Margaret Brantley

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2643

Brantley is a writer and editor of literary reference and academic subject texts. In this essay, she examines the portrayal of racism in recent-past settings by modern writers, and how John Grisham's The Last Juror treats the subject in the twenty-first century.

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In August 2005, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that people's feelings about something could be changed by manipulating their memories of it. Convinced that they had had a bad experience with strawberry ice cream as a child, adults turned away from the treat they had previously enjoyed. Persuaded that they had once loved asparagus, test subjects reported liking it more than before. The human impulse to believe that what is true today has always been true is by no means limited to such tricks of the taste buds. In 1963, George Wallace became governor of Alabama and proclaimed, "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" in his inaugural speech. He raised the Confederate Battle Flag atop the state's capitol dome that year. A generation later, tradition-minded Alabamians fought the removal of the controversial symbol, arguing that it had flown there since the Civil War and to remove it would dishonor their noble Confederate ancestors. Whether through an exercise in propaganda or poetic license, American writers have also shaped their readers' present perceptions by adjusting their past attitudes. Following in the footsteps of Mark Twain, Margaret Mitchell, and Harper Lee, John Grisham reaches into the recent past and retrieves a new memory in The Last Juror.

While racism is often mentioned in the book, its presence provides more atmosphere than action. The Last Juror is not a fable with a moral about the wrongness of racism. It is a crime drama. The basic story can be summarized in a few lines: A man kills a woman. A young newspaperman sensationalizes the story to sell papers. A woman has lived a remarkable life despite hardships. She breaks ground by being selected to sit on the jury in the murder trial. The community is shocked by the outcome. Some members of the jury are murdered—but why, and by whom?

If all the players are either black or white, this cast of core characters—the murderer, the victim, the reporter, the juror, and the avenger—may have thirty different configurations and create almost as many race dramas. Or, as is the case in The Last Juror, the color of the participants' skin proves immaterial to the story's action. The juror is black, and the other core players are white. There are moments when the reader fears she will be harmed by racist whites in her community, but not only is she not harmed, she is not threatened. The issue of race in The Last Juror is a red herring, used to add suspense and keep the readers guessing. It serves as a misdirection because modern readers are primed to expect race, when mentioned, to be an issue.

Storytellers have always spun yarns about the long ago and the far away. A culture's values are both reflected in and supported by its mythology. Heroes like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and King Arthur illustrated lessons of bravery, humility, cunning, hospitality, chivalry, and piety. Each also gave future generations of his countrymen an ancestral hero with a legacy of which to be proud. As literacy and printing technology grew, readers started enjoying adventures and romances set in the present day and written in accessible language, in addition to the myths and fables of yore. By the nineteenth century, masters like Leo Tolstoy and Victor Hugo were making statements about contemporary politics in Russia and France with stories set during major events in each country's recent past. Writing just after the American Civil War about events in the years just prior, Mark Twain (1835–1910) used the recent-past technique and a child's point of view to evoke compassion for African Americans.

Immediately after the Civil War, the U.S. government suspended the rights of the rebel states in a period known as Reconstruction. It passed laws to establish civil rights for newly freed slaves, but resistance to such forced progress gave rise to organized racism and violence as defeated white southerners sought to reclaim a sense of power. When Reconstruction ended in 1877, the stage was set for the Jim Crow era, a period of legalized racial segregation designed to systematically oppress African Americans. Published in 1885 and set "Forty to Fifty Years Ago," Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn shows the hero's struggle with his conscience while trying to do the right thing. After faking his death and leaving home, Huck takes up with a runaway slave named Jim, whose friendship and company are the foundation for the novel's adventures. Although he loves his friend, Huck feels that he should turn in the fugitive slave. He prays for the resolve to turn Jim in but cannot bring himself to do the "right" thing:

I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go write to that nigger's owner and tell where he was; but deep down I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can't pray a lie—I found that out…. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: "All right then, I'll go to hell[.]"

Huck accepts his inability to betray Jim as a flaw in his own sinful nature rather than a flaw of the society that expects him to regard another human as less than himself. That he does the morally right thing, even when contrary to the legally right thing, reveals something admirable about Huck. Through the brave decision of a thoroughly likeable and fully American character, Twain gives his readers a hero they can identify with, respect, and honor as they, too, do the moral thing. Huck recognizes Jim's humanity long before the lawmakers in Washington try to legislate that recognition. Following his example, Twain's readers can also be compassionate without feeling like some federal law has told them how to feel.

Grisham uses a different tactic to let his readers feel compassion. In one scene in The Last Juror, he describes the contrasting reactions to public school desegregation from both communities it is about to affect:

The white parents were angry and frightened and I saw several women crying. The fateful day had finally arrived. At the black school there was an air of victory. The parents were concerned, but they were also elated that their children would finally be enrolled in the better schools.

