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Flannery O'Connor and the Ideological War on Literature

What cancel culture has just mown down isn’t simply Flannery O’Connor or her works, but our ability to view them through any other lens except that of doctrine.

· 13 min read
Flannery O'Connor and the Ideological War on Literature

On June 15th, Paul Elie—a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and a frequent contributor to upscale magazines—published a 3,800-word essay in the New Yorker bluntly accusing the acclaimed Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) of racism. The essay, which has since gone viral, is ostensibly a review of Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor, a new book by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, an O’Connor scholar at Fordham University. O’Donnell surveys O’Connor’s two novels, numerous short stories and essays, and voluminous correspondence (most of which was published following her untimely death aged 39 of complications from lupus) and concludes that O’Connor was “a walking contradiction when it came to matters of race.” O’Connor’s dark and mordantly humorous fiction was written as the civil rights movement tore through the South dismantling Jim Crow during the 1950s and 1960s, and it frequently mocks Southern whites for their condescension and rudeness toward blacks. However, O’Donnell also argues that “racism” is the correct description of O’Connor’s privately expressed views about black people in equally sardonic letters to friends. In her correspondences, she was especially critical of the black celebrities admired by Northern white liberals. Nonetheless, O’Donnell concludes that O’Connor, prompted by her better angels and devout Catholic faith, strove assiduously to overcome that attitude in the stories and novels she wrote for public consumption.

In his New Yorker essay, Elie has no patience for the “ambivalence” and “complexity” O’Donnell identifies in her book. O’Connor, he flatly announces, was a “bigot.” His evidence—also discussed by O’Donnell—consists of previously unpublished letters that O’Connor wrote to her mother when she first visited the North in 1943 aged 18, in which she expressed shock that blacks and whites shared classrooms, restrooms, and bus seats. There is also a long-since-published 1964 letter to her ultra-liberal playwright friend Maryat Lee in which she declared that, although she was an integrationist by principle, she was a segregationist by instinct; she didn’t like blacks. O’Connor also frequently used the “n”-word (although usually in the mouths of her fictional characters or to satirize Southern attitudes—her preferred term for serious discourse was the then-polite “Negro”). “O’Connor-lovers have been downplaying those remarks ever since,” Elie writes. “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.” The print version of Elie’s New Yorker essay was titled “Everything That Rises,” a riff on “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” the title of a well-known 1961 short story by O’Connor about black-white encounters on a newly integrated bus that turn disastrous. But the online edition’s title was a when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife rhetorical question: “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” To which Elie’s answer is: Very, very racist. It is the latter title that has become permanently attached to Elie’s essay, including on his own web page at the Georgetown site.

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It is an odd performance from Elie. In 2003, he published a book entitled The Life You Save May Be Your Own, a study of four mid-century Catholic figures: O’Connor, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy. His treatment of O’Connor in that book was reverential; indeed, he lifted its very title from one of O’Connor’s stories (I reviewed that book for the Washington Post). But in his New Yorker essay, he seems to have changed his mind. He also seems to be irked at the appearance of a new, prize-winning biographical documentary, Flannery; almost always sick, and toward the end unable to walk without crutches, she passed most of her life on her mother’s dairy farm near Milledgeville, Georgia, where she lived as a charming eccentric and den mother to a flock of peacocks and other barnyard fowl (a commemorative stamp issued in 2015 features peacock feathers surrounding her portrait). The filmmakers, Elie grouses, had taken “up the idea that the most vivid character in her work is Flannery O’Connor.”

Elie’s j’accuse generated a social media storm among young Americans, many of whom had been assigned O’Connor’s exquisitely crafted stories in their college English classes, but who were now caught up in the frenzy of Black Lives Matter protests that followed the death of George Floyd on May 25th. “Flannery O’Connor is dead to me” was a typical Twitter post, and there were indications that professors in English departments are already vowing to stop teaching O’Connor’s works altogether.

Within a few days of Elie’s article appearing, a student (apparently white) at the Jesuit-run Loyola University in the predominantly black city of Baltimore, circulated a petition demanding that Loyola change the name of Flannery O’Connor Hall, a student dormitory on campus. The dorm was only 13 years old and had obviously received its name in deference to feminism by honoring a female Catholic writer. But it appeared that feminism would now have to cede to new conceptions of anti-racism. According to an article written by O’Donnell for the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal on August 3rd, the petition’s author had contacted her to try—unsuccessfully—to enlist her in the campaign, citing the “hate” O’Connor had allegedly manifested towards African Americans (a word O’Connor never used in that context in her writings, even as an 18-year-old). The student’s petition, which eventually garnered 1,102 signatures, said as much about the current state of teaching college-level English grammar and syntax as it did about the charges against O’Connor: “Recent letters and postcards written by Flannery O’Connor express strong racist sentiments and hate speech. Her name and legacy should not be honored nor glorified on our Evergreen Campus.” Recent—as in 1943? One signatory called O’Connor “disgusting”; another declared that if Loyola failed to rename the building, students would be forced to live “under the name of bigotry.” Some signatories admitted that they had no idea who Flannery O’Connor was, but denounced her even so.

