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Flannery O’Connor, Sanctity, and the Psychology of Racism

Flannery O’Connor drew on her understanding of the evil within her in composing her brilliant fiction. Far from being the simple racist that recent attacks have made her out to be, she authored some of the most probing accounts of the psychology of racism in American literature.

Loyola University Maryland made the headlines a few weeks ago and for an embarrassing reason. The University’s president had received a student petition asking the school to rename the residence hall it had, just a few years ago, named in memory of the Catholic American novelist and short story writer, Flannery O’Connor. The petition based its demand on “recent” letters, by which we can only assume the petitioners meant recently published letters, as O’Connor has been dead since 1964.

The students behind the petition had evidently been excited not by anything O’Connor had done recently, but what had been done to her in a sanctimonious and misleading essay in The New Yorker magazine. Paul Elie, a former editor and author of a decent, occasionally insightful, biography on four great Catholic writers—O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy—had published in that magazine an essay with the tendentious title, “How Racist was Flannery O’Connor?”

The assumption of guilt, as if all we have left to do is assign an exact depth to the sinful malevolence of O’Connor, was striking, even more so because Elie had previously written with grace and admiration of the author he had now decided to defame. His book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, had not only borrowed its title from one of O’Connor’s stories, but treated with power and sympathy her life as a quest for sanctity undertaken despite continuous disappointment and suffering, a suffering whose underlying cause was her diagnosis with Lupus at the age of twenty-five. The disease would kill her at age thirty-nine.

With Elie’s editor’s eye, the book keenly notes developments in her writing over the span of a truncated career. Her early unpublished stories, he observes, did not merit publication in her Collected Stories. Many of them included racial slurs that seemed intended only to shock her Yankee audience at the University of Iowa MFA program rather than to serve any meaningful artistic end. She had not yet discovered her true subject as a writer and so had settled for what an Iowa MFA writer of a later generation, Raymond Carver, would call, “gimmicks.” In this she was typical of many a modern writer; Elie’s book is valuable because it suggests adeptly how she went about discovering the themes that would make her, in time, so freakishly brilliant.

 

But no such qualified criticism of, or excuse for, Elie’s recent essay can be made. It consistently misrepresents O’Connor and attributes racist meanings to passages without evidence or warrant. Elie alternately lists supposedly damning passages from the letters and stories that are not damning, and adds glosses to other letters and stories that are simply implausible. The whole malign exercise must be judged an act of self-righteous defamation rather than the hard moral reckoning it pretends to be. If it seems at times breathless with dismay, this can only be because Elie was rushing to get the thing published before the anger over George Floyd’s death could pass. Elie evidently assumed he could manipulate the staid emotions of The New Yorker’s readership without consequence; perhaps it never occurred to him that his smear might be the first time the young and unlettered had ever heard of O’Connor and that he was building up an army of deaf bigots rather than fostering a more attentive and serious kind of listening.

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, the author of Radical Ambivalence, a new book on O’Connor and race, has observed that the origin of this “canceling” of Flannery O’Connor lay in just such ignorance. It was conceived in the prideful head of a deliberate Know Nothing—a Loyola student who knew nothing of O’Connor but what Elie deigned to feed her. Like the Know Nothings of old, who burned down a Massachusetts convent and, as it happens, the first campus of my own Villanova University, these Know Nothings who launched the petition seem to believe that their zeal to condemn cancels out any responsibility for knowledge of the truth.

The vulnerability to hysteria in our moment is not unprecedented, but it nonetheless seems very great indeed. Yes, young people have long since grown up in an age of mass media and consequently have a certain savvy and jaundiced view of how the media try to manipulate our feelings; they have an ironic sensibility, as it were. But young people now also live more of their lives through the mass media; their lives flow through media, in a way that amplifies and intensifies their worst instincts far more than it leads them to be distant, detached, and ironic (as adolescents of my generation were once said to be).

But of course, there is more to say. When I read O’Connor’s letters, which are literary classics almost equal to her fiction, I find a woman in the confessional, a woman with a wicked and ironic sense of humor that turns its satirist’s eye on every subject, but especially on herself. In her letters, O’Connor herself puts on the hat of her most unsympathetic characters. She is the proud and prejudiced Mrs. Turpin and she is also the sneering, vicious, unhappy girl from Wellesley College who attacks her. She is Asbury in “The Enduring Chill,” so convinced he knows the future and its inevitable progress that he ignores the old lessons of nature called common sense. And, she is above all the small girl in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” incapable of actions of her own, and so all the more tempted to stand aloof and indulge in mordant and biting observation; she is the one all too easily suckered into the pride of thinking she knows the way things really work, and so all the more likely to be surprised by grace.

O’Connor is all these characters, we see, because she sees through herself, knows her worst inclinations, and, as every writer does, she nurses and incubates those worst tendencies, recognizing them as the most precious of resources. This is the price writers pay to achieve what Keats once called “negative capability.” It is an act of self-abnegation, self-sacrifice that abides the evil that runs through one’s own heart long enough to see how it would operate if it came to dominate one’s whole character. You cannot write about evil from the outside; if you want to understand evil, in its violence or in its callowness, you have no choice but to let it fester under your own internal operation. The cant in our day about literature as a kind of “empathy” or compassion merely misunderstands this act, which is in fact a kind of merciless self-expansion and self-scrutiny.

