Flannery O’Connor and the Terrors of American Sentimentality

In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Paul Elie accuses novelist and short-story writer Flannery O’Connor of possessing “a habit of bigotry.” He argues that her opinions and language about race are seriously flawed, and that her admirers must come to terms with this unsettling reality when interpreting her fiction.

But Elie’s orientation is backwards. As O’Connor herself understood, art is not meant to be approached by way of dissecting the artist; the only way to appreciate O’Connor as a writer is to closely examine her stories, which emphatically are not racist. Elie’s argument is both wrong and dangerous—it is a sign of the type of terror O’Connor prophetically sees coupled to the sentimental pursuit of justice unhinged from charity and friendship.

Elie’s Case for O’Connor’s “Habit of Bigotry”

As evidence of her racism, Elie points to the personal letters O’Connor wrote her mother in 1948 at the age of eighteen while visiting New York and Massachusetts with extended family. The letters reveal O’Connor’s shock to see a black man in the same college classroom as her cousin, and that she avoided sitting next to black people on the subway. Elie understands that these were the reactions of a teenager leaving the 1940s South for the first time, but asserts that she never successfully or fully excised these racist attitudes from her soul, and that they therefore have to be taken into account when interpreting her work. They are part of the character of the artist, and therefore part of the art.

The proof of O’Connor’s enduring bigotry are letters written at the height of her talent to her friend, the Civil Rights activist Maryat Lee, in which O’Connor plays the part of gradualist reformer lamenting the forced demise of Southern society by Northern radicals. Elie acknowledges that there is a playfulness to these letters, but insists that they are not always in jest, that much of what O’Connor says to her correspondent reflects her real opinions about race. And because these letters come in her more mature and reflective years, Elie uses them to claim that O’Connor’s bigotry was “clearly maintained and growing more intense as time went on.”

One of the passages from O’Connor’s correspondence to Lee cited by Elie comes from a May 1964 letter written just months before her death. Here O’Connor says:

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.  

Unlike O’Connor’s youthful letters to her mother, many of her letters to Lee, including the brunt of that quoted above, have been available to readers since the publication of Mystery and Manners in 1979. Elie claims that O’Connor fans have been downplaying these types of comments for a long time, happily accepting those parts of her correspondence that are witty and wise but refusing to acknowledge her racism. These admirers cheer at the Christian spirit that went into O’Connor’s stories, with little if any comment about her bigoted opinions. But, says Elie, these letters to Lee “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.”

For Elie, a reassessment is necessary of O’Connor’s work, considering all parts of the author’s character—the racially-biased side as much as the daily-mass side. O’Connor’s admirers are mistaken, Elie tells us, in elevating the published letters and occasional prose that they like while explaining away the racial epithets and evidence of bigotry. This approach “cordons off the author from history” by refusing to look squarely at her more controversial statements: “Those remarks don’t belong to the past, or to the South, or to literary ephemera. They belong to the author’s body of work; they help show us who she was.”

In terms of her fiction, Elie’s only substantial example is the vision of Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation,” the story of a proud Southern lady who unreflectively equates the class hierarchies of her community with God’s divine plan. She wonders what she would have done if Jesus had made her choose between being black or white trash, and she gives thanks that she was made a respectable white lady with “a little of everything.” She is offered, however, a chance to grow in self-knowledge after encountering a hostile Wellesley student in a doctor’s waiting room. The young girl throws a book at Mrs. Turpin and tells her, memorably, to “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” Mrs. Turpin interprets the incident as a message from God, and after questioning him in the spirit of Job, experiences a revelatory vision of souls marching heavenward in a subverted form of the hierarchical categories that shape her imagination. For Elie, this is a “segregationist’s vision, in which people process to Heaven by race and class, equal but separate.” O’Connor’s racism is thus part of her fiction.

