read “The Southern Tradition at Bay,” but that was 40 years ago and I can’t quite call it to mind. No surprise; these days I can’t even call last week to mind. I do not wish to be mistaken: I do not hold the North out as a paragon on this issue. Far from it. Nor do I even oppose segregation, per se. It is a good thing when it means the encouragement and development of local ethnic, self-governing communties with their own internal economies. But when it means a proliferation of signs that read “colored” and “white only,” then we have problems. Now Black can fail to take offense at these, and no White out to be anything but ashamed of them. I even support, in giving support to communities, that greatest of all bugaboos, quotas. If you have separate communities, then the political process ought to divide the public goods not only on a proportional basis, but even on a basis that favors the weakest groups.

The development of strong communities should mean that they can share a bench on a bus without animostiy or drink from the same fountain. Mostly, it should mean that two men can continue there argument while taking a leak in the same public bathroom.

Oddly enough, integration worked against the Black businessman. Blacks walked past their own stores to buy a coke from the White-owned stores. The Black shopkeepers complained that is seemed that the “White man’s ice was colder.” The forced solidarity of Blacks broke down as soon as it was no longer enforced.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins May 28, 2010 at 4:21 pm

There’s not much to argue here. Incidentally, African American children in northern schools generally find the book boring — probably precisely because they are not living in the south, are not familiar with southern history in any depth, and because the issues portrayed in the book are not the issues walking the streets they know, not by a long shot.

There is no question that Harper Lee loved the southern communities she wrote about. My mother loved growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, appreciates her mother’s family home in eastern Tennessee, and has become quite attached to the state where she spent most of her adult life, Wisconsin. Growing up in Wisconsin, I’m rather proud that my great-great-grandfather from Tennessee fought in the United States army 1863-1864.

I suspect that the main reason a majority in the northern states supported the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments is that they were mad the war took so long, for which we can all thank Robert E. Lee. One reason they initially didn’t want life in the south to be too bad for those of African descent was, so they wouldn’t all want to migrate up north. No region’s hands are clean. There are complex reasons we came out of that history as far and as well as we have, in which southerners played important roles.

