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Passing by the Dragon

By Jerome Foss, associate professor of political science

I am thankful for Dr. John Smetanka’s Oct. 21 response to my earlier essay on Flannery O’Connor. Friends are at their best when they help each other in this manner. Iron sharpens iron. In a collegiate setting this means together pursuing the source of truth, goodness and beauty.

By way of reminder, Dr. Smetanka worried that I may have been too easy on O’Connor’s use of racial epithets in private letters to a friend. I had argued that O’Connor was being playfully provocative toward her correspondent, the civil rights activist Maryat Lee. Dr. Smetanka points out that there is nothing funny in the use of racist language.

Dr. Smetanka goes on to insist that O’Connor’s use of racially charged language “belied not just an identification with but indeed a pride in the segregationist culture she was defending.” For emphasis, Dr. Smetanka quotes the following line from the band They Might be Giants: “Can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.”

This latter quote put me in mind of one of O’Connor’s favorite passages, which comes from St. Cyril of Jerusalem. He writes, “The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.” This is a much better image of O’Connor’s relationship to the Father of Lies. Like most of us, she had no desire to shake his hand. Rather, she was seeking the safest route around him. But he is deceitful and like all of us she stumbled along the way.

O’Connor’s use of racist language in private correspondence is troubling and I do not condone it. But to fairly ascertain her views on race we must pay attention to the context of her comments and other things she says. For example, in one of her letters to Lee, she makes fun of racists who besieged her alma mater saying, "The people who burned the cross couldn't have gone past the fourth grade but, for the time, they were mighty interested in education." In other letters, she makes clear that she supports integration, laughs at Civil War pageants and criticizes the scholars who took their stand for old Southern ways. All of this matters.

For her most mature reflections on race, we must carefully read her fiction, which provides ample evidence that her view of the South’s culture is often critical. “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” is probably the best example of O’Connor’s reflections on Southern history, and it is hardly flattering in its depiction of her region’s romanticizing of the Civil War. Another story, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” deals with segregation directly, and it is far from a nostalgic call to maintain the status quo. And her final story, poignantly entitled “Judgement Day,” depicts a problematic but nevertheless genuine friendship between two Southern men of different races. These are not the stories of blind bigotry.

Dr. Smetanka is right that we should not be too quick to explain away O’Connor’s prejudiced language; but it is unjust and harmful to O’Connor’s reputation to claim she took pride in the South’s segregationist culture. The evidence suggests an attitude that is far more complex, to say nothing about her serious efforts to overcome the habits of thought so prevalent in her community. Stumble though she did, she was working her way past the dragon.

As we draw toward the end of a difficult semester, with all the challenges we have faced in 2020, it is important to remember that we are all trying our best to survive without falling into the traps of the devil. But it is no easy task to pass the dragon unscathed. We need each other’s friendship, and God’s grace, to pass by in safety.

In the pursuit of that which is most important, we are in this together.

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