In a recent New Yorker piece, combatively titled “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?”, author and critic Paul Elie takes issue with O’Connor’s legacy on matters of race. As the writer of a justly celebrated study on four major Catholic authors of the twentieth century—O’Connor, Merton, Percy, and Day—Elie can hardly be unaware that, in part due to the influence of his own work, O’Connor has been adopted by the rising generation of Catholic writers as a surrogate great-aunt, godmother, and unofficial patron saint. If we have ever put her on any kind of pedestal, Elie in the New Yorker voices mournful regret over this premature canonization. In his wake come the iconoclasts with red spray paint and rope, demanding that we pull down her statue—quite literally, that we not say her name.
Elie’s tone in the piece is, precisely, elegiac: reverent, but in the manner of a funeral oration. The conclusions readers are meant to draw from the piece are clear enough from the performative and situational context in which it appears. Commenters on a social media post about Amy Alznauer’s newly released children’s book The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor were observed to remark that—didn’t we know?—we are no longer supposed to like O’Connor, now that she has been proven to have been racist. Cancel culture arrives for the high modernist firebrand not with a bang, but a whimper.
This is not to say that O’Connor herself would have been offended or even surprised at this. The Catholic fictionist par excellence received and expected but small reverence from the “people in the pews” of her day. She complained often and mightily of the cautious Catholic’s blindness to literary quality. Yet the antagonism may have had less to do with any obscenity in O’Connor’s texts than with O’Connor’s self-conscious violation of the stifling code of Southern female manners that forbade a white woman from appearing to notice, let alone to refer to, any reality not deemed by those in power to be perfectly “nice.” Yet Catholics were among the first to hail O’Connor as a literary genius, notably a small but clued-in circle of Catholic readers in her own day that encompassed Caroline Gordon, Allen Tate, and the Fitzgeralds and Cheneys, among others. Today her ferocious fictional specification of theological vision, “nice” though it certainly is not, turns not an eyelash.
Her perceptions on race are more complicated, and more dubious, in ways that deserve our attention. Elie’s evaluation of them in the New Yorker is unforgiving in proportion as O’Connor’s mind was less ignorant, and therefore her prejudice less excusable, than any other Southern maiden aunt’s who ever lived. Newly uncovered material in O’Connor’s letters, Elie implies, means that all future admiration of her work must be a qualified admiration, defined primarily not by her technical excellence or by her generous vision but by her derogatory racial remarks:
[T]hey are not hot-mike moments or loose talk. They were written at the same desk where O’Connor wrote her fiction and are found in the same lode of correspondence that has brought about the rise in her stature. This has put her champions in a bind—upholding her letters as eloquently expressive of her character, but carving out exceptions for the nasty parts.
The material in question appeared for the first time in print in the book Radical Ambivalence, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s timely study of race in the fiction and nonfiction of the much-loved Southern Catholic writer, which has been the first work to be granted permission from O’Connor’s estate to publish the untoward passages from the letters. O’Donnell’s book deserves a more thorough treatment than the brusque summary it receives in the New Yorker article. In it, O’Donnell warns us that any search for a single, unequivocal view on race in O’Connor’s oeuvre is likely to prove inconclusive:
Flannery O’Connor is inconsistent in her treatment of race and depiction of racial relationships in her stories . . . [T]here is also even greater inconsistency between her attitudes toward race expressed in her letters and those expressed in her fiction. . . . [W]hat she writes about race in a letter depends on who she is writing to and what the nature of their correspondence is, and . . . she sometimes changes her mind about questions having to do with race and then sometimes changes it back again.
So O’Donnell describes the arc of O’Connor’s movement from passionate integrationist as a budding artist to reticent, chill well-wisher of the civil rights movement in her later years. Less comfortably of a piece with O’Connor’s political commitment to integration is her frequent and various adoption of demeaning language toward black people, both as individuals and in groups. (Elie’s depiction of O’Connor as a segregationist on the basis of such remarks is simply a mischaracterization; her actual political position favored gradual integration, and in her letters she refers to “canceling out” her mother’s conservative vote on this matter with her own, presumably liberal, one.)