Part of Elie’s turn to “Revelation” is to clarify his point about O’Connor’s letters to Lee. Both correspondents would frequently and playfully use pseudonyms meant to caricature their positions on race. O’Connor would sometimes sign hers as “Mrs. Turpin,” and Elie sees in this O’Connor’s embrace of a racist worldview that the writer’s fans are loath to admit. The time of reckoning, however, has come. We must face O’Connor’s true feelings about race and shake our heads at her willing blindness to the truth of human equality. If we refuse to acknowledge this side of O’Connor, we can never fully understand her literature; rather, we’ll make it out to be far more holy and exemplary than it is. Whatever goodness it has is stained by her habit of bigotry. Such is the thrust of Elie’s essay.

Finding the Interpretive Key

Elie’s approach to literary interpretation assumes that O’Connor’s letters and posthumously published prose can serve as—and should be used as—the interpretive key to her work. Elie claims that O’Connor was careful to keep carbon copies of her correspondence and public lectures because she intended for these to be the interpretive lens for reading her short stories and novels. Everything came from the same mind, written on the same typewriter, and thus is part of the same body of work. The only way, then, to understand O’Connor’s art is to read it through the autobiographic picture she drew for us through her letters.

Elie has plenty of company in this regard. There is no shortage of admirers who like O’Connor’s stories because they know she was Catholic, or a woman, or had lupus. This is why the stakes over O’Connor’s racial views are so high. If we can’t like O’Connor the person, can we really like her stories?

I stand with O’Connor in thinking that this orientation is the wrong way to read literature, particularly from an artist as self-conscious and deliberate as the one Elie puts on trial for racism. The irony of using O’Connor’s letters to form an interpretation of her work is that she frequently admonishes her correspondents not to take this approach. She insists that her fiction must be read on its own terms, without distracting adventures into her psyche.

For example, O’Connor jokes in a January 1956 letter to her friend Betty Hester that she can see two critics that look to the artist to understand art “chained together by mutual hate on one of the less important circles of the inferno, eternally arguing if church steeples are phallic symbols.” In May of the same year she wrote, again to Hester, that a story should say “something about life colored by the writer, not about the writer colored by life.” A few years later she rebuked her friend Billy Sessions for his use of Freudian literary criticism in the classroom, reminding him that it “can be applied to anything at all with equally ridiculous results,” adding, “My Lord, Billy, recover your simplicity.”

A little simplicity can go a long way when it comes to reading literature. O’Connor would have had as little patience for race-infused readings of her stories as she did for sex-infused interpretations. In both cases readers are more concerned with the author’s mind and character than the fruits of hard work and a dedication to the vocation of writing. In fact, O’Connor frequently argued against using her biography as a lens for reading her stories. The writer’s task is to look at reality and render a vision of what is seen. Vision is, of course, shaped by social mores and experience, but a good writer tries to look beyond the temporal to a fuller reality, however mysterious it may be. O’Connor insisted that her Catholicism broadened her ability to see, and what she saw was grace acting on nature, God intervening in the lives of souls living in modern America. But readers need not know that O’Connor was Catholic, or had lupus, or lived alone with her mother in rural Georgia, or had a short courtship with a book salesman to grapple with her vision of the world we inhabit. All that’s necessary are the stories.

Elie’s essay is a good example of the danger of interpreting art through the biography of the artist. He argues that because O’Connor possessed the habit of bigotry throughout her life, her many admirers must come to terms with the fact that an author they cherish held unacceptable racial views. He suggests that any serious interpretation of her work going forward must account for the fact that she was wrong when it comes to race, whatever we might think of her artistic talent or theological acumen. He does not say the stories should stop being read, but that is a logical step for the next critic to make. Elie just throws the first punch, knocking O’Connor off her pedestal.

O’Connor’s letters, of course, do make for wonderful reading. They are valuable for understanding the woman who wrote such startling and memorable tales; they reveal a deeply philosophic soul living a simple though painful life on a small dairy farm outside of Milledgeville, Georgia, raising peafowl and other exotic birds, and struggling with the ravages of lupus while devoting herself wholeheartedly to her vocation as a writer. O’Connor’s biography is worth knowing, and in many regards it is inspiring. But we must have the discipline not to conflate the artist with her art.

