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Flannery O'Connor

Read and enjoyed this insightful New Yorker piece on Flannery O’Connor over the weekend. The title “How Racist?” seems like the wrong question, though... especially since the answer, in this reader’s conclusion, is very. “About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind...”.

(Although she did admit, “I have read one of his stories and it was a good one.”)

The author of the essay points out that O’Connor did address “the changing South” in her fiction, and was, of course, highly aware of the prejudices & history of white people in Georgia. After reading the article, I was inspired to read a 1961 short story mentioned, “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (linked in comments below). The story is an excellent psychological study of the resentment of a 20-something white son escorting his old-fashioned (in manners, appearance, and prejudice) southern white mother on a bus trip around town. On first glance, it seems like the story is also about the generational tension between the segregationist mother with her benevolent racism (she thinks black children are “cute,” and that black people have had a rough time, but the whole premise of the story is that her son must accompany her because she’s afraid she might encounter a black person on the integrated public bus) and the more enlightened integrationist college-educated white son... but, in the end, the reader is left with the uncomfortable feeling that the son is perhaps only interested in integration or equal treatment of African Americans as a way to spite his mother ...? He even fantasizes about bringing home a black friend (or girlfriend!) just to shock his mother. (Read the story - it’s short! - and share your thoughts below! Having died relatively young in 1964, at the peak of the civil rights movement, we will never know how or whether O’Connor’s views on racism might have evolved, personally or in her writing. ADDED:  Insight from my father-in-law, a retired English Literature professor: "Thanks Tiffany, for posting this and inspiring me to post one of my admittedly long-winded responses. I haven't read the New Yorker article yet but I will. The story is typical of the strengths of O'Connor's writing. But! It's interesting that you quote her remark “About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind...”. First of all, her own writing is certainly "philosophizing prophesying pontificating." Her title, "Everything That Rises Must Converge," is taken from the Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin. It may be functioning ironically here, but I think it fits also with other Catholic philosophical references in the story. And there is a kind of "prophesying" quality to her mid-20th-century characterizations, the mother as the aged white "belle" nostalgic for a sentimental version of the Old South that would become harder to sustain after mandated desegregation, and the son a representative of the new Southern intellectual with an as yet underdeveloped penchant for moderate reform, alienated from his own culture but not able to actively seek an alternative, and muddling about in impotent rage. Second: despite O'Connor's reputation for being unsentimental in what is said to be a Southern Gothic tradition, as confirmed by what appears to be the anti-sentimentalism of the story, I do think there remains a certain sentimentality in her underlying religious and moral philosophizing. One of James Baldwin's main criticisms of dominant American cultures of the South AND the North, was the sentimentality that substituted for deep feeling in both popular culture and in many strains of the high culture, and allowed for comforting distraction from, and ultimately denial of, conditions of real oppression and pain, . The generation of literary critics who first wrote admiringly of O'Connor's "unsentimental" stories were raised and educated on the early to mid-20th century tradition of writing that was a reaction to Victorian sentimentality, the writing of people like Hemingway and the "hard boiled" school of writers of noir fiction. But Hemingway and those who followed in his wake, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain,etc., were themselves sentimentalists about male bonding, and about the great tradition of the American man-boy--Hemingway's Nick Adams was a kind of prototype. The Southern writers, Faulkner preeminently, could be both unsentimental in delineating the dark aspects of the dominant white culture of the post-Reconstruction South and still sentimentalize "their" Negroes. Baldwin was also critical of the "protest novel"_ drawing a ink between Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and writers of the left of the 1930s, on similar grounds of a kind of socialist sentimentalizing, as is evident in the first two essays of Notes of A Native Son, the title of which refers of course to Richard Wright's novel which Baldwin criticizes. I think, more than any other mid-to-late 20th century American writer, Baldwin understood the historical and still functional contradictions of US society and its cultures, and not just contradictions concerning race, but of gender, sexuality, class as well. Contrary to what O'Connor said of him, he didn't drop a lot of theoretical or philosophical references, and although he moralizes at times in biblical language I don't think he pontificates--that term suggests speech warranted by a powerful institution. I don't think Baldwin ever subscribed to or was a spokesperson for any kind of institutional power. But O'Connor seems bound, if somewhat ironically, to at least two powerful institutions." ADDED:  My response: "Thanks so much, Don. I hadn’t thought about the actual meaning of the individual words she was using against Baldwin - the three “p” words. Interesting. The New Yorker piece, by the way, is written by a journalist who often covers Catholic issues , so it’s interesting that he did not take up more analysis about those specific words. You mention that O’Connor was bound by two major institutions - presumably the Church and the South - and Baldwin comes up again in the article when she is approached about meeting with him while he’s in Georgia on a trip in 1959. She says “it would be nice to meet him in New York,” but she won’t meet with him in Georgia because “I observe the traditions of the society I feed on - it’s only fair.” This is in a private letter and It’s not clear if she’s being somewhat flippant here, but it’s Interesting that she’s seen as taking a completely “unsentimental” view of that society, but not actually interested in challenging it." FOLLOW-UP:  A response to the New Yorker piece, providing more context and history of black scholars and artists (including Walker, Morrison, etc.) responding to O'Connor:


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