I regularly teach Flannery O’Connor, and assign a whole book of her short stories when I taught an American Lit 1915-Present course. Now that I’m teaching “American Lit 1776-Present” I keep her stories in rotation, but I have more material to cover, so I have to be more selective.
O’Connor’s fiction contains many themes and shining moments that celebrate and repudiate and transcend the Southern culture that formed her, the Catholic culture that reveres her as a towering literary figure, and the Gothic tendencies that make her appealing to horror fans.
In June, an essay in the New Yorker asked “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” cited the casually racist tone of some of O’Connor’s private letters, and quoted a scholar who opined, “O’Connor understood evil in the form of racism from the inside, as one who has practiced it.”
I haven’t yet solidified my syllabus for AmLit, but I’ll need to do that in a few days. The New Yorker article is a good opportunity to freshen up my content, but I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed just converting all my existing courses into a hybrid format. Maybe I should teach O’Connor when I have the time to contextualize her properly… this fall there is some pandemic/apocalypse-related material I’d like to add to the syllabus.
An expert on Flannery O’Connor defends a flawed but important literary figure.
How is it possible that O’Connor, a devout Catholic who embraced her vocation as a Catholic as passionately as she embraced her vocation as a writer, could be ‘cancelled’ by a Catholic university, and, effectively, her own Church?
Elie mines the book for what he refers to as “nasty” passages, removes them from the historical and personal context necessary for understanding them, and presents them to the New Yorker readership with little explanation, all as evidence of O’Connor’s American sin of racism. The problems with his essay are many. It is confusing, it is irresponsible, and it is an attempt to make the erroneous claim that he is the only critic ever to deal frankly with O’Connor’s complex attitude toward race. Critics have been wrestling with this since the early 1970s. Readers of Elie’s essay are never informed of this. There is, in short, nothing new or notable in what he presents.
A student from Loyola University Maryland was moved to enlist my help with a movement she was organizing to have Flannery O’Connor’s name removed from one of the buildings on campus. She was horrified to read that O’Connor was a racist and lamented the “hate” she had expressed toward African Americans. (It is important to note that this is a word O’Connor never uses to describe her attitude toward African Americans, either in the passages quoted in the New Yorker or otherwise.) In our emails back and forth, I tried to explain to her that she was mistaken in her understanding of O’Connor’s writing and the reasons why I would not support such a campaign. I tried to explain that O’Connor was valuable to us precisely because of her experiential knowledge of racism. I tried to explain the ways in which her stories reveal and repudiate racism. I tried to explain to her that in her ambivalence about race, O’Connor’s inner war between her best (anti-racist) self and her worst (racist) self is the same war that all white people who are born into and (mal)formed by a racist culture fight, if they are honest enough to admit it. I tried to explain to her that O’Connor is the perfect writer for our moment. But she did not believe me. –Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, Commonweal