A serious reader who happened to come upon O’Connor’s fiction without having heard of her could not in honesty conclude that the meaning of the stories justifies racism. Rather, nearly every story, to different degrees, questions the racist attitudes of the American South and points to the individual conversions necessary to bring about the new code of manners based on charity for which she hoped.

Rather than her correspondence, critics like Elie would do well to follow O’Connor’s advice and treat the body of O’Connor’s published art on its own terms. Importantly, this includes her introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann, the biography of a twelve-year-old girl who died of cancer, written by the Dominican sisters who cared for her in Atlanta. Regarding this essay, O’Connor says in a June 1961 letter to Hester that the introduction is particularly important for understanding her work. When critics ignore it, they miss O’Connor’s concern with the modern proclivity to govern by tenderness rather than faith, a move that becomes dangerous when tenderness is divorced from charity. O’Connor predicted that tenderness without charity would end in terror, and in Elie’s accusation that she possessed a “habit of bigotry,” she risks becoming subject to the very terror she foresaw.

The passage from O’Connor’s introduction to the Mary Ann book is worth quoting at length:

In this popular pity, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision. If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in force-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.

O’Connor is not just remarking here on the causes of those depraved atrocities of mid-20th century communist and fascist nations on the other side of the world. Her fiction makes clear that her gravest concerns about modern terrors are of the home-grown variety connected to her own regime, where tenderness comes packaged in various theories, including the social-justice variety. People absorbed in such theories are prone to a sentimentality that can lead them to terrorize those who see things differently. Fascists and communists excel in terror—but 17th and 18th century New England Puritans also knew how to scare people into having the “right” opinions. O’Connor understood that we still have Puritans among us.

Simply put, Elie is looking in all the wrong places for an interpretative key to O’Connor’s work. His use of the phrase “habit of bigotry” is a clever, if underhanded, play on the title of Sally Fitzgerald’s edited volume of O’Connor’s correspondence, The Habit of Being, meant to convey O’Connor’s virtues as a person, a Catholic, and an artist. To the extent that we are concerned with O’Connor’s biography, an accurate account of her vices is as important as attending to her virtues—but trying to understand her habits, good and bad, can and likely will distract us from her art. We end up seeking the source of her vision rather than the rendered product.

Elie claims that O’Connor intended for her letters and occasional prose to serve as the interpretive lens for reading her fiction. But this is strange given that those same letters and essays make plain O’Connor’s hope that the stories be read on their own terms. She shuddered at the idea of literature being a game of hide-and-seek, with audiences trying to find the author behind every Freudian symbol. Are we to see O’Connor relationship with her mother in “The Enduring Chill,” or her broken heart in “Good Country People,” or her semi-conscious racism in “Everything that Rises Must Converge”? Such an orientation makes it impossible to appreciate and learn from her fiction as it was offered to the public.

O’Connor’s Fiction is Not Racist

Jessica Hooten Wilson offers a good counter to Elie’s misreading of O’Connor and a more balanced articulation of O’Connor’s racial attitudes. As she points out, Elie neglects to mention O’Connor’s friendships with African Americans and civil-rights activists like Father McCown and Tom and Louise Gossett. In fact, much of O’Connor’s biography can be used to show that Elie’s portrait of the writer lacks complexion and nuance; that one would have to be heavily influenced by the sentiments de jour to think her comments to Maryat Lee are sufficient evidence of an unreconciled bigotry. I don’t mean to defend everything she said in those letters or elsewhere. Like all of us, she had flaws, and was guilty of sin.

But in terms of her biography, a fairer complaint about O’Connor would look not to her feelings, but her stated opinions on policy questions about race. Elie is simply wrong that O’Connor fans have been ignoring the issue. They have been trying to understand it since at least the publication of Habit of Being, in which Fitzgerald provides evidence that the real difference between O’Connor and Lee was not their views on race, but their proposed solutions to the injustices of the South. Lee was an activist wanting immediate change, while O’Connor thought the only solution was the development of “a new code of manners based on mutual charity,” which can only be worked out slowly over time. Readers like Elie can side with Lee in this debate, but they cannot justly demonize her opponent as a racist.

