How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?

In 1943, eighteen-year-old Mary Flannery O’Connor went north on a summer trip. Growing up in Georgia—she spent her childhood in Savannah, and went to high school in Milledgeville—she saw herself as a writer and artist in the making. She created illustrated books “too old for children and too young for grown-ups” and dryly titled an assemblage of her poems “The Priceless Works of M. F. O’Connor”; she drew cartoons and submitted them to magazines, noting that her hobby was “collecting rejection slips.”

On her travels, she and two cousins visited Manhattan: Chinatown, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and Columbia University. Then they went to Massachusetts, and visited Radcliffe, where one cousin was a student. O’Connor disliked both schools, and said so in letters and postcards to her mother. (Her father had died two years earlier.) Back in Milledgeville, O’Connor studied at the state women’s college (“the institution of higher larning across the road”). In 1945, she made her next trip north, enrolling in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she dropped the Mary (it put her in mind of “an Irish washwoman”) and became Flannery O’Connor.

Less than two decades later, she died, in Milledgeville, of lupus. She was thirty-nine, the author of two novels and a book of stories. A brief obituary in the Times called her “one of the nation’s most promising writers.” Some of her readers dismissed her as a “regional writer”; many didn’t know she was a woman.

We are still learning who Flannery O’Connor was. The materials of her life story have surfaced gradually: essays in 1969, letters in 1979, an annotated Library of America volume in 1988, and a cache of personal items deposited at Emory University in 2012, which yielded the “Prayer Journal,” jottings on faith and fiction from her time at Iowa. Each phase has deepened the portrait of the artist and furthered her reputation. Southerners, women, Catholics, and M.F.A.-program instructors now approach her with devotion. We call her Flannery; we see her as a wise elder, a literary saint, poised for revelation at a typewriter set up on the ground floor of a farmhouse near Milledgeville because treatments for lupus left her unable to climb stairs.

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. A recent book of previously unpublished correspondence, “Good Things Out of Nazareth” (Convergent), and a documentary, “Flannery: The Storied Life of the Writer from Georgia,” suggest a completed arc, situating her at the literary center where she might have been all along.

The arc is not complete, however. Those 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. In Massachusetts, she was disturbed by the presence of an African-American student in her cousin’s class; in Manhattan, she sat between her two cousins on the subway lest she have to sit next to people of color. The sight of white students and black students at Columbia sitting side by side and using the same rest rooms repulsed her.

It’s not fair to judge a writer by her juvenilia. But, as she developed into a keenly self-aware writer, the habit of bigotry persisted in her letters—in jokes, asides, and a steady use of the word “nigger.” For half a century, the particulars have been held close by executors, smoothed over by editors, and justified by exegetes, as if to save O’Connor from herself. Unlike, say, the struggle over Philip Larkin, whose coarse, chauvinistic letters are at odds with his lapidary poetry, it’s not about protecting the work from the author; it’s about protecting an author who is now as beloved as her stories.

The work largely deserves the love it gets. O’Connor’s fiction is full of scenarios that now have the feel of mid-century myths: an evangelist preaching the gospel of a Church Without Christ outside a movie house; a grandmother shot by an escaped convict at the roadside; a Bible salesman seducing a female “interleckshul” in a hayloft and taking her wooden leg. The late story “Parker’s Back,” from 1964, in which a tattooed ex-sailor tries to appease his puritanical wife by getting a life-size face of Christ inked onto his back, is a summa of O’Connor’s effects. There’s outlandish naming (Obadiah Elihue Parker), blunt characterization (“The skin on her face was thin and drawn as tight as the skin on an onion and her eyes were gray and sharp like the points of two icepicks”), and pungent speech (“Mr. Parker . . . You’re a walking panner-rammer!”). There’s the way the action hurtles to an end both comic and profound, and the sense, as she put it in an essay, “that something is going on here that counts.” There’s the attractive-repulsive force of religion, as Parker submits to the tattooer’s needle in the hope of making himself a holy image of Christ. And there’s a preoccupation with human skin, and skin coloring, as a locus of conflict.

O’Connor defined herself as a novelist, but many readers now come to her through her essays and letters, and the core truth to emerge from the expansion of her body of work is that the nonfiction is as strong and strange as the fiction. The 1969 book of essays, “Mystery and Manners,” is both an astute manual on the craft of writing and a statement of precepts for the religious artist; the 1979 book of letters, “The Habit of Being,” is bedside reading as wisdom literature, at once companionable and full of barbed, contrarian insights. That they are books was part of O’Connor’s design. She made carbon copies of her letters with publication in mind: fearing that lupus would cut her life short, as it had her father’s, she used the letters and essays to shape the posthumous interpretation of her fiction.

Even much of the material left out of those books is tart and epigrammatic. Here is O’Connor, fresh from Iowa, on what a writing program can do for a writer:

It can put him in the way of experienced writers and literary critics, people who are usually able to tell him after not too long a time whether he should go on writing or enroll immediately in the School of Dentistry.

