In defence of Flannery O’Connor

3 April 2021

9:00 AM

3 April 2021

9:00 AM

I have a thought for the students of Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland: this Easter, why not resurrect Flannery O’Connor? Why not show that you appreciate America’s greatest Catholic writer even if the poor, frightened duds in charge of you do not?

Last summer, the university’s president, the Revd Brian F. Linnane SJ, removed O’Connor’s name from its halls of residence. The New Yorker had published a pompous piece about racism in O’Connor’s private correspondence, the George Floyd protests had begun and so… best not make the students uncomfortable, said Father Linnane.

The cosmic joke of this has stayed with me ever since. It’s not just that it’s the duty of any decent university to make its students uncomfortable, or even the sad irony of a Catholic institution that can’t forgive. The joke is that the whole point of O’Connor’s work is to make people uncomfortable: that’s her genius. And anyone who can’t stomach a little discomfort has no business putting her name on a wall in the first place.

Flannery O’Connor was one of the best short-story writers America has produced. She was born in 1925 in the segregated South and lived on a farm outside Milledgeville, Georgia with her mother until she died aged 39. Her characters were drawn from the world around her: farmers, preachers, religious conmen, feral children and upright, self-regarding Southern ladies. They’re often described as ‘grotesques’, though as O’Connor wrote: ‘I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it’s going to be called realistic.’

O’Connor’s characters might not be grotesque, but what happens to them sure is. Drownings, murders, heart attacks, terrible revelations — but this isn’t misanthropy so much as tough love. For O’Connor, Catholic to her bones, these violent shocks are the vehicles of God’s grace, the sledgehammer blows needed to save their souls. Fr Linnane, a Jesuit, is a disciple of St Ignatius Loyola, and I’m sure he would agree that no other Catholic writer has a more Ignation sensibility or a better understanding of mystery. Yet when he made the decision to erase O’Connor’s name, Fr Linnane made it near impossible for staff to teach her work. Who’d risk admiring a racist? ‘Strong truths, well-lived’: that’s the Loyola University Maryland motto. ‘The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally,’ wrote O’Connor, which would make a much better one.

Yes, Flannery O’Connor wrote some racist letters. Even before that cold-blooded New Yorker piece we fans were half-aware of that. She was a child of the Jim Crow South and pretty isolated; the lupus which eventually killed her kept her stuck on the family farm. But what I’m hoping Loyola students, if not Fr Linnane, can understand is that O’Connor was an anti-racist too. Time and again in her stories, the smug white folk who set themselves above black Southerners come a cropper. If an O’Connor character is racist, it is a sure sign that violent correction will follow. Without fail, in her fiction, O’Connor presents racism as an evil. Isn’t that what counts? It certainly made her fellow Georgians uncomfortable — still does.

In late 2013 I visited Milledgeville and took what was billed as the Flannery O’Connor Trolley Bus Tour. The guide, an immaculate lady in her seventies, had known O’Connor’s formidable mother, Regina, and it was clear she didn’t think much of ‘young Flannery’s’ confessional approach: ‘Y’all know more about Flannery than I do, I’m sure. I’m afraid I’m no great fan.’ I remember her standing, swaying elegantly in the aisle as the bus took each corner, like a Confederate soldier, shot but not yet fallen. I took notes: ‘When Flannery’s book first came out we all thought: “What are you doin’ to our reputation? Why let all our skeletons out of the cupboard to run around?”’ she said. As the bus pulled in to the O’Connor family farm, she whispered, half to herself: ‘Young Flannery, now why d’you have to go and do that?’

O’Connor let the skeletons out. Her stories skewered the bigotry around her but she didn’t spare herself. Her stories are just as confessional as they are judgmental, and doesn’t absolution follow from confession? Perhaps Fr Brian Linnane thinks some sins, like racism, are irredeemable. But if so, it’s not just O’Connor he’s denying, it’s Christ.

I listened last week to a discussion put on by Loyola, on the subject of race in Flannery O’Connor’s work — the pretence of a fair trial, I suppose, long after the guilty verdict. One student, suffused with the spirit of the college, asked the guest speaker: ‘Which story can I read that won’t be too disturbing?’ The speaker, Alice McDermott, turned out to be unexpectedly terrific. She said: ‘Go! Be disturbed! You don’t go to great fiction to be comforted.’ She also said that her students were increasingly scared of pursuing their own thoughts: ‘They say, I’d like to write this, but I’m afraid…’

Let’s get some perspective, students, before it’s all too late. If you want to write well, you have to read well, without scouring every author for impure thoughts. Read Flannery O’Connor: her stories, letters and essays. Challenge yourself. Because if you don’t, if you trot behind Fr Linnane, running scared down the path of least resistance, you may well end up writing like him too.

Here, from Loyola University’s archives, is Fr Linnane’s letter explaining the decision to expunge O’Connor from campus, titled: ‘Holding ourselves accountable in our equity and inclusion work.’ It begins: ‘Dear members of the Loyola community, as we take intentional action steps in our equity and inclusion work, the office of equity and inclusion has created a web page where we can share some of the action occurring across the university… I am also forming a presidential renaming committee to evaluate all philanthropic and honorifically named spaces on campus. That committee will determine a process for maintaining and removing building names and develop a rubric for naming and renaming, leading a deliberative, inclusive process that centers our mission, values, diversity, equity, and inclusion in these decisions.’

Read that. Savour those intentional action steps. Centre your mission and answer me this. Out of Flannery O’Connor and Fr Brian Linnane, this Easter, who do you trust most to tell you the truth?

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