By representing the black community's point of view, Grisham underscores the righteousness of the wronged party without preaching or even pointing out which side that is. His readers get to feel good about themselves for knowing that they, too, are on the side of right.

Written during the Jim Crow era, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (1936) gave readers license to remember the Civil War in a new way. Mitchell (1900–1949) experienced the beginning of the breakdown of the Jim Crow South as an adult in Atlanta. During the Red Summer of 1919, northern and southern U.S. cities alike witnessed more than two dozen race riots. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld black defendants' rights to fairness before the law with landmark cases in the 1920s and 1930s in which African Americans were charged with violence against whites. Membership in the Ku Klux Klan peaked in the 1920s, and the poverty and insecurity of the Great Depression of the 1930s fostered animosity toward minorities as people competed for scarce jobs and resources.

Gone With the Wind gave readers a picture of benign slavery they could embrace, as well as a dashing, romantic, racist hero to admire. Mitchell's Rhett Butler is a charming rogue who ignores conventions and lives for his own selfish pleasure. In a line meant to reveal something good about Rhett's character, the narrator notes, "Even Rhett, conscienceless scamp that he was, had killed a negro for being 'uppity to a lady.'" The reader understands that being a murderer is preferable to letting a white lady endure a perceived affront. Later, Scarlett, the story's protagonist, tries to defend the use of white convict labor by comparing it to slavery: "Ah, but that was different. Slaves were neither miserable nor unfortunate. The negroes were far better off under slavery than they were now under freedom, and if she didn't believe it, just look about her!" Regardless of whether Mitchell's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece served to defend its author's heritage and justify her beliefs, it did allow its readers to hold their chins up and look down their noses at the idea that there was anything wrong with being a racist.

Grisham turns this approach on its head. While Rhett is a likeable racist, Lucien Wilbanks, the defense attorney in The Last Juror, is an unsympathetic progressive. "He was the only white member of the NAACP in Ford County, which alone was enough to get you shot there. He didn't care." Wilbanks is mean, unpopular, and one of the novel's bad guys, but he is also bravely on the right side of the race question.

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) was written in the thick of the civil rights movement, between the 1954 decision that outlawed segregation in public schools and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Set in the 1930s in Jim Crow Alabama, the novel was inspired by the case of the Scottsboro boys, nine black teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. All but the youngest one were sentenced to death for the crime, but all were eventually released through appeals, pardons, or parole. In two separate decisions related to the case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the defendants' right to due process and fair trials.

Atticus Finch, the protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird, is a white lawyer defending an innocent black man accused of raping a white woman. He does not win, nor does he expect to, but he behaves bravely and morally in the face of societal pressure to do otherwise.

Finch is a hero like Huck Finn: one that readers can look up to as a model to emulate in a confusing time of change. The idea that all citizens deserved life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was one that some white Americans officially resisted into the 1970s. The message of To Kill a Mockingbird could be that white people are no better and no worse than black people, black people are no less deserving of civil rights than white people, and it is up to white people to look out for black people. The novel lumps African Americans in with simpletons, bugs, and birds—all of which deserve compassion and protection from white people. Early in the book, a neighbor explains to Atticus's son why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird: "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us." Later, the boy prevents his sister from killing a harmless roly-poly bug with the argument "they don't bother you." The novel ends with the girl agreeing with her father that they should protect their mysterious, emotionally troubled neighbor, because to do otherwise would be "like shootin' a mockingbird."

Atticus Finch shows the readers how to act righteously while assuring them that they can remain superior. He is painted as a hero to the dignified and stoic black community. He believes they are equal but does not seem to mind keeping them separate. Rather than grief and outrage when an innocent man is sent to prison, the black members of the community stand as a gesture of respect when the white lawyer passes by. This exchange between Finch and his African American housekeeper about the gifts of food the black townspeople leave to show their gratitude underscores the fact that heroic behavior in one generation may not only be inadequate but actually offensive to the next:

Calpurnia said, "This was all 'round the back steps when I got here this morning. They—they 'preciate what you did, Mr. Finch. They—they aren't oversteppin' themselves, are they?"

Atticus's eyes filled with tears. He did not speak for a moment. "Tell them I'm very grateful," he said. "Tell them—tell them they must never do this again. Times are too hard."

Even if the exchange does not suggest that there are circumstances in which the gift-givers might step out of place, it does say that white people do not owe black people the most basic observance of good manners—to say "thank you" to people who give them gifts and pay them compliments. If Lee was able to convince readers in the 1960s to be more like Atticus Finch, she contributed to progress—not triumph. If Finch had made African American friends with whom he socialized at their homes, at his home, and in public, like the white protagonist of The Last Juror, the bar would have been higher.

