Turning literature into ideology: Flannery O’Connor gets cancelled

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.

16 Comments

  1. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 23, 2020 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Bid adieu to Southern Gothic Lit. Can Faulkner be far behind?

    • Historian
      Posted August 23, 2020 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      Faulkner is not very behind at all. In reviews of Michael Gorra’s new biography (cited below), two reviews discuss the relationship between Faulkner and racism. These two reviews discuss that by tody’s standards he would be considered a racist. One of the reviewers, Drew Gilpin Faust, noted historian and former president of Harvard states “the public pronouncements Faulkner made on race as the civil-rights movement unfolded are in many ways even more disturbing than the shortcomings Gorra identifies in his fiction. In an appalling drunken interview with the British Sunday Times in 1956, Faulkner invoked the specter of race war if the South were compelled to integrate, but when his words were widely reviled, he denied ever having uttered them.” But yet, “we read him because he takes us with him into our national heart of darkness, into the shameful history we have still failed to confront or understand.” So, Faulkner may very well be canceled soon, which would be too bad. From certain people, such as Faulkner, we can learn things about humanity, even if the author did not and probably couldn’t live up to today’s standards of moral understanding.

      https://newrepublic.com/article/158710/william-faulkner-civil-war-biography-review-southern-white-guilt

      https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/09/michael-gorra-william-faulkner/614206/

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 23, 2020 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        Then they came for the Nobel laureates …

      • Robert Bray
        Posted August 24, 2020 at 9:55 am | Permalink

        ‘even if the author did not and probably couldn’t live up to today’s standards of moral understanding.’

        No member of Homo sapiens can ‘live up to’ standards of morality that are absolute and ‘zero tolerance.’ It’s an ideological trap that ensnares those who believe that RIGHT NOW is not only an advance in moral understanding from BACK THEN but also a transcendent status that only the woke and evangelical Christians may achieve. They shout this into others’ faces even as they privately–and sometimes publicly and spectacularly–fail.

        As for William Faulkner: he drank too much and perhaps wrote too little. He understood race from the inside out of his deep south society. And to read Dilsey’s section in ‘The Sound and the Fury’ (the novel’s finale) is, for me at least, to understand why Faulkner could declare, in his Nobel address, that ‘man will not only endure, he will prevail.’ He didn’t mean by this ‘male, privileged, white.’ He declared it for all of us, all of the time, everywhere.

  2. Mike
    Posted August 23, 2020 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    “Racism, it seems, simply can’t be depicted at all.” A propos of that idea, I watched ‘Blazing Saddles’ again last night. Best anti-racist movie ever.

  3. Posted August 23, 2020 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    What ever happened to studying content rather than content’s context?

  4. Steve Pollard
    Posted August 23, 2020 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Well, I have never read any of O’Connor’s writings, but now I know she has been cancelled by the woke I want to get to know her works. If they can’t tolerate her, she must be worth reading.

  5. Kenneth Webb
    Posted August 23, 2020 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    There are many reasons we want to read works of imagination. One of these may be for the demonstration of a moral. But that’s far from the only reason. Is that why we read Homer’s Odyssey? Or Joyce’s Ulysses? Almost all great works – and even lesser ones – are concerned in some way with ideas of morality, but there are many such ideas, and it is art’s function anyhow to complicate what we think we know about the moral life.

    Literature that sets out to teach us dogmatic lessons – like a lot of the fiction of the Depression, like Soviet Realism – is pretty dull stuff. Flannery O’Connor’s stories also teach lessons – about the fallen nature of the world and the transcendence occasionally granted to the flawed creatures in it. But one doesn’t come away from those stories convinced of anything other than that there are human possibilities that we hadn’t dreamed of. To expand our understanding of life may not be a precisely moral objective, but it’s a worthy one.

    There’s another reason we read fiction – for the inherent pleasure it gives as art. The prose of Flannery O’Connor is exquisitely pitched to the suffering characters who speak it and are described by it. Does that even matter? Is beauty now a lost cause in our world?

  6. EdwardM
    Posted August 23, 2020 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Preemptive apology for length…

    I recently finished Waiting by Ha Jin and wanted to comment on a parallel I see with the efforts of the Woke to suppress thought. I recommend the book – it is an oddly beguiling story about a deferred love amid the complexities of life in Mao’s China during and just after the Cultural Revolution. But what has struck me is the parallels between the way Jin describes the way Chinese people at the time thought of literature and the way the Woke do today. There is one episode in the book when an important general* who expects a woman, one of several he is considering to marry, to read a shocking and dangerous book to have in his possession; Leaves of Grass. He asks that the woman write him an essay on what it means. It is something she cannot refuse to do. Unfortunately, neither she nor her love (they are the unrequited lovers) could understand what the hell Whitman was talking about (and neither, apparently, did the general). The woman, Manna Wu, can’t figure out what to write so asks her love (who she must abandon to marry the general) to write it for her. So he does and he concludes, since he can’t make sense of it, that it must be about the struggle of the proletariat and that they are poems about the authority and validity of the working class. He comes to this conclusion, partly because he really doesn’t understand what Whitman was on about, but mostly because he has to be careful, for Manna’s sake, including painting Whitman himself, not just the poems, as a fighter for the working class.

