In Defense of Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor

A few months back, I took the COVID-19 shutdown as an opportunity to launch a passion project podcast where I’d have the chance to get together (virtually) with a different teacher friend each week to dive deep into the short fiction of one of my all-time favorite American authors — Flannery O’Connor. I wasn’t really sure what shape the project would take, but basically we’d just set up a call without any formal script or fancy agenda and took a closer look at a different O’Connor short story each week. The end result became a weekly podcast series I titled “Everything That Rises,” and it’s been a great way to talk shop and learn more about this landmark figure in American literature (you can check out the back catalog of episodes by searching for “Everything That Rises” on your favorite podcasting app, or you can click the Blog Posts tab on this site to search the archives).

Bonus: I was even able to use a few of these recordings in my virtual classroom as a sort of “lecture replacement” activity (read the short story of your choice, binge listen to the podcast at your own pace, shoot me a quick email with the ten things you think were most important in each episode) for students who were unable to take part in Zoom calls. Across the board, I’m really satisfied at how this project has turned out. And in the wake of the nationwide protests on the heels of the murder of George Floyd, I honestly don’t think that such a sustained stretch of looking so closely at O’Connor’s fiction could have come at a more powerful time.

If you’ve never read any of her stuff, imagine yourself somewhere deep in the heart of the American South right about at the middle of the 20th century. O’Connor is, for my money, the uncontested Queen of Classic Southern Gothic fiction. We’re talking decaying farmhouses, grotesque characters who are just a beat off your usual “mannerly” types — and this ever-present feeling that the very air itself is haunted by something really ominous that you can’t quite put your finger on. Think True Detective or Psycho: something wicked this way comes.

As a classroom teacher, I absolutely LOVE bringing her short fiction into my literature classes. O’Connor’s work is loaded with symbolism, and since the author herself just so happens to be a pretty die-hard Catholic (I work in a Catholic school) — it serves as an outstanding invitation to bring up deeper issues of faith, justice, and revenge as these themes play out in the stories themselves. I’ve always maintained that the best English classrooms are secretly philosophy classes in disguise, after all. The way I see it, we don’t really teach content qua content (how’s THAT for a philosophical sentence structure, eh?) — rather, we use content to teach PEOPLE. How to live. How to empathize. How to identify with folks other than themselves. And how to become advocates and champions for a universal call to holiness (there’s that Catholic school part of me again) and recognize the inherent dignity of EVERY human person. In short, you can’t honestly say “ALL lives matter” unless you’re willing to say that “EVERY life matters.” But guess what? If every life matters, the larger statement simply cannot hold true until we agree that Black Lives Matter. Period. Full stop.

And that means you can’t remain silent when matters of fundamental human rights are at stake.

As O’Connor herself once reminded us: “approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christhaunted.” As a native Georgian who lived and wrote at the height of the Civil Rights era, Flannery O’Connor is an ardent believer in the fundamental notion that God is real. Too often, man is haunted by the memories of how easily we forget that.

In reading more and more of O’Connor’s fiction (tragically, her 39 brief years on earth were cut short when she died after a lifelong battle with Lupus in 1964, but not before she completed two full novels and 32 short stories), I found myself seeing countless examples of “The South” that was obsessed with the mysteries and manners of a bygone era. More to the point, in her fiction, it felt like a parade of flawed characters who embody the “Southern Aristocracy” seemed forever desperate to reclaim the glory and honor of a forgotten time — even it it meant doing so at the expense of scrubbing away the ugly sins of their own past.

“Heritage, not hate,” right?

But O’Connor’s prose is unflinching. And time and again, she writes cautionary tales where opportunistic charlatans seek to take advantage of lesser-educated folks on the basis of antiquated notions of class, gender, race, and religion. And more often than not, her stories are filled with case studies of  self-professed “prophets” who are too blind to see the error of their own ways — usually, with disastrous results. The more I read, the more I kept digging deeper. Into her short stories. Her novels. Her letters to friends. And her non-fiction essays. The rabbit hole, it seems, went much much deeper than I could have ever predicted. And while immersing myself in all things Flannery O’Connor over the past three months or so, I couldn’t help but laugh at the sheer amount of information I found myself processing with all this newfound free time on my hands. It got to the point where I almost found myself getting angry at how much I’d been learning FOR FREE AND FOR FUN as compared to all the stuff I’d been forced to learn in school “for a grade.” To borrow a line from Good Will Hunting: “You wasted $150000 on an education you coulda’ got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.'”

So.

Imagine my surprise yesterday morning when The New Yorker published an article by Paul Elie titled “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?”