Here she is on life in Milledgeville, from a 1948 letter to the director of Yaddo, the writers’ colony in upstate New York:

Lately we have been treated to some parades by the Ku Klux Klan. . . . The Grand Dragon and the Grand Cyclops were down from Atlanta and both made big speeches on the Court House square while hundreds of men stamped and hollered inside sheets. It’s too hot to burn a fiery cross, so they bring a portable one made with electric light bulbs.

On her first encounter, in 1956, with the scholar William Sessions:

He arrived promptly at 3:30, talking, talked his way across the grass and up the steps and into a chair and continued talking from that position without pause, break, breath, or gulp until 4:50. At 4:50 he departed to go to Mass (Ascension Thursday) but declared he would like to return after it so I thereupon invited him to supper with us. 5:50 brings him back, still talking, and bearing a sack of ice cream and cake to the meal. He then talked until supper but at that point he met a little head wind in the form of my mother, who is also a talker. Her stories have a non-stop quality, but every now and then she does have to refuel and every time she came down, he went up.

Reviewers of O’Connor’s fiction were vexed by her characters’ lack of interiority. Admirers of the nonfiction have reversed the charge, taking up the idea that the most vivid character in her work is Flannery O’Connor. The new film adroitly introduces the author-as-character. The directors—Mark Bosco, a Jesuit priest who teaches a course on O’Connor at Georgetown, and Elizabeth Coffman, who teaches film at Loyola University Chicago—draw on a full spread of archival material and documentary effects. The actress Mary Steenburgen reads passages from the letters; several stories are animated, with an eye to O’Connor’s adage that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” There’s a clip from John Huston’s 1979 film of her singular first novel, “Wise Blood,” which she wrote at Yaddo and in Connecticut before the onset of lupus forced her to return home. Erik Langkjaer, a publishing sales rep O’Connor fell in love with, describes their drives in the country. Alice Walker tells of living “across the way” from the farmhouse during her teens, not knowing that a writer lived there: “It was one of my brothers who took milk from her place to the creamery in town. When we drove into Milledgeville, the cows that we saw on the hillside going into town would have been the cows of the O’Connors.”

In May, 1955, O’Connor went to New York to promote her story collection, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” on TV. The rare footage of O’Connor lights up the documentary. She sits, very still, in a velvet-trimmed black dress; her accent is strong, her demeanor assured. “I understand you are living on a farm,” the host prompts. “Yes,” she says. “I only live on one, though. I don’t see much of it. I’m a writer, and I farm from the rocking chair.” He asks her if she is a regional writer, and she replies:

I think that to overcome regionalism, you must have a great deal of self-knowledge. I think that to know yourself is to know your region, and that it’s also to know the world, and in a sense, paradoxically, it’s also to be an exile from that world. So that you have a great deal of detachment.

That is a profound and stringent definition of the writer’s calling. It locates the writer’s art in the refinement of her character: the struggle to overcome an outlook that is an obstacle to a greater good, the letting go of the comforts of home. And it recognizes that detachment can leave the writer alone and apart.

An ice cream truck playing standard music from its speakers drives alongside a gelato truck with a string quartet...
Cartoon by Maggie Larson

At Iowa and in Connecticut, O’Connor had begun to read European fiction and philosophy, and her work, old-time in its particulars, is shot through with contemporary thought: Gabriel Marcel’s Christian existentialism, Martin Buber’s sense of “the eclipse of God.” She saw herself as “a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness” and saw the South as “Christ-haunted.”

All this can suggest points of similarity with Martin Luther King, Jr., another Georgian who was infused with Continental ideas up north and then returned south to take up a brief, urgent calling. Born four years apart, they grasped the Bible’s pertinence to current events, and saw religion as the tie that bound blacks and whites—as in her second novel, “The Violent Bear It Away,” from 1960, which opens with a black farmer giving a white preacher a Christian burial. O’Connor and King shared a gift for the convention-upending gesture, as in her story “The Enduring Chill,” in which a white man tries to affirm equality with the black workers on his mother’s farm by smoking cigarettes with them in the barn.

O’Connor lectured in a dozen states and often went to Atlanta to visit her doctors; she saw plenty of the changing South. That’s clear from her 1961 story “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” (The title alludes to a thesis advanced by the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who saw the world as gradually “divinized” by human activity in a kind of upward spiral.) A white man, living at home after college, takes his mother to “reducing class” on a newly integrated city bus. The sight of an African-American woman wearing the same style of hat that his mother is wearing stirs him to reflect on all that joins them. The sight of a black boy in the woman’s company prompts his mother to give the boy a gift: a penny with Lincoln’s profile on it. Things get grim after that.