The Last Juror (2004) offers a new reason to look to the recent past: to reassure readers that they do not need to talk about race at every opportunity in order to prove they are intelligent, evolved, progressive beings. In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Toni Morrison claims that "the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture." Grisham by no means ignores it. He portrays overt racism in 1970s Mississippi as a fact of the setting, like the hot summers or the native drawl, but does not make any specific judgment condemning it. However, The Last Juror is filled with portrayals of racism and its effects. Grisham does not downplay or ignore racism; he simply opts not to make it the center of his tale. He populates his fictional Clanton, Mississippi, with rich, full personalities and makes sure that neither the town's black citizens nor its white citizens have a monopoly on silliness or dignity, evil or virtue. Through the voice of narrator Willie Traynor, Grisham comes across as clearly anti-racist, but he does not belabor the point. He trusts his twenty-first-century audience to share his feeling and gets on with the story.

Grisham does not use The Last Juror to influence his readers' opinions about race. He paints neither a prettier nor uglier picture of the past, and he does not ask his readers to feel better or worse about themselves or their history. He does not suggest that the fight against racism is won, or even close to over. His debut novel, A Time to Kill (1989), set in present-day Clanton, addresses the issue head on. With The Last Juror, he gives a multifaceted portrayal of life in the small-town South. The Twains, Mitchells, and Lees that came before him made sure he does not have to educate his readers about racism; they already know. Thanks to the modern reader's sophistication, Grisham is able to reach a new level of complexity and realism in his depiction of the recent past.

In his opinion on the 1972 decision that deemed all American death penalty statutes illegal, Thurgood Marshall, the country's first black Supreme Court justice, wrote, "In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute." In 2004 with the inhabitants of his fictional Clanton, Grisham came closer to paying himself this tribute than most other American writers could imagine.

Source: Margaret Brantley, Critical Essay on The Last Juror, in Literary Newsmakers for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Tina Jordan

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1513

In the following interview with Jordan, Grisham discusses how his many books, as well as the filmed adaptations of those books, compare to each other.

John Grisham's office, a stunning loft space overlooking downtown Charlottesville, Va., is a long, lean expanse of wood floors studded with curvy red and plum sofas and an imposing conference table. Despite the wood and glass and steel, it's a warm space, decorated with both the expected (movie posters, early reviews) and the unexpected (one of his old Mississippi law firm business cards, encased in a small frame). Grisham, 49, strides in five minutes late, apologetic. He's driven from his farm, a 204-acre spread south of the city that he shares with wife Renee and daughter Shea (son Ty is away at college). Nursing an Italian coffee, he ponders a list of his 17 best-sellers and 9 movies. "By the time I'm finished with one book I'm always thinking about the next one," he says, laughing, "so I can't remember a lot of detail. But I'll wing it."

He doesn't have to wing it, of course. Here's a short list of his favorites—and a few not-so-favorites:

Grisham was a small-town lawyer and state legislator in Mississippi when he picked up a pen and pad and started A Time to Kill (1989). "I didn't know what I was doing when I wrote that book. It's the only book out of 17 that I wrote without a deadline and without the knowledge that it was going to get published, so I really took my time with it. Still, I go back and look at it occasionally and see a lot of rookie mistakes … Too many long sentences and too much flowery prose.

Now, 20 years later, I'm really tired of the Ku Klux Klan stuff. When you write about the South it's got to be about race, and I wish I hadn't devoted so much of the book to the Klan because they don't deserve it. That's one thing I'd change."

After spending three years laboring over A Time to Kill—and not having much to show for it—Grisham admits that The Firm (1991) was "a naked stab at commercial fiction": "If it hadn't worked the second time, I probably would've stopped for a while. I like [The Firm] a lot because I've always liked the character of Mitch McDeere, and the hook, and the ending—in spite of what Hollywood did to it." (Grisham ended with the main couple stealing Mob money and going on a permanent Caribbean vacation, while director Sydney Pollack, claiming he was sick of "yuppie endings," sent Tom Cruise and Jeanne Tripplehorn back to their Boston roots, poorer but wiser.) The movie: "I had nothing to do with it. I went to the set twice. Stephen King is a buddy, and he told me a long time ago, 'They're just movies. They cannot change a word of what you've written. It's somebody else's interpretation. Take the money and run.'… I thought [Cruise] did a good job. He played the innocent young associate very well."