Today’s post will be a bit different from my usual “nuts and bolts of building an engaging classroom” approach to blogging. Instead, I’d like to offer what I hope will be a sort of context or template for fellow educators who might be grappling with questions of how best to revise, rewrite, or re-imagine their own curricular offerings for the year to come now that the critical eye is (rightfully) focusing more brightly on matters of race, racism, and prejudice. In the “too long, didn’t read” version of today’s post: I think it’s wise for educators to proceed with caution when following trends — especially when we’re being asked to scrap individual works of literature or particular authors without giving a closer look at the full story beneath the clickbait headlines. There’s a fine line between compassion and censorship.

As tensions are high in the wake of this nationwide call to action and racial injustice (rightfully so), Elie seems to ride the wave of what’s quickly becoming known as “cancel culture” to suggest that Flannery O’Connor should well be considered the next to go. His article is full of allegations and text excerpts that seem to suggest some pretty awful things about her writing and her work. Most damning among them: “In May, 1964, [O’Connor] wrote to her friend Maryat Lee, a playwright who was born in Tennessee, lived in New York, and was ardent for civil rights.” Here’s what O’Connor wrote to her:

“About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind. Very ignorant but never silent. Baldwin can tell us what it feels like to be a Negro in Harlem but he tries to tell us everything else too. M. L. King I don’t think is the ages great saint but he’s at least doing what he can do & has to do. Don’t know anything about Ossie Davis except that you like him but you probably like them all. My question is usually would this person be endurable if white. If Baldwin were white nobody would stand him a minute. I prefer Cassius Clay. “If a tiger move into the room with you,” says Cassius, “and you leave, that don’t mean you hate the tiger. Just means you know you and him can’t make out. Too much talk about hate.” Cassius is too good for the Moslems.

Yikes.

Now then — a few things worth noting before we go any further:

  1. I love James Baldwin! A colleague first turned me onto his work about six years ago, and I’ve been fascinated by the nuance, depth and foresight in his commentary on race and social justice ever since. If you’ve never read or heard anything by him, I suggest checking out the 2017 documentary I Am Not Your Negrowhich is a powerful primer to his work and friendship with major figures in the Civil Rights movement. As of this writing, the film is streaming free on Amazon Prime. If you’ve seen the film and are interested in reading more from Baldwin, his 1963 essay on race titled The Fire Next Time is blistering and beautiful.
  2. I don’t pretend to be an expert on anything. But I do have an M.A. in literature. I wrote a book (albeit a book about teaching, not a book of fiction). And I have read most of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, as well as a good chunk of her collected letters (published posthumously under the title The Habit of Being, along with her collection of essays, titled Mysteries and Manners). Like I said, I host a weekly podcast about her work that isn’t all that awful, if you asked me.
  3. Like Flannery O’Connor, I’m Catholic. Like James Baldwin, I am outraged by the racial nightmare of systemic oppression. For both of these reasons, I’ve taken part in a number of peaceful protests and marches in my adopted home town of Washington, D.C. You can see me in the photo below (I’m the guy in the front row wearing the sunglasses and the sneakers) and read more on this event from Mikaela Lefrak courtesy of WAMU.

So much of O’Connor deals with hypocrites grappling with self righteousness. Please understand that I am not arguing her comment wasn’t outrageous (spoiler: it WAS), but in context I believe the joke is deliberately on her. Make no mistake: her remark towards Baldwin is definitely jarring. But I think the context warrants a closer look. It’s important to begin by noting that O’Connor’s pithy, self-effacing letters do often read as an exaggerated satire. As Shakespeare might have said: “the lady protests too much.”

BaldwinTo be clear: I’m not saying O’Connor was in lockstep with all modern day social justice issues by any means. She wasn’t. She was a devout Catholic in the tradition of Vatican I (LGBT issues in particular would be especially fraught). But I do believe she is not a racist. Regrettably, the The New Yorker article seems to intentionally select & ignore evidence in order to make its point in an effort to paint her as part of the problem. And in a time where tensions are high, I can absolutely understand the author’s reason for getting caught up in the frenzy. In fact, it was James Baldwin himself who actually taught me this lesson. It all starts with Baldwin’s reactions to a particularly unsettling scene of “mob mentality” that appears in Julius Caesar, when the citizens of Rome are fired up in search of the murderers of their beloved emperor. Here’s what he had to say about in an essay titled “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare:”

And the terrible thing about this play, for me — it is not necessarily my favorite play, whatever that means, but it is the play which I first, so to speak, discovered — is the tension it relentlessly sustains between individual ambition, self-conscious, deluded, idealistic, or corrupt, and the blind, mindless passion which drives the individual no less than it drives the mob. “I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet…I am not Cinna the conspirator” — that cry rings in my ears. And the mob’s response: “Tear him for his bad verses!” And yet — though one howled with Cinna and felt his terrible rise, at the hands of his countrymen, to death, it was impossible to hate the mob. Or, worse than impossible, useless; for here we were, at once howling and being torn to pieces, the only receptacles of evil and the only receptacles of nobility to be found in all the universe. But the play does not even suggest that we have the perception to know evil from good or that such a distinction can ever be clear: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones . . .”