In her remarks about Martin Luther King, Jr. O’Connor denied King’s “secular sainthood” but at the same time acknowledged, “He is doing what he needs to do”—a tacit acknowledgment of the value and necessity of the work of nonviolent resistance against discrimination. No doubt this message of support rings insufficiently enthusiastic to the postmodern ear. In the age of the stridently earnest shareable and postable screed, we are dulled to the high modernist tendency toward metonymy and aphorism. All that is left to us is the art of the Twitter takedown, an art that has evolved coevally with cancel culture, a disturbing willingness to “de-platform” (hideous word) anyone who utters a single insufficiently considered syllable. A group of more than 150 writers and artists recently protested cancel culture in a letter in Harper’s magazine, which describes the phenomenon as follows:
Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. . . . [T]he result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
Let us be clear: O’Connor’s offenses against contemporary sensibility (and, in a couple of instances, legitimately against charity) are more egregious by far than the sorts of minor missteps for which people get canceled today. For example, Elie registers horror that, late in life, O’Connor was willing to admit to personal dislike for some black people, mainly thinkers exemplified by James Baldwin—those aligned with a certain strain of Northern liberalism that to O’Connor seemed pretentious and self-righteous, even in people she did like, such as Maryat Lee—and, one might add, O’Connor’s younger self. “My question is usually would this person be endurable if white,” O’Connor quipped of such thinkers, with more acerbity than charity.
Her character Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” may be read as a “white double” of Baldwin (“doubling” is a frequent phenomenon in O’Connor’s work and is employed in this story to denote spiritual equality). Julian is a zealot, in theory ready to force his vision of progress and equality on everyone in sight, but in practice mainly “pontificating.” (Slyly, the omniscient narrator informs us that the passionate integrationist Julian, despite his white-knighting efforts, “had never been successful at making any Negro friends.”)
While Julian legitimately sees farther than his mother does, with more awareness of her genuine absurdities than she will ever attain, he is also blind to her real virtues—her gentleness, her cheerful fortitude. Ultimately, his blindness conduces to her destruction. Only because of his comic irony and the brevity of the story is Julian “endurable” in O’Connor’s sense.
There may be a mean streak at work in the creation of such a character, but the meanness is not in this instance primarily racial in nature. Nor is it self-serving or self-sparing: Julian’s bitterness toward his mother, his judgmental attitude toward her very real racism, and his assurance of his own superiority to her while remaining materially dependent on her, closely echo those of Hulga in “Good Country People,” Thomas in “The Comforts of Home,” and Asbury in “The Enduring Chill”—a pattern that speaks to O’Connor’s own self-awareness and self-judgment in her conflicted relations with her mother. As O’Donnell writes of Julian’s final diatribe,
You cannot sacrifice your mother on the altar of racial justice—or any other altar, for that matter—without dehumanizing yourself. We are implicated in Julian’s psychic and filial violence. . . . O’Connor effectively condemns everyone—including Julian’s mother—who prefers to live in a world based on exploitation of black people rather than one based on equality—but, in many ways, representative racist that she may be, she is not the worst person in the story. . . .
O’Donnell goes on to argue, now quoting Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, that in this instance and throughout O’Connor’s work,
the subject of the dream is the dreamer. The fabrication of an Africanist persona is reflexive; an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly consciousness. . . . [T]he black woman on the bus becomes an embodiment of O’Connor’s own fears. . . .
To this I would add that, in keeping with the frequent role of violence as an agent of divine justice in O’Connor’s work, the black woman represents a type of the classical Fury exacting just retribution. When she strikes Julian’s mother for a condescending gesture, this functions as a double rebuke: of Julian’s mother’s tone-deaf racism and of Julian’s own, morally worse because more conscious and considered, judgmentalism and self-absorption. Julian may be “on the right side of history” (if there is such a thing), but he is on the wrong side of charity. To the extent that we see this lack in O’Connor, she also sees it in herself and judges it, not with any noticeable degree of gentleness.
Circling back to Baldwin, the phenomenon of “doubling” seems to hold relevance here. Baldwin was perhaps nearest of all the figures considered in Radical Ambivalence as targets of O’Connor’s racism to being O’Connor’s real equal. Both writers were members of historically disenfranchised groups (though O’Connor succeeded in overcoming any disadvantage stereotypically associated with femininity). Both were to an important extent “regional” writers; both used shocking effects to convey urgent realities; both were fond of moving powerfully between the abstract and the concrete, although their differences in perspective and first premises led them to drastically different conclusions. Both, too, seem to have been justly fond of the sound of their own distinctive voices.
In light of all this it should not escape us that O’Connor’s other objection to Baldwin is that he “can show us what it feels like to be a Negro in Harlem but he tries to tell us everything else too.” After all, O’Connor can show us what it feels like to be a white Southerner and through this makes the attempt to tell us everything else too. The juxtaposition in Elie’s essay of this line from the letters, only a few paragraphs away from O’Connor’s words about the struggle of the artist to transcend regionalism, makes it impossible not to wonder: Was O’Connor ultimately judging Baldwin not on racial lines but as an artist, foreseeing on these grounds that he and she would clash? Can Baldwin be seen (to reference Morrison again) as a type of “shadow self” that O’Connor is resisting? Can O’Connor be seen, laying all other categorizations to one side, as in some ways the “philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind” of writer herself?
