American Southern gothic novelist Flannery O’Connor recently was “canceled” through a barrage of articles after racist sentiments were found in some of her previously unearthed writings. In response, Loyola University Maryland hurriedly retitled a dormitory bearing her name.
This, despite countless students and other readers having benefited through the years from Flannery’s unique tales and intriguing letters. Maybe no longer, though, if elitist cancel culture has its way.
In my own discovery of Flannery’s work, I’ve found a deeply faithful woman with an attentive sense of justice and acute awareness of her own imperfections. She lived in a racist time, but in the end, far from promoting racism, she worked to expose it through story. Now, of all times, we are ripe to receive her gifts.
Flannery understood being misunderstood. Her stories, frequently grotesque in detail, made even her mother squirm. But their intent was to reveal a world without grace to show our desperate need for it.
Though privileged, she also was disabled and, as a Catholic in the Bible Belt, an outsider. By observing and listening, she caught hold of the language around her, and through flawed characters, uncovered humanity’s ugliness, and ultimately, its redemptive yearnings.
Flannery died in August 1964 at 39, at the prime of her career, from lupus, which had claimed her father when she was only 15. Living with such a keen awareness of life’s brevity made her writings all the richer.
After time in Iowa and New York, she moved home to live on a dairy farm with her mother, Regina, who had hired help nearby to assist with the daunting work. Many of Flannery’s encounters with the Hills, who were African American, show up in her letters and characters.
In the summer of 2014, I embarked on a literary pilgrimage with two fellow writers to Milledgeville, Ga., where Flannery penned most of her work. Plunging into the same red earth she’d trod, often with metal crutches in hand while conversing with her beloved – though often testy – peacocks, we left enlightened and endeared. Over fried-green tomatoes and peach pie, we contemplated the world and ways of this winsome woman, who’d become a ghostly guide and friend.
Assessing Flannery now in whole, I side with writers Alice Walker and Hilton Als, both African American, who convey in the new “Flannery” film her worthiness, in both her humanity and writing. Even as death closed in, illuminations on racism were still coming to Flannery, and she raced with time to share them.
But canceling her? “If we cast out all writers who ever struggled with sin, we will be left without a single one,” warns Jessica Hooten Wilson in “How Flannery O’Connor Fought Racism.”
Flannery titled one of her short stories, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” Perhaps “The Life You Erase May Be Your Own” could be a warning for unhinged cancel culture. Maybe we could try scrutinizing one another with an eye to grace, as Flannery herself tried so valiantly to encourage.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Sept. 7, 2020.]