avatar Rob G May 29, 2010 at 6:41 am

~~~Nor do I even oppose segregation, per se. It is a good thing when it means the encouragement and development of local ethnic, self-governing communties with their own internal economies. But when it means a proliferation of signs that read “colored” and “white only,” then we have problems. No Black can fail to take offense at these, and no White out to be anything but ashamed of them.~~~

Absolutely, John — I’m in full agreement. I carry no brief for either slavery, of course, or forced segregation.

(Greatly looking forward to your new book, by the way. A friend of mine, a classics prof at a nearby Catholic university, recently let slip that he had a certain amount of sympathy for Distributism. This had never come up before in our conversations — I promptly gave him a heads-up on the upcoming arrival of your book. He is very interested.)

“I suspect that the main reason a majority in the northern states supported the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments is that they were mad the war took so long, for which we can all thank Robert E. Lee.”

God rest Marse Robert. They should have been mad at Lincoln instead (which many were). You shouldn’t start a war with the expectation that it’ll be easy and will be over in three or four months.

avatar Rob G May 29, 2010 at 6:49 am

One problem with appreciation of TKAM is the way it’s taught in many schools — as a sort of tract about race, rather than as a fine novel in which race is but one aspect.

BTW, Harper has just put out a very nice 50th anniversary hardcover edition of the book at a quite reasonable price.

avatar Jordan Smith May 29, 2010 at 11:31 am

Come on Peters… I was hoping for an elitist hatchet job on TKAM from the author of “The Way To Bliss”. LOL.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins May 29, 2010 at 6:26 pm

John and Rob said it so well the first time around, and so badly the second time around. Segregation per se gave rise to the peculiar notion that there was something inherently “different” about “black” people and “white” people. That these notions are still deeply embedded in what passes for a “black” community, particularly up north, but with blow-backs into the south in the last few decades, makes it no less artificial. As C. Vann Woodward detailed so well in his classic The Strange Career of Jim Crow, before the Civil War there was no such thing as “segregation” in the south — those designated as “white” and those designated as “black” lived very intimately connected lives, although the life of free people of African descent in the north became increasingly segregated by 1830.

One of the things that engendered prejudice against north-bound blacks was precisely the fact that they were culturally southern. Their styles of food, humor, worship, speech were quite recognizable to southern “white” people, but not to Yankees and recent European immigrants. The development of strong communities should not require a racial identity, and the persistence of a distinct “black” culture in the 21st century increasingly rests on glorification of the worst stereotypes of white supremacy as a perverse badge of pride. Yeah, businesses that thrived on a captive clientele suffered, but those businesses were never “their” businesses, they were the businesses of the individuals who owned them. There were many reasons “black” people abandoned many of them, just as there were reasons to prefer the “white” drinking fountains and bathrooms. Today, “white” people patronize businesses owned by “black” Americans and vice versa.

As for Lee and Lincoln, Lee appears to have been modestly if ineffectively opposed to slavery, unlike the politicians who created the Confederacy, and certainly backed General Patrick Cleburne’s proposal to enlist black soldiers in the CSA army, in exchange for freedom of soldiers AND their families, and a commitment to respect their marriages. Since we can’t respect the cause Lee fought for, we can at least respect the results of his tenacity. I respect Lincoln as an astute politician who saw where the course of war would necessarily carry the nation, but kept a sensitive finger on the pulse of the people he led. Nothing presents this better than his letter to the soldier who wrote “I will fight to preserve the union but I don’t want to fight to free Negroes.” Lincoln calculated with great skill not only when but how to push forward the issue of freedom that few in the northern states wished to face. Perhaps Lincoln didn’t wish to face it either, but he knew he had to.

avatar Rob G May 29, 2010 at 10:34 pm

“Lincoln calculated with great skill not only when but how to push forward the issue of freedom that few in the northern states wished to face. Perhaps Lincoln didn’t wish to face it either, but he knew he had to.”

Forgive me, but I think this gives him far too much credit, as if he knew all along that the war was about ending slavery, but that in order to make progress on that endeavor he played his cards close to his chest for the first half of the war. For one thing it discounts what he said in his famous letter to Greeley.

It may well be a fact that as the war wore on he changed his mind about the issue, had a “conversion” of sorts. But I remain convinced that the Emancipation Proclamation was chiefly a cynical war move, not a great blow for freedom, and that if he had such a conversion, it hadn’t yet occurred at the time of the E.P.

By the way, I had Woodward in mind when I wrote my initial comment.

avatar Jason Peters May 30, 2010 at 6:04 am

Mr. Smith axed for it: Flannery O’Connor allowed that To Kill a Mockingbird is “a good children’s book.”

avatar Jordan Smith May 30, 2010 at 11:59 am

I feel much better now.

Hey, anybody know where Cheeks went? Is he ok? Or did he just get fed up with all the commie dems around here?

avatar Rob G May 31, 2010 at 10:05 am

~~~Flannery O’Connor allowed that To Kill a Mockingbird is “a good children’s book.”~~~

That’s one of the few instances where I disagree with Miss O’Connor. I wonder if there was not a bit of sour grapes going on there.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins May 31, 2010 at 1:10 pm

It is the essence of common sense libertarianism that human beings are extremely complex, our interactions within a community complex cubed, and one should be wary of trying to define too much of it by too many laws, however well-intentioned. I’m pleased to see that Rob G and I respect the same source, even if it sometimes leads us to different conclusions, and that he responded more concisely and pointedly than I could have done to the recitation of O’Connor’s gratuitous remark.

