How Racist Was Flannery O'Connor?
June 16, 2020 8:14 AM   Subscribe

"O’Connor is now as canonical as Faulkner and Welty. More than a great writer, she’s a cultural figure: a funny lady in a straw hat, puttering among peacocks, on crutches she likened to 'flying buttresses.' The farmhouse is open for tours; her visage is on a stamp ... [But] letters and postcards she sent home from the North in 1943 were made available to scholars only in 2014, and they show O’Connor as a bigoted young woman." (SLNewYorker, June 22, 2020)
posted by Countess Elena (12 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
O'Connor's short story The Artificial N----- was a powerful read back in the day. I assume that it is not on any reading lists now, and I wonder if this is a good thing.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 8:18 AM on June 16

Thanks for posting this.

Adjacent: I'm about halfway through Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which follows O'Connor and her contemporaries - Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day - in a sort of 4-way braid. It's good stuff.
posted by jquinby at 8:27 AM on June 16 [3 favorites]

[Made an edit, let's not spell out the word.]
posted by travelingthyme (staff) at 8:28 AM on June 16 [16 favorites]

Good piece. I read everything she wrote when in college, got drawn in by the willingness to approach religion and stayed for the characters and writing. I have to agree with the article that she writes much more sympathetic and fully realized Black characters then you would have guessed based on the nastiness of the letters. Is she doing a pantomime? Probably not, but do our literary heroes have to be perfectly progressive or can we settle for a view into a place and time and social construct as it were?

On the other hand, trashing James Baldwin is really a cardinal sin in my humble opinion. Canceled!! (har har).

She also got me into de Chardin, which, not sure if that helped or hurt really.
posted by pilot pirx at 8:51 AM on June 16

Pretty racist. There are some very discomforting letters in the A Habit of Being collection, one I remember in particular more toward the end of her life in 1962, to an editor living in a northern state emphatically rejecting his suggestion that she meet socially with him and a black civil rights worker on the grounds that such meetings are simply 'not done'.
posted by jamjam at 10:18 AM on June 16

Great. Now I find out that O'Connor was a terrible person. Thanks, 2020!
posted by haileris23 at 10:43 AM on June 16 [7 favorites]

Everything that rises must diverge?

*sighs heavily, checks another square off of 2020 bingo card*
posted by loquacious at 10:57 AM on June 16 [5 favorites]

"Southerners, women, Catholics, and M.F.A.-program instructors now approach her with devotion."
That was my experience. During my PhD studies in Michigan I never heard her name mentioned.
When I taught in Louisiana, there was a lot of O'Connor talk... usually by southern women with a religious bent, who taught writing...
posted by doctornemo at 11:19 AM on June 16 [4 favorites]

It's hard to find out about the persona that a writer has crafted, actually grafted into their own work, that is exposed by the deeper knowledge of their life. I think about discovering James Thurber's My LIfe And Hard Times, the joy of reading something so playful, so effortless seeming. Years later, the casual racism, the virulent misogyny; the same for understanding that Kurt Vonnegut, too, crafted his 'public persona' so as to disguise the inequality of his married life and his opportunism.
But it has helped me, a lot. It has opened my eyes to the casual little remarks in so much writing that I will not excuse with "of their time". It is seeing a much bigger picture and reflecting on myself and what I think and feel about it; I can hear the casual remarks in the world I live in, now, and look within myself at my past. It is ongoing work and it never gets easier, but life is better and richer for getting rid of that shit.
As Colette says, "Look for a long time at what pleases you, and a longer time at what pains you."
posted by winesong at 11:30 AM on June 16 [12 favorites]

That was a surprisingly good piece, and I was glad to see it criticizing the whole "person of their time" excuse which gets trotted out every single time some writer turns out to be racist, as though their hands had been forced by culture, as though these authors we love for their penetrating minds somehow became impressionable six-year-olds on the subject of race. We have to stop allowing writers (directors, neighbors, parents) off that easily. It's not as though the facts of racism only became clear in the past week or two. It's not as though the damage of it wasn't clear to someone living in Milledgeville back then. And those remarks in the letters that the essay quotes, they are so clearly in her voice--arch, sharp, acidic--why would we try to excuse them, to pare them away from her as though someone else were speaking?

What to do about it is, as always, left up to one's own judgment--is she trash, does she get to stay on the shelf--but I just wish people would stop acting surprised every time something like this comes to light.
posted by mittens at 2:16 PM on June 16 [9 favorites]

This sort of authorial self-censorship goes all the way down. One of the things that sank David Irving's prosecution of Deborah Lipstadt was the revelation, in his personal diaries, that he was incredibly racist. Prior to this, Irving had benefited from the general presumption of good faith. Lipstadt's book harmed his reputation by pointing out his unreliability and tendentiousness as a historian, and his welcome reception among racists. This is why he charged her with libel, and her publisher wanted to settle: they thought it would be too hard and risky to persuade a court that Irving wasn't just an academic with unpopular views; he was personally a nasty piece of work. Then the defence revealed his diaries and the repulsively racist ditty he taught his young daughter. It turned out that even racists, perhaps especially racists, must censor their more offensive views if they are to retain their audience.

N.B., Irving lost and was consequently discredited, but it turned out that he could make a living by now portraying himself as the victim of a trial which he himself had brought. I hate people sometimes.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:03 PM on June 16 [7 favorites]

I'm not quite shocked; there's a difficult, ornery, downright creepy undertone to her work; that's also kinda the thing about it..
posted by ovvl at 4:05 PM on June 18

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