In other words:

When tensions flare, it’s easy to become so wrapped up in fighting for the cause that we blind ourselves to the reality that sometimes we end up lumping “good” people in with the bad. Poor Cinna, the poet of Shakespeare’s play, ends up meeting an untimely end simply because he shares a name with one of the conspirators responsible for Caesar’s murder. And even when he’s able to prove that he’s not the man they’re looking for? The mob quickly moves the goalposts of their argument (“Tear him for his bad verses!”) in order to justify their outrage. No one, it seems, is exempt from judgment.

Yet for Christian readers like O’Connor, one can’t help but recall the Biblical caution against exactly this sort of behavior. Take, for instance, this familiar reminder from the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Matthew :

  1. “Stop judging, that you may not be judged.
  2. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.
  3. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?
  4. How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye?
  5. You hypocrite, – remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.

And here we get to the heart of the matter. Both privately & in public, Flannery O’Connor directed much of her writing towards the purgation of self righteousness. In her fiction, prose & letters, she often takes on the role of a subversive devil’s advocate — which caused many critics to dismiss her as “a Hillbilly Nihilist.” Publicly, O’Connor laughed off the critique by self identifying as a “Hillbilly Thomist.” But privately, she reveled in this discomfort. She loved pushing the envelope to force radical encounters with the shocking & profane. Not unlike C.S. Lewis’s dueling demons of The Screwtape Letters — she’s actively used both her fiction and her correspondence among friends to examine “the wooden beam” in our own eyes, forcing her readers to uncomfortable conversations. As she once quipped to a friend: “I don’t deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it.”

Tongue in cheek overstatement in both in fiction & letters was her M.O. O’Connor routinely said shocking & offensive things to make her point (for a modern parallel, think of her fellow Catholic book lover, Stephen Colbert, before the Late Night fame during his years playing his bombastically overstated talking head Comedy Central persona). But beneath it all in O’Connor’s fiction, there’s a theme of radical encounters with Truth that forces individuals to account for their misguided self righteousness.

Her fiction bears witness to an evolving lifelong purgation. In the short story “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” an old-fashioned woman — known only by her title as “Julian’s mother” — assumes the role of a gradualist, making racist jokes while riding the newly integrated city buses and all the while decrying that “the bottom rail is on the top.” At first glance, it would seem that this racist caricature gets what’s coming to her when she dies for her sins at the end of the piece. Yet O’Connor’s social critique is not merely limited to this one-dimensional “villain.” Instead, she explores the proverbial wooden beam in the eye of the character’s only child, a college-educated boy named Julian who thinks he’s too good for the backwards thinking of his home town. In modern terms, Julian is little more than a “woke” performative racial ally — who dreams of upending his mother’s racism through dramatic examples yet does nothing to make concrete steps towards affecting change or treating Black people as anything more than a means to his selfish end. As the story concludes, it is Julian who is left crying alone in the city street while his mother dies in his arms — proof positive that this holier-than-thou embodiment of performative social justice must learn empathy the hard way.

But O’Connor doesn’t limit her writing to one passing instance where a character must learn to take the wooden beam out of their own eye before they go searching for specks in the eyes of those around them. In stories like “A Circle in the Fire” and “A Late Encounter With the Enemy,” the high and mighty defenders of “the old way” — themselves little more than performative one-dimensional caricatures of “old Southern manners” — similarly find themselves radically humbled when they refuse to accept change. It’s her major theme. Most famously in O’Connor’s most well-known story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a killer brutally murders a racist Grandmother who proudly self identifies as a Southern “lady,” but not before this woman is forced to realize the gravity of her sin. O’Connor uses her fiction to exercise real world prejudice.

Time after time, Flannery O’Connor turns the sharpest point of her satire inwards to shed light on hypocrisy and half-hearted efforts toward racial equality. The biting tone at the end of her short story “Revelation” is intentionally used to show the self-righteous character of Mrs. Turpin humbled at just how closed-minded she had been. Fittingly and when viewed in full context, the final letter O’Connor ever sent to a friend was actually signed “Mrs. Turpin” — once more, we see a self-effacing acknowledgement that the author was well aware of this same fault in herself.

Bottom line: Flannery O’Connor wasn’t perfect. Most of us are not. And her own fiction and correspondence bears witness to an author who was simultaneously well aware of her own biases while at the same time cognizant of the fact that the society in which they lived was fallen, flawed, and in desperate need of change.

But that’s a much less sexy headline.