Lincoln was a complex man too, whether or not he was really hunting down vampires. I have no doubt that he had intense racial prejudices. I have no doubt that he meant it when he said if he could save the union by keeping all the slaves in slavery, he would do it. I have no doubt that the E.P. was a war measure — in fact, it is only as a war measure that the President of the United States had any conceivable authority to proclaim private property emancipated, and he knew it. The most significant fact is that the union could NOT be preserved without ending slavery, and that forced the hand of everyone. Lincoln, if nothing else, recognized when it WOULD aid the cause of preserving the union.

Likewise, there is no doubt that most of the soldiers in the confederate army did not own slaves. Equally, I have no doubt that the politicians who led the rebellion and put together the CSA were motivated primarily by the question of slavery. There is virtually no difference between the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the Confederate States except for a clause that “the institution of Negro slavery” shall not be interfered with. Further, the CSA couldn’t have kept armies in the field past 1863 without massive conscription — as pro-confederate southern editors editorialized to their chivalric chagrin.

avatar Jeff Taylor May 31, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Rob G, You write, “I am a Northerner born and raised, and I sympathize with the South in every area except slavery and segregation. One can be have a favorable view of the South without being either a Lost Causer or a moonlight-and-magnolias Golden Ager. Frankly, I don’t think Fleming and Wilson are either of those. They are realists, in the sense that they recognize that the entire discussion of the thing has been tainted by political correctness, and wish to discuss it without that stricture.”

I have to disagree with you about Fleming and Wilson. I wonder how one can champion Calhoun to the extent that Dr. Wilson does without consciously or unconsciously embracing his philosophy of white aristocracy. By the end of Calhoun’s life, what else did he stand for? Yes, he was an intellectual from start to finish, but whether a Yale grad pushing for the War of 1812, or a presidential aspirant courting northeasterners in 1824, or a nullification advocate in the 1830s, he was always committed first and foremost to two things: his own career and his social circle of slaveholding planters. Calhoun was a gigantic flip flopper, from nationalist to sectionalist, but his class identification stayed constant. He personified the “moonlight-and-magnolias Golden Ager.”

Read what Dr. Fleming writes in comment 53 of his piece “Rand Paul: Unprincipled Hero”:

“Where exactly in the Scriptures or in Tradition does it say that buying and keeping a slave is morally wrong, much less a moral evil on par with killing your own child? This is childish twaddle and so long as the pro-life movement tells these lies, it reveals its own intellectual, moral, and spiritual bankruptcy. Oh, those terrible nasty Southerners who owned slaves, why abortionists like Bernie Nathanson are almost as bad as Robert E. Lee!”

Toward the end of his short piece dimissing Rand Paul, during which he says the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was “evil in intention and in results,” he breezily states “I’m not a bigot.” I’m sure he’s sincere but I’m not sure he’s right. Fleming and Wilson both have an unhealthy–and un-Christian–obsession with race. Fleming is a traditionalist. That’s a good trait when you’re trying to conserve traditions that are good. It’s bad when you’re upholding traditions that are bad.

I think Fleming is better at being a classical pagan than a Christian. The ancient Greeks and ancient Romans had slaves so how bad can it be? That’s half the point he makes above. His interpretation of Scripture and church history on such matters is superficial at best. He is fundamentally hostile toward equality and natural rights. How could he object to slavery? After all, Paul does tell slaves to submit to their masters. It’s the same argument the white Christians–some nominal, some deeply sincere–of the Old South used to justify slavery.

That’s why Calhoun and George Fitzhugh so vehemently objected to Jefferson’s “pernicious” beliefs in the Declaration and elsewhere. Stripped of interpretation informed by non-Christian Lockeanism and Rousseauism, the Bible can be viewed as pro-slavery. (It’s interesting how Ancient pagans are acceptable but Enlightenment ones not so much.) Of course, this view of Scripture ignores the egalitarianism inherent in both Old and New Testaments, from Proverbs and the prophetic books to the Gospels, James, Philemon, and Revelation. The NT makes plain, or at least tries to make plain, that this is not a religion of hierarchy. Fleming doesn’t see it.

