In June I reported that among the books I pried from the university library before it closed was the collected works of Flannery O’Connor, a writer who’s celebrated but whose work I hadn’t read. After having worked my way through all her short stories and one of her novels, I decided she is indeed among the great anglophone writers of modern times, well worth reading. She’s right up there with Katherine Mansfield, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and her southern confrère Carson McCullers.
Lately, however, as the article from Quillette shown below reports, O’Connor has assumed a bad odor, (Charlotte Allen is a journalist and writer.) Why? For the same reason nearly everyone, including ornithologists, is getting canceled these days: they are deemed racist. In O’Connor’s case, though, that judgment is not straightforward. Yes, she made racist statements in her private letters, her novels are full of the n-word, and she once wrote (in a letter) that she didn’t like black people. On the other hand, her biographer Angela Alaimo O’Donnell says that her attitude towards blacks was ambiguous and complex—and you can certainly see that in her stories. (I recommend reading “Everything that Rises Must Converge”, which Allen dwells on toward the end of her essay.)
Click on the screenshot to read the piece.
O’Connor’s attitudes toward blacks have been discussed for decades, but what put paid to her reputation now appears to be this essay from the June 15 New Yorker (click on screenshot below), which bears a title similar to the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” The author, who had previously written worshipfully of O’Connor and her work, is now on a different tack, and the conclusion of the title question is “Pretty damn racist.” (I’ve read the essay.)
As Allen reports, within a few days after Elie’s New Yorker essay, students at Loyola University in Baltimore, a Jesuit school (O’Connor was a staunch Catholic), demanded that a dormitory named Flannery O’Conner Hall be renamed. The administration caved and renamed the dorm after a black Catholic nun, Thea Bowman.
So be it; this will keep happening and there’s nothing we can do about it. Racism is easy to find in white Southerners of her era and before, as well as in nearly every white person who lived before 1920, whether they lived in the North or South. The question remains and why I’m writing this: “Well, what comes next?” The best part of Allen’s piece is her argument that the sussing out of bigotry in someone’s psyche should not involve canceling their art.
We already know that schools are very hesitant to teach books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, despite the fact that both books are anti-racist. (In both cases the n-word is used and racist attitudes are evinced by the unenlightened; but that’s apparently enough to doom a book. Racism, it seems, simply can’t be depicted at all.) It’s only a matter of time before people stop teaching Flannery O’Connor because she’s, well, “problematic.” And that would be a great shame, because she’s a terrific and unusual writer well worth your time.
So I’ll give the money quotes from Allen’s essay, and hope that we can take them to heart.
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.
. . . 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.
The only problem with Allen’s essay is that she gets bogged down criticizing O’Connor’s detractors because they never explicitly define “racist.” Well, you don’t really have to: you can look at her statements, her stories, her novels, and her letters, and judge what her attitudes towards blacks were. If nearly uniformly negative, yes, she’s a racist. O’Connor’s attitudes were apparently complex, and she was trying to wean herself of racism because it contravened her Catholicism (I haven’t read the biography or her letters.) The stories and novel I have read do not show someone who’s an out-and-out racist. Racism is shown, but can we tell that it’s O’Connor’s, or simply the attitudes of the characters?
But, as Allen concludes (and I agree), we cannot allow the label of “racist” to remove someone from the canon of literature. Were that true, we’d have to give up a great deal of literature, and we’d be the worse for it. After all, it’s not like reading Flannery O’Connor, or Mark Twain, or Harper Lee, will turn people into racists.