When considering Baldwin’s proposed visit to O’Connor, the idea of not sacrificing one’s mother to one’s ideals seems relevant, too. The prevalence of white supremacist activity in 1950s Georgia is difficult for us to imagine today, but hate and violence in the Jim Crow South was such that the visit as proposed could have placed Baldwin, O’Connor, and even Regina in the way of harm. O’Donnell in her treatment of this episode highlights how racism in a society ultimately harms even those it purports to benefit, and she illustrates how O’Connor herself was not immune to damage. To do so is not to draw, as Elie suggests, a “false equivalence” between the suffering borne by the oppressed and the inconveniences borne by the privileged. It is simply to see the picture whole, to put the puzzle together rather than staring at its disassembled pieces.
O’Donnell’s book, like O’Connor’s oeuvre, deepens mystery; Elie’s article calls for a resolution that relies upon and is possible only in light of that mystery. O’Donnell is alive to the need for a robust context which accounts for both O’Connor’s fiction and nonfiction, which insists on no single interpretive key but rather relies on a range of evidence, and which neither villainizes O’Connor nor absolves her. By contrast, Elie’s continual and dismissive recurrence to “the argument” (as if all divergent views of writers who contextualize O’Connor could be conflated into one argument) seems to speak of a willingness to oversimplify the picture. It reads like an attempt to cast discredit on O’Connor rather than an attempt to see her whole, flaws and virtues together.
O’Donnell insists that O’Connor’s work “withstands scrutiny and, in fact, becomes richer and fuller the more we subject it to hard questions.” Here is one hard question: Can the principled stance ultimately advocated by both Elie and O’Donnell withstand the pressures being brought to bear on the culture that produced O’Connor and the culture that still celebrates her art? To lose that art would be a loss for American culture and, ultimately, for the cause of equality. As Jessica Hooten Wilson wrote in First Things, “As we make strides to uproot bigotry from our nation and seek justice on behalf of those who have suffered unjustly, we should see Flannery O’Connor not as a hindrance but as someone who helped us come a long way.”
No one can claim O’Connor was unaware of or indifferently complicit in the racist conditioning she certainly received from her culture. In letters to friends, O’Connor as much as confessed her bias. The tone she takes in these texts—ironic, self-excoriating—as well as toward the white racist characters in her stories who are her own implicit doubles, suggests that the fault grieved her deeply. To the extent that there is a gap between the over-the-top performer of the letters and the restrained, omniscient narrator of the fiction, that gap, too, likely grieved O’Connor. The ending of her story “Revelation,” far from being the “segregationist vision” Elie suggests it is, serves as an interpretive key for her effort to overcome her racist conditioning in her fiction and a sign that she succeeded, even if there alone, even if to a limited degree. I agree with O’Donnell that this vision is likely one O’Connor was “wresting from God every day for much of her life.”
Still, its limitation grieves us, and it should. Are we equally grieved with our own conditioning, our own failure, to the extent that we too may carry it? This grief is ultimately sorrow over sin. Such sorrow commits us neither to questionable ideology, nor to debatable policy, nor to unproductive litanies of self-hatred. It is simply and solely an act of vision, of the kind O’Connor continually attempted and to which her example unambiguously urges us. To cancel O’Connor at this moment, when we desperately need models of establishment figures brought up in racist milieus who achieved any measure of success in perceiving and combatting their own prejudices, would only be to add grief to grief.
O’Donnell’s final chapter is titled “The Failure and Promise of Communion,” suggesting that we, like O’Connor, know where we ought to go but have not, by a long shot, arrived there and may not even know how to proceed.
One frequent shortfall of conversations around Flannery O’Connor’s perceptions of race is their failure to mention writers and artists of color who have grappled with O’Connor’s blind spots and have found the work worth honoring despite its imperfections. Amy Alznauer highlights and addresses this in a powerful essay on Bitter Southerner, a website that exists “to explore, from every angle we can, the duality of this Southern thing.”