I was a Chronicles subscriber for 15+ years. For a long time, it was my favorite periodical. Great writing, deep insights. I learned a lot from almost every issue (until recently). I’m not an ingrate. Fleming and Wilson are excellent on many things and they express themselves very well, but we all have blindspots. Race and equality are two of their shortcomings.

It’s not about political correctness or sympathy for the South. I detest political correctness, although I realize some of the motivation behind PC’ness is simply good manners, empathy, and common sense. Why offend people or hurt their feelings unnecessarily? Why be rude, obnoxious, or sensationalistic? It’s the hypocritical selectivity and the oppressive enforcement that I sours me on the whole venture. Plus, its provenance is suspect–Paul Gottfried is right about cultural Marxism, a type of intellectual totalitarianism.

I sympathize with the people of the South in all kinds of ways. Like you, I part company with many historical whites on slavery and segregation, but even those stains on their reputations do not invalidate everything for which they stood. Pitchfork Ben Tillman and James K. Vardaman were awful race-baiters but they were also populists and anti-imperialists. Their upper-class Bourbon enemies in the South were just as racist, only in a more refined way.

Living in the South, I can see it’s a wonderful place in many ways and the culture–white and black, much of it intermingled from the beginning–is not something to be despised. However, the evils of racial superiority, hatred, and injustice should not be minimized. Fleming and Wilson are minimizers. John Locke was evil; John Calhoun was good. The Civil Rights Act was evil; slavery is not morally evil. I can’t go along with that project.

avatar Jeff Taylor May 31, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Thos. Fleming link if you’d like to read the quote in context:

http://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/index.php/2010/05/25/rand-paul-unprincipled-hero/

avatar Rob G May 31, 2010 at 10:45 pm

I have great love and respect for Miss O’Connor. She is one of my indispensable authors. But her comment about TKAM just doesn’t ring true to me — it seems somehow beneath her. I’m not saying that she was not free to dislike the book, only that her stated reason for disliking it falls short, IMO.

From a certain angle, however, she has a point; it is a good children’s book in the sense that children can read it and find it appealing, in the same way that they might find The Lord of the Rings or The Wind in the Willows appealing. Part of this appeal undoubtedly stems from the fact that the story is told from a child’s point of view.

I’d say, Siarlys Jenkins, that you and I may have similar views of Lincoln with the difference being that you’ve got more of a glass-half-full take while mine is definitely more the glass-half-empty. You don’t think he’s a demigod and I don’t think he was a maniacal dictator; that seems to strike a sane balance. ;-)

avatar John Médaille May 31, 2010 at 11:48 pm

Jeff, I have had much the same experience with Fleming that you had. I can’t help wondering if he is really more of an antiquarian than a conservative, and those are not the same things. The Enlightenment was antiquarian, especially since they viewed pagan culture as a viable replacement for Christianity. His negative appeal to the Bible on slavery is rather a strange tactic. I mean, I can’t find the hypostatic union or the nature of the Trinity proclaimed in the scriptures either, but that doesn’t invalidate the doctrines. I read the scripture with the Church, and the Church has no doubts on any of these issues. Of course, one can be squishy on slavery only if you believe that you could never become one.

avatar Sarsfield June 1, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Bill: “Chiffarobe?” Try “Pride of the Yankees.” Lou’s mother to his new bride.

avatar Jason Peters June 1, 2010 at 4:34 pm

“Chiffarobe” (with, I think, an alternate spelling) is also in the first novel written by that women who called TKAM a “good children’s book.”

avatar Rob G June 2, 2010 at 11:52 am

Fleming, Catholic that he is, appeals to Scripture and Tradition, not Scripture alone. And he is correct — slavery per se is not the inherent evil that abortion is. But one must qualify that by saying that chattel slavery according to race is decidedly not what the Scripture is referring to. This is one error that the Southern defenders of slavery made: equating their version of it with Biblical slavery. I’m sure Fleming is well aware of this fact.

On the other hand, you did have some of the radical abolitionists saying that if the Bible were found to support slavery, then the hell with the Bible.

