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Flannery O’Connor and the new Puritanism

By Jerome C. Foss, Associate Professor of Politics

Among the surprises of 2020 has been the accelerated rise of secular Puritanism. Today’s Puritans, like those of yore, stand ready to ostracize all who do not live up to their ideals. Part of the problem is that those ideals are constantly evolving, making it almost impossible for figures from the past to be celebrated. Yesterday’s hero is today’s villain. The victim of this new cultural ostracism that bothers me the most, because I have devoted the past several years to studying her work, is the novelist and short-story writer Flannery O’Connor.

I started reading O’Connor’s fiction, essays, letters and book reviews after arriving here at Saint Vincent College in 2011. I also read a prayer journal she kept as a graduate student in Iowa, in which she prayed to be “intelligently holy.” The more I read, the more I felt I had met a kindred soul. Though her vocation was different from mine, she approached it—as I hope to do—with both feet firmly planted on the rock of faith.

Taken as I was by O’Connor’s self-described hillbilly Thomism, I began writing essays about her fiction, attending conferences dedicated to her work, and eventually published a book about her political thought, by which I really mean her philosophic thought. As an artist, O’Connor avoided writing publicly about partisan politics and social issues. She understood better than most that art must take its bearings from higher ground, and that failing to do so turns art into propaganda. With remarkable consistency, she criticized the novels of both Civil Rights activists and Catholic prelates, not because their sentiments were bad, but because they allowed sentimentality free reign. She compared propaganda to pornography—both pervert art by giving it a utilitarian end. As she explains in a letter to a friend, “If you do manage to use [fiction] successfully for social, religious, or other purposes it is because you make it art first.”

I am not an artist, but I immediately saw that this principle has many applications. I don’t worship God, raise my children or teach my classes for the sake of changing the world. If the world becomes better through these things, it is only because I love God, my family, and my students as I ought. Loving others for the sake of gain (political, social, financial, etc.) is a perversion of love.

For O’Connor, a writer’s purpose is to render a vision of reality. “I believe,” she wrote, “that the writer’s moral sense must coincide with his dramatic sense and this means that moral judgment has to be implicit in the act of vision.” She goes on to explain that her moral vision is thoroughly Catholic. A daily communicant and admirer of Thomas Aquinas, she understood the Church’s teachings that creation is good, and that grace builds upon nature. She also understood that sin is part of reality, and that through Christ sin can be overcome. In this way she is very different from Puritans, who draw a sharper line between nature and grace and therefore seek to overcome not only sin, but the material world itself. The reconstruction of reality—building cities on a hill—is a pattern of Puritanism, and it didn’t take much for it to be secularized.

That O’Connor was a sinner is beyond doubt, and she’d be the first to admit it. Everyone lives in a community that encourages a range of habits, and this side of heaven some of those habits will be sinful. A native of Georgia, it is not surprising, though also not excusable, that O’Connor’s attitudes on race, particularly when she was younger, reflected the manners of the South. But as a Catholic, she also understood that racism is wrong, and her fiction takes its cues from her faith.

This summer, scholar Angela Alaimo O’Donnell published a serious academic book entitled “Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor” that explores O’Connor’s personal attitude toward race alongside her fiction. O’Donnell argues that O’Connor did not perfectly demonstrate in her personal life the theological depth that she was able to convey in her stories, though we have ample evidence to suggest that she was growing and maturing in this regard and would have continued to do so had she lived beyond her thirty-ninth year. What is clear is that she struggled because she was human, not because she was a hypocrite.

Shortly after the publication of “Radical Ambivalence,” Georgetown University’s Paul Elie wrote an essay in The New Yorker castigating O’Connor for her racism. Elie mined O’Donnell’s book for examples of O’Connor’s failures, such as anecdotes of her as a teenager refusing to sit next to a Black person on the subway while visiting New York. Elie also recycles previously known accounts of O’Connor turning down the chance to meet with the Black Civil Rights activist James Baldwin when he visited Georgia. And he cites the well-known occurrence of O’Connor using racial slurs in her correspondence to her friend Maryat Lee.

Unlike O’Donnell and others, Elie does little to contextualize these moments in O’Connor’s life. We should expect, for example, a teenager growing up in the 1930’s South to be uncomfortable the first time visiting the North. As for Baldwin, O’Connor admired him but she would not take part in an event that would shock her local community. And the slurs in her letters to Lee were part of a friendly and private banter: O’Connor chafed Lee for being a champion of Civil Rights and Lee fired back with purposely outlandish language about O’Connor’s Catholicism. They were teasing each other. Lee acknowledged elsewhere that she believed O’Connor shared her frustration with racism in the South, even if they differed in terms of how it might be overcome. Elie does little to acknowledge this side of O’Connor.

What’s worse, Elie misrepresents O’Connor’s fiction. He misses the profoundly theological ways in which race and racial sins are treated. The protagonist in “Revelation,” for instance, discovers that her attitudes toward both Black people and “white trash” are socially conditioned by Southern mores, and bear no resemblance to the divine order of creation. And the provocatively entitled “Artificial N****r” openly acknowledges the humiliation and suffering of Black people in the United States, especially the South, and then shows the redemptive potential of that suffering by uniting it to Christ’s passion. Both stories are fine examples of art; neither is propaganda advancing a social cause.

Elie’s article led to a torrent of social media avowals to never read O’Connor again. As though on cue, a petition was taken up by students at Loyola University Maryland to remove O’Connor’s name from one of its dorms. Loyola complied with the demand almost immediately. In a public statement, university president Fr. Brian F. Linnane explained, “A residence hall must be a home and a haven for those who live there, and its name should reflect Loyola’s Jesuit values.” Elsewhere he clarified that O’Connor’s stories would continue to be read in the classroom and that the university would honor her legacy in other ways. Still, it is hard not to see the name change as caving to the pressures of today’s secular Puritans to ostracize the misguided.

Thankfully the Benedictines were founded a millennium earlier than the Jesuits and therefore embody a much older and I think wiser sensibility. The Benedictine way has always been prayerful, discerning and thoughtful, rather than reactionary. The Benedictine instinct is to preserve culture, not to cancel it. This gives me hope for Saint Vincent, that we can be a community that lives out its vocation charitably, attentive to the currents of the times but dedicated above all to truth and authentic friendship. May we follow O’Connor’s example and strive to be intelligently, rather than puritanically, holy.

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