The story was published in “Best American Short Stories” and won an O. Henry Prize in 1963. O’Connor declared that it was all she had to say on “That Issue.” It wasn’t. In May, 1964, she wrote to her friend Maryat Lee, a playwright who was born in Tennessee, lived in New York, and was ardent for civil rights:

About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind. Very ignorant but never silent. Baldwin can tell us what it feels like to be a Negro in Harlem but he tries to tell us everything else too. M. L. King I dont think is the ages great saint but he’s at least doing what he can do & has to do. Don’t know anything about Ossie Davis except that you like him but you probably like them all. My question is usually would this person be endurable if white. If Baldwin were white nobody would stand him a minute. I prefer Cassius Clay. “If a tiger move into the room with you,” says Cassius, “and you leave, that dont mean you hate the tiger. Just means you know you and him can’t make out. Too much talk about hate.” Cassius is too good for the Moslems.

That passage, published in “The Habit of Being,” echoed a remark in a 1959 letter, also to Maryat Lee, who had suggested that Baldwin—his “Letter from the South” had just run in Partisan Review—could pay O’Connor a visit while on a subsequent reporting trip. O’Connor demurred:

No I can’t see James Baldwin in Georgia. It would cause the greatest trouble and disturbance and disunion. 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’s only fair. Might as well expect a mule to fly as me to see James Baldwin in Georgia. I have read one of his stories and it was a good one.

O’Connor-lovers have been downplaying those remarks ever since. But they 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.

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.

Another writer of that cohort is Toni Morrison, who was born in Ohio in 1931 and became a Catholic at the age of twelve. Morrison published “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination” in 1992. “The fabrication of an Africanist persona” by a white writer, she proposed, “is reflexive: an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly consciousness.” Invoking Morrison, O’Donnell argues that O’Connor’s fiction is fundamentally a working-through of her own racism, and that the offending remarks in the letters “tell us . . . that O’Connor understood evil in the form of racism from the inside, as one who has practiced it.”

The clinching evidence is “Revelation,” drafted in late 1963. This extraordinary story involves Ruby Turpin—a white Southerner in middle age, the owner of a dairy farm—and her encounter in a doctor’s waiting room with a Wellesley-educated young woman, also white, who is so repulsed by Turpin’s condescension toward people there that she cries out, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” This arouses Turpin to quarrel with God as she surveys a hog pen on her property, and calls forth a magnificent final image of the hereafter in Turpin’s eyes—the people of the rural South heading heavenward. Some say this “vision” redeems the author on That Issue. Brad Gooch, in a 2009 biography, likened it to the dream that Martin Luther King, Jr., spelled out in August, 1963; O’Donnell, drawing on a remark in the letters, depicts it as a “vision O’Connor has been wresting from God every day for much of her life.” Seeing it that way is a stretch. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech envisioned blacks and whites holding hands at the end of time; Turpin’s vision, by contrast, is a segregationist’s vision, in which people process to Heaven by race and class, equal but separate, white landowners such as Turpin preceded (the last shall be first) by “bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.”

After revising “Revelation” in early 1964, O’Connor wrote several letters to Maryat Lee. Many scholars maintain that their letters (often signed with nicknames) are a comic performance, with Lee playing the over-the-top liberal and O’Connor the dug-in gradualist, but O’Connor’s most significant remarks on race in her letters to Lee are plainly sincere. On May 3, 1964—as Richard Russell, Democrat of Georgia, led a filibuster in the Senate to block the Civil Rights Act—O’Connor set out her position in a passage now published for the first time: “You know, I’m an integrationist by principle & a segregationist by taste anyway. I don’t like negroes. They all give me a pain and the more of them I see, the less and less I like them. Particularly the new kind.” Two weeks after that, she told Lee of her aversion to the “philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind.” Ravaged by lupus, she wrote Lee a note to say that she was checking in to the hospital, signing it “Mrs. Turpin.” She died at home ten weeks later.

Those remarks show a view clearly maintained and growing more intense as time went on. They were objectionable when O’Connor made them. And yet—the argument goes—they’re just remarks, made in chatty letters by an author in extremis. They’re expressive but not representative. Her “public work” (as the scholar Ralph C. Wood calls it) is more complex, and its significance for us lies in its artfully mixed messages, for on race none of us is without sin and in a position to cast a stone.

That argument, however, runs counter to history and to O’Connor’s place in it. It sets up a false equivalence between the “segregationist by taste” and those brutally oppressed by segregation. And it draws a neat line between O’Connor’s fiction and her other writing where race is involved, even though the long effort to move her from the margins to the center has proceeded as if that line weren’t there. Those remarks don’t belong to the past, or to the South, or to literary ephemera. They belong to the author’s body of work; they help show us who she was.

Posterity, in literature, is a strange god—consecrating Dickinson and Melville as American divines, repositioning T. S. Eliot as a man on the run from a Missouri boyhood and a bad marriage. Posterity has favored Flannery O’Connor: the readers of her work today far outnumber those in her lifetime. 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.

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. 

Paul Elie, the author of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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