He, Wilson, et al, may very well have a blind spot when it comes to race, and if so, that is problematic. On the other hand, is it not possible that they’re so anti-PC that it only appears that way? I wouldn’t go along with what he says about the CRA being “evil” but I do say that it was in many ways wrongheaded. Does that make me soft on race? I hope not.

avatar peter lawler June 2, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Well, fine article and thoughtful thread. I remember the seeing the movie when it first came out and having the book assigned in high school. It’s all about the Stoic lawyer’s aristocratic devotion to the rule of law, and the insufficiency of that devotion in achieving racial justice. So it’s similar, at least, to the critical words Walker Percy about his Uncle Will, who also stood up to the murderous lawlessness of rednecks, but who also had no plan for a country in which blacks would actually be educated and “empowered” to defend themselves or their equal rights under the law. I’m not at all sure the way of life of the town is portrayed in all that favorable a light, although the Finches surely are. Atticus is a pretty lonely guy there, finding solace only in his books.

avatar peter lawler June 2, 2010 at 12:26 pm

I also wonder, by the way, about Flannery O’Connor’s dismissal TKAM. For one thing, someone might argue that it had more influence for the good than all her books put together. The characters aren’t fully fleshed out, and doubtless there’s no deeper dimension. But it is, for another thing, really good in portraying real men–Atticus and Jim and even the Truman Capote guy who’s name I forget right now.

avatar Joshua D. Cooney June 2, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Dr. Fleming does not strike me as nostalgic for the Old South or as a racist. I have read many of his conversations at the Chronicles website and he has no patience for white nationalists and other racists. If I had a couple days I could probably dig up many quotes on the subject from the site—and perhaps I shall. I’m told that as a young radical in South Carolina, Tom Fleming would sit in the back of the bus with the blacks. Now, the leftists on this site will likely fall back on the “just because he has black friends…” routine, but I’d say from what I know of Dr. Fleming personally (what I have been told by people who know him) and in the body of work that I have read, he is no racist and is in fact a serious Christian.

As to the Bible being against hierarchical religion–surely this could be a reasonable debate between and among traditionalist Catholics, Anglicans, and the “lower” Protestant churches. One cannot justly be called a racist for believing that the Church’s growth and development into hierarchies and orders is consistent with Scripture, Tradition, history, and human nature. Can they?

Since when is a nonbelief in equality the same as racism? Equality as a general principle is silly and destructive. Rather than worship an abstraction, Dr. Fleming, so it seems to me, tries to point out the reality of human nature. That societies and civilizations always have hierarchies and some level of slavery and injustice. Rather than pretend that equality exists, the best we can do is to accept the realities of human nature as we know them from history, tradition, custom, and science; and to limit their tendencies toward oppression and evil through the Christian religion and with the aid of the political and legal systems devised in the classical world.

Whenever I have followed a discussion of slavery led by Dr. Fleming and Dr. Wilson, neither seeks to defend slavery as an ideal. They generally like to show that slavery in some form has always existed and that in many ways we moderns are the most slavish of all. If suggesting that the condition of modern blacks is more degrading, violent, and hopeless than the condition of southern slaves is racist, then count Orestes Brownson, Wendell Berry, and myself as bigots.

Perhaps Ms. Dalton could contribute to the discussion as she is well acquainted with Dr. Fleming and Dr. Wilson as people and writers. The “bad corner” (as she calls it) on the front porch is a lonely, tedious place these days.

avatar John Médaille June 2, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Wouldn’t the “it has always existed” argument apply to any number of things? Adultery, oppression, conquest, etc.

avatar Joshua D. Cooney June 2, 2010 at 3:01 pm

The “it has always existed” argument is not an argument, not a justification. It is a fact with which we can begin a discussion. A fact many people do not know or do not admit; therefore, a fact that can reasonably be pointed out without being accused of defending slavery. Dr. Fleming has always been a supporter of agrarians and distributists. To pretend that he seeks a return to the days of plantations and slave auctions is as dishonest as accusing Chesterton and Robert Nisbet of wanting to return us to a state of serfdom. I might add that the great spokesmen for your preferred political economy, like Dr. Fleming, have more than once accused of racism, anti-Semitism, and antiquarianism.

avatar Joshua D. Cooney June 2, 2010 at 3:03 pm

The last sentence should read “more than once been accused…”

avatar Jason Peters June 2, 2010 at 3:25 pm

I oughtn’t to work from memory so much.