    Throughout Waiting when literature, art, or film are discussed they are always framed in the light of the revolution. Any art – books, music, dance, film, which does not conform or is not explicable as a comment on the glory of the revolution is at the very least dangerous to possess. In Mao’s China art is not art; it’s politics and all are aware of the perils if one should forget that.

    This is the world the Woke want.

    *to me one of the most fascinating parts of Waiting was trying to parse out the significance of the various people’s places in Mao’s China – the very careful, grotesquely labyrinthine and, to my ignorant mind, wholly opaque social ways that people then needed to negotiate to ensure even simple things; whether they could get permission to even leave a town, even to visit family had to be carefully managed. Even a simple social faux-pas (like reading the wrong book or not cheering loudly enough at a meeting of party bosses) could completely derail your career and life.

    Sound familiar?

  7. John Donohue
    Posted August 23, 2020 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    racist racist racist racist racist

    Here is the problem: someone, some faction, has a vested interest in melding “racist” with “prejudiced,” “discriminatory,” and “bigoted.”

    Is racism a belief in the heart and mind of a given individual? Or is it a codified structural element in an institution, either deliberately or accidentally installed, that produces injustice by race?

    To include both under the definition of “racism” or “racist” is fundamentally dishonest. When it suits an activist, he can use it to denounce (and/or bring action against) a person for personal belief and attitude, claiming it ‘contributes’ to injustice by osmosis (or is simply immoral on its face). Or, reversing, they can point to an alleged injustice by an institution and indict anyone (bigoted or not) who happens to be on the ‘wrong side’ of the structure.

    This conflation is a deliberate, immoral weapon of SJW/Woke. A poisonous fork.

    A person can be a bigot, but if he never personally does harm to others, and does not support the inclusion of structure that produces injustice, he does not deserve to be called a “racist.” And to bring legal action constitutes 1984-style prosecution by thought police.

  8. Jon Gallant
    Posted August 23, 2020 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    “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.” The requirement today is that literature (and everything else) be not only anti-racist, but
    anti-racist in the approved way. [The
    approved way, declared by some influential educationists, proceeds from the axiom that logical thought is an epiphenomenon of white
    culture, which must be disavowed.]

    It occurs to me that the current woke temper is more restrictive than the treatment of literature in the USSR of fond memory. The Soviet requirement for literature in support of the October Revolution did not forbid the depiction people of counter-revolutionary leanings, as in Sholokhov’s epic quartet of novels about Cossack families.

  9. jezgrove
    Posted August 23, 2020 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Philip Larkin’s letters contain quite a bit of totally unacceptable misogyny and racism, and political views I profoundly disagree with. That doesn’t detract from his poems (indeed, if he wasn’t the person he was perhaps they wouldn’t even exist) though I probably wouldn’t want to have a pint with him. If we only read works by humans who were beyond reproach our bookshelves would be rather bare. Even the supposedly divine author of the bible committed, encouraged, and endorsed some pretty heinous acts.

  10. pablo
    Posted August 23, 2020 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    She’s a great writer. I hoped they don’t stop teaching/reading her work.

  11. A C Harper
    Posted August 23, 2020 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    And once all the Retrospective Racists (TM) have been cancelled, what next? Woke Vegans cancelling Retrospective Omnivores?

  12. phoffman56
    Posted August 25, 2020 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Do we read for knowledge? Yes.

    Should we read for knowledge? Yes.

    Do we read for pleasure? Yes.

    Should we read purely for pleasure? ….

    Is the knowledge about the nature of humans, the human condition, .. actually scientific knowledge? e.g. Shakespeare, Tolstoy,…

    Should we read for only for the pleasure of the knowledge it brings? What about comedy?

    These are the simplistic questions I ask myself all the time. I imagine whether or not to read an author whose morals justifiably horrify us is part of this, though the lack of “justifiably” makes the author here okay surely.

    Darwin even more, though surely “horrify”, with respect to his Euro-centricism type of racism, is not applicable for sure.

    I’d bet every leader of anti-slavery from minus infinity to 1900 can be found by these people to have at least one incident by means of which they could label the person a racist.


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