Hoping to capitalize on The Firm's success, Grisham churned out The Pelican Brief (1992) in two months flat: "You know the movie Three Days of the Condor, the CIA thriller [directed by Pollack] with Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway? The book was a deliberate effort to outspace Condor, to have all this stuff going on, so the reader could not turn the pages fast enough. But I think it shows some damage because it was written so fast." The movie: "I met Alan Pakula before he bought the film rights, and he wanted my input. I read the screenplay, and it followed the book … That's all you can ask for. The movie was very popular. I though Julia [Roberts] was a good choice … I had a problem with Denzel [Washington], not as actor, but in the book he's a white guy … I didn't write the guy as a black guy in the book. Some of my characters are white and some are black. If you're going to make a dramatic change, give me a good reason. And there really was no good reason. And I think it was kind of awkward; in the book there was more of a romance toward the end between the two. In the movie it was almost like they couldn't because one was black and one was white."

In its first year out, The Client (1993) sold 3 million copies; it even overtook the behemoth The Bridges of Madison County on the best-seller charts for a few weeks. "The Client was, by the benefit of 10 years' hindsight, by far the weakest book … because of the kid hiring the lawyer, the kid knowing where the body's buried … There's a hundred pages of fluff in that book." The movie: "The Client may be my least favorite book, but it's a really popular movie. The Pelican Brief and Client were much closer to the books than The Firm … I thought Susan Sarandon was wonderful."

The Chamber (1994), about a death-penalty case, was a departure for Grisham, the first in which he grappled with social issues: "It was probably the most difficult book I had to write. Growing up in a strict Southern Baptist house-hold you think capital punishment's wonderful—line 'em up, shoot 'em, hang 'em. And the book flipped me. I wasn't expecting that. I spent time on death row, and it had a profound impact on me. It was difficult to write—I just couldn't get the guy to the gas chamber. And so it became a very long book. The only book I've missed the deadline on. But it's a book I like a lot. A book I'm proud of." The movie: "A disaster. A train wreck from the beginning. It could not have been handled worse by those involved, including me. I made a fundamental error when I sold the film rights before I finished writing the book. It was a dreadful movie. Gene Hackman was the only good thing in it."

Next he tackled the insurance industry in The Rainmaker (1995): "I got to unload on insurance companies, which is a lot of fun. I sued 'em for 10 years when I was a lawyer … Rainmaker was … the first time I used first-person narration, and I realized I really, really liked it … The challenge with Rainmaker, also with The Runaway Jury [1996], is that courtroom stuff of a civil nature is unbelievably dull. And so you weigh the balance of pace with being legally accurate. I hate this television stuff with courtroom scenes that would just make any lawyer want to vomit. I don't want to do that." The movie: "To me it's the best adaptation of any of 'em. [Francis Ford] Coppola really wanted my involvement, for whatever it's worth. And I love the movie. It's so well done. And it came out a few weeks before Titanic and got swamped."

There's no moralizing in The Partner (1997), just good writing about a greedy lawyer on the lam: "It's one of my favorite stories, one of the trickiest ones, flashing back and then forward, nabbing the lawyer and then watching him wiggle out of it. There are times when my wife says, 'Would you just stop preaching and tell a story?' And I listen to that."

Grisham tried a new tack In The Brethren (2000)—humor. It's the tale of three jailed judges who run a blackmailing scam from their cells: "I thought [Brethren] was hilarious! It was supposed to be hilarious! It's based on a real story—though obviously I was careful to fictionalize it—at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Brethren was a fun story, fun to write, but one with no redeeming social value whatsoever."

Grisham got rave reviews for A Painted House (2001), his first nonlegal thriller: "Well, probably my best book. The best writing. Probably the best story and the best characters. It's a sweet childhood memoir, even though it was published as fiction. The first seven years of my life—I was that kid, I lived on that farm, with my grandparents, playing baseball with Mexicans. Once I got all the setting and characters in place, I just sort of fictionalized everything …"

In his new book, The Last Juror—not strictly a legal thriller—Grisham takes readers back to Ford County, the fictional Mississippi county that was also the setting of A Time to Kill. "I wrote a hundred pages of it in the fall of 1989. I was going to write a Ford County book and a legal thriller, back and forth, and write two kinds of books, so I had the story all mapped out, and then The Firm went crazy, so The Last Juror got shoved to the back burner. But I've learned a lot over the years. After 15 years, I have greater expectations for my books."

Source: Tina Jordan, "Grisham V Grisham: John Grisham, undisputed champ of the legal thriller, issues a summary judgment on THE LAST JUROR, his latest novel, along with verdicts on some of his previous best-sellers," in Entertainment Weekly, No. 751, February 13, 2004, p. 41.

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Critical Overview