If today’s blog entry, at times, felt alternatingly like a meandering social justice warrior’s battle cry or navel-gazing graduate student’s self-indulgent manifesto in American literature, that’s kind of the point. Real learning is messy, as is the work required to turn our classrooms into places where we invite challenging conversations that can deliver powerful results. I think the lesson in this for educators, if there is one, is that conversations about race and social justice can be incredibly challenging — often to the point where we don’t even want to open that Pandora’s Box. But simply closing our eyes to historical injustice doesn’t make those problems disappear. Not by a long shot. And it is my belief that a thoughtful, nuanced and empathetic 21st century classroom can do tremendous good for all of its students if we continue to listen to more than whatever shocking headline is dominating the latest clickbait news cycle so we can continue to provide a necessary safe space for these critical dialogues to be had.

Author: John

John Meehan (@MeehanEDU) is an English teacher and school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. He began his teaching career in 2010 as a career switcher through The New Teacher Project, after spending five years working in social media and event marketing. He is a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader, and an alumnus of the 2016-2018 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. In 2016, he was named one of Arlington, Virginia’s “40 Under 40” by the Leadership Center for Excellence. He is a past presenter and regular attendee at educational conferences throughout the United States, including the annual conference for National Catholic Education Association, ASCD Empower19, and the Play Like a Champion Today: Character Education Through Sports summer conference at the University of Notre Dame. He’s an avid runner who’s completed more than three dozen marathons, half marathons, long-distance road relays, mud runs, and obstacle course races. John lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

2 thoughts

  1. So here’s my question, John. Who was O’Connor’s audience and what was her goal in writing her stories? Did she write because she was driven to write; or did she have a purpose in highlighting the crooked characters?

    I was asked to teach a book by O’Connor to college freshmen. I had never encountered O’Connor. I read five pages into the book and thought: Yeah, no.
    I had a very diverse group of students and felt that reading O’Connor would put minority students, once again, in a spotlight they didn’t ask to be under. They would have to wrestle with words of hate in an English class of strangers. New adventure; first semester of college and the goal was to talk about racism. I opted to teach Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein which took those topics into space. Better, I believe, to introduce an author like O’Connor to a group of students you know well; or, a group of students who are more mature than first semester college freshmen.

    While reading your essay, I also thought of L. Frank Baum who went from creating his magical land of Oz to writing and publishing biting essays about Native Americans once he landed in the Dakota Territories with his wife. Often I was asked if I thought Baum was racist. And my true answer was, and is, I don’t know. Because just because someone writes hate, does it mean they have hate in their heart? Could it have been fear coming from the pen and spilling onto the paper?

    And, what I don’t know about Baum, but you might know about O’Connor, is this: How did the treat others outside of their writing? Did their actions speak louder than the words on paper?

    Interesting essay.

    1. Excellent post, Sue. Great minds must think alike — I actually was thinking about L. Frank Baum over the past few days in light of all these articles! I did a good chunk of my graduate degree with American Literature, and I devoted a full semester to Baum when I was wrapping up my M.A. at Catholic U. I was shocked to discover just how NON-“Oz” Baum’s other writings really were. The scene from The Wizard of Oz novel that immediately came to mind for me as a Catholic was when the Cowardly Lion’s tail accidentally knocks over the fragile porcelain church when the group hops over the wall to leave the village where everything is made of glass. From what I could tell by digging deeper into the Oz Chronicles, this appears to be the single church in all the land: fragile and far too easily shattered by the careless actions of a cowardly lion who dresses like a king. For symbolism Spidey Sense: it’s certainly food for thought, right? Further research led me to find a bunch of examples of Baum’s personal writings that, as you’ve noted, would at best be viewed as “problematic” both towards the people of the Dakota Territories and towards traditional organizations of faith. At worst, they are openly racist, and the author doesn’t deserve a free pass to have his fiction spared from increased critical scrutiny as a result. Frankly, if literary scholars wanted to bring these issues more directly into the light, I think they’d be well within their rights to do so.

      In the end, O’Connor’s treatment of those around her was drastically shaped by her lifelong battle with lupus. By all accounts in her letters and biographies that I’ve seen, she was a fierce defender of her Catholicism, and kept regular correspondence and close friendship with very progressive Civil Rights-minded individuals. From what I’ve seen, she was constantly shining a light on provocative issues, slyly challenging social norms, and all the while reinforcing what she felt was a deeper need for spiritual reform that would lend light and credence to the faith she held so dear. While it’s true that her public social justice and advocacy platforms were considerably more limited in her time due to the fact that she was both a) female and b) physically ailing — it seems from everything that I have read that she wrote her public works with the goal of advocating change — or at the very least, an open-mindedness to the notion that God could well be knocking at our door at any moment offering the opportunity for grace, even if most of her (fictional) characters ultimately miss these signs and/or deny these chances to be redeemed. Privately, though she may have struggled with a developing understanding of a myriad of social justice issues — what I have read of her letters suggests that she kept a lifelong commitment to self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-improvement. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly more than many others both of her time and since have done, which I count as a good place for starters.

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