It didn’t take long for Loyola to capitulate to the petitioners. On July 29th, Loyola’s Jesuit president, Fr. Brian Linnane, announced that the university had duly removed O’Connor’s name from the dormitory, which would be renamed after Thea Bowman (1937–1990). Bowman was a black Catholic nun and musician who had promoted a church ministry to African Americans and is currently being considered for official canonization with the support of the US Catholic bishops. While expressing hope that O’Connor’s fiction would continue to be taught in Loyola classrooms, Linnane’s statement noted that O’Connor had displayed a “racist prospective” in her letters. “A residence hall is supposed to be the students’ home,” he declared. “If some of the students who live in that building find it to be unwelcoming and unsettling, that has to be taken seriously.”

Linnane’s decision provoked an extraordinary backlash among O’Connor’s admirers, not least of whom was O’Donnell herself. O’Donnell was outraged by what she perceived to be Elie’s distortion of her book’s conclusions and by his character assassination of O’Connor, who she described as “among the finest writers America has produced.” In her Commonweal article, she accused Elie of trying 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.” O’Donnell gathered 177 signatures from writers, O’Connor scholars, and leading Catholic academics for a July 31st open letter to Linnane begging him to reconsider his decision. “As you are surely aware, cancelling Confederate generals and dismantling Civil War monuments is a very different matter from cancelling writers, thinkers, and artists, none of whom were ever presumed to be saints or paragons of conventional virtue,” the letter said. “This is antithetical to university culture and intellectual life.”

At the top of the list of signatories was the black novelist and poet Alice Walker. Walker and O’Connor had a brief parallel-lives relationship; as a teenager, Walker had lived across the road from the O’Connor dairy farm in more humble quarters, and one of her brothers had worked for the O’Connors. In a 1975 essay, Walker had written that while she found O’Connor’s jocular use of racial slurs offensive, she found the “perfection” of O’Connor’s fiction “dazzling” and declared that “essential O’Connor is not about race at all.” In a July 27th statement to Loyola protesting the dorm renaming she wrote, “We must honor Flannery for growing.” The numerous Catholic signatories to O’Donnell’s open letter included novelists Mary Gordon and Ron Hansen, essayist Richard Rodriguez, former New York Times religion columnist Peter Steinfels, and an array of Catholic academics whose religious views ranged from liberal to ultra-traditionalist. The signatories knew there was no hope that Linnane would retract his decision to rename the dormitory after a saintly black nun, but they expressed hope that O’Connor’s name restored could share joint honors with Thea Bowman’s. To date, neither Linnane nor any spokesman for Loyola has responded to the letter.

What is interesting about the defenses of O’Connor that have accompanied the furor over the Loyola dorm is that even her most ardent champions have appeared to accept the premise of that second incendiary title of Elie’s New Yorker article—Not: Was Flannery O’Connor racist? But: How racist was she? This has meant that none of these literary defenders, and certainly none of O’Connor’s opponents, has felt the need to define exactly what “racist” means, so the vocabulary they use to mount their arguments, although earnest and passionate, is also banal and clichéd. In an excerpt from her book published on May 12th in the University of Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell writes that O’Connor was among the “great writers whose whiteness prevented them from understanding and engaging blackness with the same authoritative vision with which they could see and present the white world.” Another Church Life Journal contributor, self-described “radical” Catholic David Griffith (who had cribbed a bit from O’Connor’s 1953 story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” with a 2006 book titled A Good War Is Hard to Findwrote these blunt words on June 29th: “O’Connor was a racist, even if a reluctant and reflective one.”

Even O’Connor’s most religiously conservative defenders agreed. In First Things, Jennifer Frey, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, decreed that O’Connor had committed the “sin of racism.” (I have written for First Things myself.) Another First Things contributor, Jessica Hooten Wilson, an O’Connor scholar at the University of Dallas, wrote on June 24th that although O’Connor had indulged in “inexcusable racial slurs,” she had also “used her fiction to call for Southerners to repent of racist attitudes” by giving the racist characters in her stories a “comeuppance” that led to their conversion.