Here is O’Connor to “A” (Betty Hester), 1 Oct. 1960:

“I have a novelist friend in Smiths, Ala. named Caroline Ivey who wrote me about Harper Lee. She knew her father who was a lawyer. Apparently the people in her town in Alabama (Mayborough) think she shouldn’t have used the Boo Radley episode as there was apparently something like it in the town. Caroline Ivey was highly sympathetic to Miss Nelle Harper Lee and insisted on sending me the book … I think I see what it really is–a child’s book. When I was fifteen I would have loved it. Take out the rape and you’ve got something like Miss Minerva and William Green Hill. I think for a child’s book it does all right. It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they’re reading a child’s book. Someone ought to say what it is.”

avatar Jordan Smith June 2, 2010 at 5:31 pm

That only serves to confirm my suspicions that O’Connor was a bit of a joyless crank. I am also not sure what the purpose of distinguishing between books for children and adults is. I am proud to say that I love any great work of art, whether intended for children or adults. I don’t think such distinctions have any bearing on those kind of judgements.

And I am proud to say that I think TKAM is a wonderful novel full of compassion, anger, tenderness, sadness and joy. If I manage to shuffle off this mortal coil having left behind such a legacy I will think my life well-lived and worthwhile.

‘Nuff said.

avatar Rob G June 2, 2010 at 7:46 pm

“That only serves to confirm my suspicions that O’Connor was a bit of a joyless crank”

Nah. All you’ve got to do is read her letters to be disavowed of that notion. She was wrong, I think, about TKAM but not about much else.

avatar Jordan Smith June 2, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Fair enough. I will retract that judgement until I am better acquainted with her work.

avatar Zac June 3, 2010 at 2:04 pm

“Pass the damn ham, please.” Our family has deemed the word ‘damn’ a permissible expletive. Thanks Nelle.

avatar John Médaille June 3, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Damn as a “permissible expletive”? My mother claims that she was 16 before she realized that “Damn Yankee” was two words.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins June 3, 2010 at 7:29 pm

There are many important distinctions to be made between “slavery” as it has “always existed” and “Negro slavery” as it evolved in the United States. Locke wrote that the historic legal justification for enslavement was capture in war: if a victor had the opportunity and right to kill you in fair battle, and chose to capture you, having spared your life, he could dispose of it as he would. By this legal foundation, the children were, ipso, facto, born free. There were in fact proposals to avert or abolish chattel slavery as an institution, by legislating that children of those presently enslaved be freed at the age of 18, or 21, or 27. There were not a few enslaved people who were in fact freed after a term of years in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, which resulted in a substantial free colored population before the Revolution.

There has also been debt slavery in many areas of the world, and this often is inherited from generation to generation, unless the debt somehow be paid, with all the accumulated interest that usually keeps repayment out of reach.

In ancient Greece and Rome, a large majority of the human population were slaves, in which case, it was not the burden of a minority, but the order of society, much as Calhoun argued for. That did not seem to stop occasional revolts, e.g. Spartacus. Sparta’s helots were a classic example of racial slavery, perhaps the closest analog to what developed in the American south.

Some have pointed out that racial prejudices were somewhat different under Spanish and Portuguese rule, because the caballeros frankly didn’t give a damn about liberty of anyone, the strong ruled by right of the sword, and they didn’t have to justify enslavement by making up myths of fitness or inferiority.

avatar John Willson June 7, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Gosh, no wonder that Bill never responds to his responders.

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