(Williamson’s article appeared in the Spectator, 5/17; Photo: Wise blood: Flannery O’Connor in 1952.)
Was Flannery O’Connor a racist, or was she not?
Since the racial riots last summer, Flannery O’Connor has been scrutinized by literary critics and activists for reasons wholly unrelated to her literary artistry and her formidable oeuvre, whose size, though not large, is remarkable for a writer who died at the age of 39 after having been diagnosed in her mid-20s with lupus. The abruptly renewed interest in Miss O’Connor could be said almost to amount to an O’Connor revival were it not focused on a single question: ‘Was Flannery O’Connor a racist, or was she not?’
Attempts to answer it have involved an evaluation of her character based on her novels, stories and voluminous correspondence, and led in one instance to the critical conclusion that she was ‘not a saint’. It remains a fact, unknown perhaps to most people outside the Catholic Church, that Catholic doctrine teaches that every soul that is neither in Hell nor in Purgatory is in Heaven, and that anyone who has attained Heaven and the Beatific Vision is necessarily a saint. As not even Miss O’Connor’s most fervent critics have gone so far as to insist that she is in a state of eternal suffering it is logical to conclude that Flannery O’Connor is, indeed, St Flannery, or on her way to becoming that. The business at any rate is of little or no interest to most modern critics, who can never get beyond their objection that she took no part in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. ‘I say,’ she wrote, ‘a plague on both their houses.’
Black characters being virtually absent from her work, evidence of O’Connor’s supposed racism is drawn mostly from her letters, The Habit of Being, in which she displays an attitude toward her black neighbors and the black employees at Andalusia — her mother’s dairy farm some miles outside of Milledgeville, Georgia, where she lived for most of her short life following her medical diagnosis — that is wholly conventional for that place and time: benign, generous, slightly condescending and gently amused. O’Connor’s refusal to meet with James Baldwin in Georgia for the reason she gives in a letter to Maryat Lee (a young Southern liberal, civil rights activist and one of Flannery’s closest friends) cannot have been overlooked by her 21st-century critics: ‘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.’ In a conversation with an interviewer she gave her considered view of the race question in the South.
‘[The Southerner’s] social situation demands more of him than that [sic] elsewhere in the country. It requires considerable grace for two races to live together, particularly when the population is divided fifty-fifty between them and when they have a particular history. It can’t be done without mutual charity… [The] old manners are obsolete, but the new manners will have to be based on what was best in the old ones — in their real basis of charity and necessity… For the rest of the country, the race problem is solved when the Negro has his rights, but for the Southerner, whether he’s white or colored, that’s only the beginning.’