But without a stable definition of racism, it remains an open question whether or not O’Connor really was a racist in any serious sense. Her use of the “n”-word (always in correspondence, never to the face of or with reference to individual black people) was her gravest offense—but it was also the offense of such staunchly anti-slavery Southern writers as Mark Twain and William Faulkner who also indulged in Southern diction that became taboo for white people in the North. In her 1964 letter to Maryat Lee, in which she was clearly trying to get a rise out of her liberal confidant, she claimed not to “like” black people; but O’Connor did in fact have black friends, as Wilson pointed out in her First Things essay. She considered James Baldwin to be a second-rate writer—which was actually true. Baldwin wrote a fine first novel, his semi-autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain, and several perceptive early stories and essays, but much of what he wrote after that was forgettable. “Pontificating”—O’Connor’s descriptive adjective for Baldwin in that 1964 letter to Lee—was le mot juste: “If Baldwin were white, nobody would stand him in a minute.” She considered Martin Luther King not to be “the ages [sic] great saint” (also true, at least as far as King’s sex life was concerned), but respected his civil-rights leadership: “[H]e’s at least doing what he can do & has to do.” What O’Connor actually couldn’t abide was the sanctimonious sentimentality—often accompanied by hypocrisy—of white liberals who made fetishes out of black people solely on the basis of their skin color and presumed victim status. She called Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird “children’s literature.” Again, right on the money.

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The fact that this debate is taking place at all, however—whether or not Flannery O’Connor was a racist, how racist or not she might have been, whether she redeemed herself from her racism via her writing or grew past her racism morally—is exactly what has gone fearfully wrong. The primary evil of cancel culture isn’t toppled statues or renamed buildings or even destroyed livelihoods. It is that, once cancel culture has come for an artist, it becomes impossible to take that artist’s artistry seriously. In his New Yorker essay, Paul Elie complains that O’Connor’s admirers pass over the issue of her racism in order to focus on her literary gifts: “[I]t’s about protecting an author who is now as beloved as her stories.” Now, O’Connor’s admirers will be obliged to pass over her literary gifts in order to focus on the issue of her racism. Flannery O’Connor will forever have an asterisk next to her name, and that asterisk will be the Racism Question. Henceforth, it will be impossible to give a public lecture about O’Connor, teach a college class, write a critical essay, or adapt her fiction to stage or screen without appending a dreary prologue rehearsing all the arguments about her attitudes toward black people. And in the midst of such arguments, all nuance, humor, characterization, and subtlety in the works themselves gets flattened or lost. This is what cancel culture does: It reduces literature to ideology.

We can already see this ideological oversimplification, even in the valiant efforts to rescue O’Connor from Paul Elie’s verbal darts. In her First Things essay, Jessica Hooten Wilson is so eager to defend O’Connor from charges of racial “hate” that she reinterprets O’Connor’s stories as moralizing fables in which O’Connor “pointed a finger at racial bigots” and devised climactic episodes for those fictional characters in which they were “knocked down” to their “rightful place,” presumably by the operation of God’s grace. This kind of interpretation is as alien to literature—which speaks for itself—as reducing it to conceptual abstractions of “whiteness” and “blackness” as Angela Alaimo O’Donnell does. In his essay on O’Connor, Paul Griffith writes: “Characters are not puppets deployed to stand in for or represent larger ideas or issues.” There are many points with which to argue in Griffith’s own polemical interpretation of O’Connor’s writings, but this is not one of them.

Let’s look at that integrated-bus story of O’Connor’s, “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” Its plot involves the conflict between a dim and overweight (white) Southern woman suffering from high blood pressure and her unlikable son, Julian, who fancies himself a writer but is actually living off his mother. He also fancies himself an enlightened liberal, entitled to rebuke her at every turn for her backward racial attitudes. On the bus, Julian tries to show up his mother by striking up a conversation with a well-dressed black man who is impervious to his overtures. Julian’s mother thinks it’s nice to hand out coins to cute black children, and when she tries to offer a penny to a little boy sitting next to her, the boy’s mother becomes enraged, her dignity affronted. When they get off the bus, Julian begins berating his mother for her condescension—and then the mother has the stroke toward which her medical condition has inevitably pointed. As for Julian, O’Connor writes:

“Help, help!” he shouted, but his voice was thin, scarcely a thread of sound. The lights drifted farther away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.

Is this a story about racism, illustrated by two different kinds of racial condescension? It seems, rather, to be a story about opacity, in which mother and son fail to comprehend each other’s mental world in the same way that both fail to comprehend the mental world of the blacks with whom they share the bus ride. In the story, blacks and whites inhabit separate universes, divided by Jim Crow, but also by vastly different cultures despite Southern physical proximity (neither mother notices, for example, that the two are wearing identical hats). People are ultimately opaque even to those who share their lives most intimately. It may be a sin to “other” others—but othering is a feature of the human condition. In one of her essays, O’Connor wrote that the theme of her fiction was “the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.” But God’s grace in this story—or any other stories of O’Connor’s—isn’t an easy matter of a “comeuppance” after which the sinner repents. It is, rather, a fearful clattering lightning bolt followed by… who knows what, given that the devil doesn’t relinquish territory easily.

To quote the New Testament, as O’Connor did so often in her fiction, the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. And there is nothing so literal in its after-effects as cancel culture, mowing down everything in its path in the name of anti-racism or whatever the ideology du jour might be. What cancel culture has just mown down isn’t simply Flannery O’Connor or her works, but our ability to view them through any other lens except that of doctrine.

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