Alznauer names Alice Walker, Hilton Als, and Benny Andrews, among others, as examples of artists of color who both saw what O’Connor could not and, simultaneously, recognized the value of what she did see, how she saw it, and how she made us see it. Alznauer spends significant time exploring Walker’s 1975 essay on O’Connor, in which Walker “see-saws” between righteous anger at O’Connor on the one hand and a fellow writer’s admiration of her craft on the other:
A few minutes later, walking about the yard, “listening to the soft sweep of the peacocks’ tails,” she says, “She also cast spells and worked magic with the written word. The magic, the wit, and the mystery of Flannery O’Connor I know I will always love.”
Then, immediately after declaring her love for O’Connor, Walker says, “I also know the meaning of the expression ‘Take what you can use and let the rest rot.’” One does not come away from Walker’s essay feeling that anything has been side-stepped, justified, or downplayed. She wrote this 45 years ago.
In the wake of attempted erasures of O’Connor’s legacy, Walker has asked contemporary writers and scholars to “hide nothing of what [O’Connor] was, and use that to teach.” To follow Walker’s advice, readers of O’Connor will need to explore the responses of African American writers to O’Connor’s work. In this spirit, O’Donnell and Elie both call attention to Catholic novelist Toni Morrison’s landmark work of criticism Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination. In any discussion of race and Catholic literature, Morrison’s work deserves more attention than it has received in Catholic circles. In particular, Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved ought to be more widely read, especially by Catholics, and understood as being in conversation with the themes O’Connor engages: violence, redemption, and the often self-inflicted sufferings of the human condition.
Beloved is not an easy read, dealing centrally and viscerally as it does with the murder of a black child by her own mother in hopes of sparing the child a lifetime spent in slavery. Yet a close and careful reading of this novel would shed far greater light on the roots and ramifications of the “culture of death” as it subsists in America, a culture to which Catholics must stand in resistance.
Racism and slavery were and are as surely expressions of the “culture of death” as is abortion, which the infanticide in the novel is not a case of yet ineluctably suggests. Morrison does not excuse the act of murder but, rather, challenges readers to see the incalculable damage already done by the time such an act of violence becomes possible. Beloved makes the truth about the destructive character of racism unavoidably visible, by locating the demise of innocent life as racism’s ultimate fruit.
Beloved is based on a historical case: the story of Margaret Garner, a slave who in 1856 escaped to Morrison’s home state of Ohio and, upon recapture, killed her young daughter so that the girl could not be enslaved again. In the novel, Sethe, based on Margaret, is a loving mother driven to unimaginable desperation by the evil that surrounds her. If there is anything O’Connor can teach us, it is that we must be able to see evil in action if we are to name it and to understand the harm it does. And if there is anything that Catholics ought to have learned from the last seventy years of discourse, it is that shouting about the evilness of evil is not going to persuade anyone who is not already persuaded. To paraphrase O’Connor’s own argument in Mystery and Manners, if we are to produce a compelling and convicting picture of evil, we have to believably depict evildoing in progress—even if, especially if, the evildoers are ourselves.
Too often we resist looking closely at such realities because, if we do so, we will see something we cannot pretend we did not. We may see ourselves as we are, and we may not much like what we see. A central theme of O’Connor’s work—visible in her formal nonfiction and in almost all of her fiction, from Wise Blood to “Parker’s Back”—is this struggle for clear vision of oneself, clear vision of the image of Christ in oneself and others, and the resistance of the ego to this clarity. Yet if we had none of her other art to judge by, if we had the story “Revelation” alone, this story, in its tone, pacing, climax, and emphasis, would be enough to bear witness that, in the end, O’Connor’s own dictum to “purify the source” won out in her mind. She may not have fully succeeded in her lifetime, but she believed in a justice and in a mercy that would cleanse her in the end, even “as if through fire” (1 Cor 3:15). Mrs. Turpin’s vision is O’Connor’s vision; its incomplete purification is her incomplete purification. She could not persist in blindness; neither can we. And if we cannot persist in blindness, which may at first be innocent but later must be willed, there is no longer any buffer between our souls and the demands that the truth makes on them.
It is hard to look closely. It is hard to resist the temptation to “false equivalence,” as if we could look at all sufferings as part of one river Styx of human pain. It is easy to miss the fact that some situations cry out to heaven for vengeance far more urgently than others. Elie is right to resist a false equivalence between the pain of the oppressed and that of the privileged. Yet if there is no possibility of commonality between the privileged and the oppressed, no locus of shared experience, how can there be convergence?
By itself, one person’s art cannot—and O’Connor knew it could not—represent the entire fullness of the truth. For this fullness we need a communion that is both a complex, contrapuntal choir of technical virtuosos and no less than a communion of saints. Many voices together must rise to proclaim the truths of the city of man and of the city of God, of both what they see and what they know through the evidence of things not seen.