At the start of June, I joined a group of esteemed thinkers on a panel hosted by Collegium Institute (which you can watch on YouTube) where we talked about Flannery O’Connor for 90 minutes. Around a thousand people registered for the event, which goes to show either the love of Flannery or the success of quarantine in keeping people at home right now. Probably both. The session was such a hit that the four of us spent the rest of the month splitting the task of teaching The Violent Bear It Away to another few dozen avid O’Connor fans.
The “Imagination, Solitude, and the Oddities of Life” panel (which you can watch on YouTube) turned towards Flannery’s stance on race, not only because of the nationwide protests over the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, but also because of a rather irresponsible New Yorker piece by Paul Elie with the incendiary headline “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?”
Providentially, I had been reviewing Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s new book Radical Ambivalence: Flannery and Race, from which the article draws its most indicting quotes. Primed to answer Elie’s questions, I published a rather zealous refutation “How Flannery O’Connor Fought Racism” in First Things, which Joseph Pearce kindly refers to as a “spirited defense.”
I call Elie’s piece “irresponsible” because it only offers one side of O’Connor—unlike O’Donnell’s book, which draws its title from the fact that O’Connor waivered between two perspectives on race. Not to mention, it misrepresents O’Donnell and “misreads or flat-out ignores”, as Alznauer points out, work that “has largely been done by women and Black Americans.” Alznauer rightly quotes Alice Walker and Benny Andrews as examples of those who have debated the merit of O’Connor’s work in light of her biographical shortcomings.
“What of the Black reader’s experience?” David Griffith asks. “This will be the real test of O’Connor’s legacy: how will her work hold up under the burning grace of this moment?” If Toni Morrison is the judge, O’Connor should fare well. Pearce acts as a teacher in this moment: how does O’Connor’s racism effect our reading of her work? In spite of any personal ugliness that O’Connor was working through, her work is still beautiful.
This textual dialogue with other writers and thinkers on Flannery also became a conversation with Christina Bieber Lake, author of The Incarnational Art of Flannery O’Connor. Having met a half dozen times at O’Connor conferences, Christina and I were able to have an open discussion on The Christian Humanist podcast about O’Connor and her work.
Somehow it became the month of Flannery—I completed draft number three of my work on O’Connor’s unfinished novel Why Do the Heathen Rage? Now on to edits and revision! Anyone who knows Flannery knows she revised and revised and revised…. On the “Everything That Rises” podcast, John Meehan and I discuss the excerpt that O’Connor published from her unfinished work and why it was not finished at her death.
As a humorous conclusion to the rather uncomfortable discussion of whether to cancel Flannery, I suggest we read Garrison Keillor’s “Now and then some statues need replacing.” He recommends we replace some of the “heroes of the Lost Cause” with Miss Flannery O’Connor:
She said, “Conviction without experience makes for harshness.” She said, “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.” Any one of the three would make a terrific inscription on a statue and I say there are enough statues of men on horses, there need to be more statues of slight women in plain dresses wearing glasses and looking intently down at their visitors.