The French novelist Leon Bloy once claimed that art was the enemy of sanctity and for just this reason, the continual walking along the border of the night is required of the writer. But, as with so much else Bloy wrote, this was hyperbole; the writer simply endures a certain moral peril for the sake of understanding evil and sin—and writing well. In her letters, we see that willful incubation and the sprightly moves O’Connor made to keep her character as a whole from succumbing to it. The letters are therefore at once play-acting in the artist’s workshop and the examination of conscience of the confession box, where what has first been studied may also be parried or overcome. To treat them as the materials of an exposé is at once to read in bad faith and to condemn based on evidence that the author herself has already subjected to unsparing scrutiny.

In one place, O’Connor confesses her discomfort in the presence of black people in order to explore it for the sake of her fiction. In another, she explains why she will not meet the great black writer, James Baldwin, in Georgia. “In New York it would be nice to meet him; here it would not. I observe the traditions of the society I feed on—it is only fair,” she writes, before adding, “Might as well expect a mule to fly as me to see James Baldwin in Georgia.” Elie treats this as patent racism. I think most people would grant an invalid woman living at home with her mother license to embrace or refuse the making of a public political statement, as a meeting with Baldwin surely would have been.

 

Moreover, the glib language here testifies, as it does throughout the letters, to O’Connor’s exploring the moral implications of her behavior. O’Connor recognized that one of the chief obstacles of the southerner to salvation in the mystery of Christianity was not merely unbelief, but the halfway house of faith that was the southern stoic ethic, what she pithily sums up as “manners.” In O’Connor’s most famous story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the grandmother knows something has gone wrong with the world, but remains stubbornly convinced that it is just a loss of the chivalrous manners of the Old South. Only confrontation with the spiritual suffering of the man who is about to murder her awakens her from the delusion of manners to the truth of the paschal mystery. In her comments on Baldwin, O’Connor recognizes the hold that the society of manners has on her, even as her figure of speech suggests it is a stubborn rather than a salutary one. “Smugness is the great Catholic sin,” she writes elsewhere, and here she turns the tables on well-mannered smugness.

That Elie should think to pounce on such details, where O’Connor herself is already dissecting herself in her best and worst dimensions, constitutes a crude kind of opportunism that we should all dismiss. In any case, it should go without saying that O’Connor need not be perfect to merit the honor Loyola conferred on her for one brief decade. It should further go without saying that as a writer, her letters and other work would be places where whatever ugliness she herself spies in herself will appear. That’s all in a day’s work and is a positive virtue that no great writer can afford to neglect.

As O’Donnell’s book argues, when we move from the letters to the fiction, we find some of the most probing accounts of the psychology of racism in American literature, masterfully executed and not lacking in a moral valence that any reasonable person concerned with the sin of racism would approve. In one early story, “The Artificial Nigger,” we see an old man and a young orphan, both poor white trash overwhelmed by a world in which they have no place and whose ways they lack the savvy to understand. On a visit to the city, the vanity of their souls is awakened to look with contempt on the black people around them, and yet, in the end, they are forced to depend on the sense of those same persons to help them when they are lost. They rely on the structure of racism in their society to cheer themselves up, and in doing so they reveal their own pitiable vanity and the ugliness on display in a society that has created an inferior place for African Americans while leaving no place for the old man and the boy, except that uncertain niche of prejudice. Such a story is the fruit of a woman willing to stare unblinkingly at her own darkness, to let it rise like dough, and to set it down in writing.

 

I must go one step further. Most defenders of O’Connor have avoided nods in the direction of hagiography. I can understand this. The vision of O’Connor as not only devout but spiritually graced beyond the ordinary devotion of the good Catholic is one that scholars are prone to resist. It clouds over the kinds of witty and ironic self-scrutiny and self-sacrifice that I described above, in which the author does indeed have to entertain her own fallenness and evil in ways we might otherwise rightly eschew. It also prevents her being seen for what she most obviously was, a writer who wished to be judged only in terms of the work made. As she put it, “God and posterity are only served with well-made articles.”

The fact is, however, there was an unusual and bracing holiness to her, a faulty and quirky clawing after sanctity that should fill most of us with awe. Among the many passages that suggest as much is this one, to a correspondent:

The human comes before art. You do not write the best you can for the sake of art but for the sake of returning your talents increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit. Resignation to the will of God does not mean that you stop resisting evil or obstacles, it means that you leave the outcome out of your personal considerations.

She was, in other words, not only a good person because she subjected to careful scrutiny and denotation her own moral failings; she was not only a good writer who nursed those failings chiefly to expose, depict persuasively, and judge them; she had also some grace about her that set her apart and sets her apart now. In rejecting her name, Loyola has effectively claimed that it values the anger of a mob and keeping up with a perverse but zealous age more than it values three things O’Connor displayed: self-honesty and self-scrutiny; artistic integrity; and the pursuit of holiness. Better, Loyola tells us, to be a mediocrity, hiding within lies, on the “right side of history” and angering no one, than a saint, who will anger many by telling them the truth.

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