Even if one insists that O’Connor was a racist, that does not mean that her work was ipso facto racist. A serious reader who happened to come upon O’Connor’s fiction without having heard of her could not in honesty conclude that the meaning of the stories justifies racism. Rather, nearly every story, to different degrees, questions the racist attitudes of the American South and depicts the individual conversions necessary to bring about the new code of manners based on charity for which she hoped.

Serious exegesis of literature is not to be expected in short essays, but Elie’s claim about the racism of “Revelation” misses completely the fact that the vision is reported to us by the narrator through the eyes of Mrs. Turpin, and cannot in fairness be attributed to O’Connor. Plainly, Mrs. Turpin experienced a moment of conversion, and that the revelation she witnesses is personal—a grace from God particularly for her. It upends her previous attitudes about people she had thought beneath her—both blacks and whites. It is a corrective of her opinions, not a reflection of O’Connor’s mind.

Like “Revelation,” O’Connor’s other stories are about individuals who suddenly have their theories crushed in a moment of grace, a devastation that opens up the possibility for conversion. The Grandmother from “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” for example, thinks of herself as good, tender souls fully in accord with the theories of Southern hierarchy that reigned in the mid-20th century. She dresses up for road trip because if she were to be in an accident, she’d want everyone to know that “she was a lady” and not some white trash. Not until she is confronted by the Misfit does she see the shallowness of her opinions. Thanks to a moment of violence, she dies with more important things on her mind than appearing as a lady. The Southern code, including its racist assumptions, ends up meaning very little when faced with real rather than hypothetical death. Sinners of all types, racists among them, might act and think differently if there were someone there to shoot them every minute of their lives.

In what O’Connor thought was her deepest story, “The Artificial Nigger,” the suffering of black Americans is united to the suffering of Christ on the cross. One of the most striking moments of the story takes place in the opening pages, when a young boy responds to his racist grandfather’s question about what he sees when a colored person walks by: “A man,” responds the boy. The point is that social categories that correspond to skin color are accidental, or artificial, rather than essential to personhood. The grandfather’s bigotry and selfishness are tied to the harm he causes his grandson as they walk through the city, and it is only in their confrontation with severe suffering and humiliation, represented in a racist lawn statue, that they are reconciled.

And then there are the stories of social reformers, like Rayber from The Violent Bear It Away and Sheppard from “The Lame Shall Enter First.” They are the epitomes of atheistic tenderness wrapped in theory, and everything they touch breaks. In both stories, a romantic sensibility leads these characters to care more for misguided youth than their own flesh-and-blood sons. And in both cases their upside-down priorities lead not just to harm, but to death. These are tales of the sort of terror that can accompany sentimentality in America—fathers endangering the lives of their children in the name of social reform.

The examples of characters like Rayber and Sheppard should give us pause in the summer of 2020, as America battles a health pandemic and violent instances of racial injustice. In both cases, our political, medical, and academic authorities may be motivated by tenderness to fix these problems, but when rightly read, O’Connor reminds us that seeking health and racial justice without charity can easily lead to American-style labor camps and gas chambers.

What this may mean in terms of the COVID-19 response I’ll leave to the reader to discern; regarding racial injustice, the obvious answer is character assassination, even of those who have long been resting in their graves. As with all sins, racism will never end without God’s grace and a willingness by all to conduct themselves with charity. Racist hunts, like all witch hunts, appear necessary when otherwise good things, like justice, are tethered to the latest intellectual theories rather than the time-honored, self-sacrificing demands of charity. One need not be a Christian to accept this—Plato and Aristotle worried as much as Thomas Aquinas about justice without friendship. Whatever opinions O’Connor held about race—and the evidence suggests they are not nearly as shocking as Elie claims—the vision proffered by her fiction contains vital tools for helping us navigate the difficult terrain in which we’re traveling as human beings and citizens. What a shame it would be if she were subjected to the very terror she predicted.