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Flannery O’Connor’s Racism

Robie Macauley with Arthur Koestler and Flannery O'Connor at Amana Colonies in Iowa, 9 Oct 1947. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In The New Yorker, Paul Elie argues that critics and readers should stop “downplaying” Flannery O’Connor’s racism:

Last year, Fordham University hosted a symposium on O’Connor and race, supported with a grant from the author’s estate. The organizer, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, edits a series of books on Catholic writers funded by the estate, has compiled a book of devotions drawn from O’Connor’s work, and has written a book of poems that ‘channel the voice’ of the author. In a new volume in the series, ‘Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor’ (Fordham), she takes up Flannery and That Issue. Proposing that O’Connor’s work is ‘race-haunted,’ she applies techniques from whiteness studies and critical race theory, as well as Toni Morrison’s idea of ‘Africanist “othering.”’ O’Donnell presents a previously unpublished passage on race and engages with scholars who have offered context for the racist remarks. Although she is palpably anguished about O’Connor’s race problem, she winds up reprising those earlier arguments in current literary-critical argot, treating O’Connor as ‘transgressive in her writing about race’ but prone to lapses and excesses that stemmed from social forces beyond her control.

The context arguments go like this. O’Connor was a writer of her place and time, and her limitations were those of ‘the culture that had produced her.’ Forced by illness to return to Georgia, she was made captive to a ‘Southern code of manners’ that maintained whites’ superiority over blacks, but her fiction subjects the code to scrutiny. Although she used racial epithets carelessly in her correspondence, she dealt with race courageously in the fiction, depicting white characters pitilessly and creating upstanding black characters who ‘retain an inviolable privacy.’ And she was admirably leery of cultural appropriation. ‘I don’t feel capable of entering the mind of a Negro,’ she told an interviewer—a reluctance that Alice Walker lauded in a 1975 essay.

All the contextualizing produces a seesaw effect, as it variously cordons off the author from history, deems her a product of racist history, and proposes that she was as oppressed by that history as anybody else was. It backdates O’Connor as a writer of her time when she was a near-contemporary of writers typically seen as writers of our time: Gabriel García Márquez (born 1927), Maya Angelou (1928), Ursula K. Le Guin (1929), Tom Wolfe (1930), and Derek Walcott (1930), among others. It suggests that white racism in Georgia was all-encompassing and brooked no dissent, even though (as O’Donnell points out) Georgia was then changing more dramatically than at any point before or since. Patronizingly, it proposes that O’Connor, a genius who prized detachment, lacked the free will to think for herself.

I don’t think the approach of O’Donnell (and other critics) is patronizing. It certainly doesn’t treat O’Connor as someone who “lacked the free will to think for herself.” Rather, it is simply an approach—and the right one in my view—that treats the creative work first. When it comes to a writer, what is found in the short stories and novels and poems is what matter most. Letters and interviews are important but secondary.

What exactly does Elie propose we do instead? It’s not exactly clear. He writes that after her death “the racist passages were stumbling blocks to the next generation’s encounter with her, and it made a kind of sense to sidestep them. Now the reluctance to face them squarely is itself a stumbling block, one that keeps us from approaching her with the seriousness that a great writer deserves.”

Again, I don’t see that O’Donnell and others are somehow sidestepping O’Connor’s remarks in her letters. Nor do I understand exactly how emphasizing O’Connor’s racist remarks helps us approach her “with the seriousness that a great writer deserves.” Does highlighting (not just acknowledging) Milton’s misogyny help us to approach him “with the seriousness that a great writer deserves”? How about another writer’s pedophilia or anti-Semitism?

Elie ends with this graf: “There’s a way forward, rooted in the work. For twenty years, the director Karin Coonrod has staged dramatic adaptations of O’Connor’s stories. Following a stipulation of the author’s estate, she uses every word: narration, description, dialogue, imagery, and racial epithets. Members of the multiracial cast circulate the full text fluidly from actor to actor, character to character, so that the author’s words, all of them, ring out in her own voice and in other voices, too.”

Something that has been done for twenty years is not a way forward. It’s the way things are. It’s also a way in this case that few people will experience. Most people just read O’Connor, and what I still don’t understand is how Elie proposes our approach to her should change.

In other news: A. M. Juster writes about why literary riddles are overlooked.

Emily Esfahani Smith reviews Adam Nicolson’s The Making of Poetry: Coleridge, the Wordsworths, and Their Year of Marvels: “One of the pleasures of Nicolson’s book is that it gives readers a behind-the-scenes view into the poets’ creative process. We see Coleridge walking through a wooded landscape in his signature zigzag stride, notebook in hand, jotting down impressions. We see Wordsworth, following the path with more deliberation, uttering phrases that Dorothy, trailing behind, is taking down.”

Henry Hitchings writes about the founding of the Royal Society of Arts: “What does Jony Ive, the designer of Apple’s iPhone, have in common with Peter Perez Burdett, the first Englishman to produce aquatints, and Ann Williams, a postmistress who bred silkworms at her home in 18th-century Gravesend? The answer is that they all received awards from the institution known today as the Royal Society of Arts.”

Terry Teachout revisits the life and work of Shirley Temple: “Child prodigies are endlessly fascinating, both because of their relative rarity and because so many of them come to unhappy ends. To be sure, there are some fields of endeavor, most notably classical music, in which a pronounced degree of prodigiousness is common, even relatively normal, and proves more often than not to be survivable. In acting, by contrast, the list of child stars who have grown up to have more or less successful adult careers is fairly short, and those who have done so, Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor in particular, have often paid a high price in emotional instability. Most stop making films well before adulthood, usually not voluntarily, and few escape without damage. Hence it is both singular and heartening to know that Shirley Temple, the most beloved of all child stars, managed to negotiate the slippery shoals of Hollywood and escape unscarred.”

Inigo Philbrick has been arrested: “Inigo Philbrick, the elusive contemporary art dealer who disappeared in the fall after being accused of defrauding clients of more than $20 million, was arrested on Thursday by U.S. law enforcement agents on the Pacific island of Vanuatu. Mr. Philbrick has since been transported to Guam, where he is expected to be presented in federal court on June 15, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office of the Southern District of New York. ‘You can’t sell more than 100 percent ownership in a single piece of art, which Philbrick allegedly did, among other scams,’ said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman in the statement. ‘When his schemes began to unravel, Philbrick allegedly fled the country. Now he is in U.S. custody and facing justice.’”

Photo: Culross

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about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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