On a friend's Facebook recommendation, I think I might break the no-buying policy and get a copy of Brad Gooch's Flannery O'Connor bio. (Certainly solely on his recommendation and not on the wretched review in the NYT a couple weeks back--the way it was written was wretched, I mean, not that it was a bad review. And thus is introduced our theme of precision of language.)
When the book came out, there was some controversy about new revelations, chief being that O'Connor used to seemingly revel in telling racist jokes to a particularly sensitive, liberal friend. I dip into The Habit of Being, Sally Fitzgerald's collection of O'Connor letters, which had expurgated the most obvious offenses, but not all, as you'll see. But the last time I read it through was about 20 years ago. O'Connor's formidable skills as an apologist almost had me getting unlapsed from being a Catlick, as she liked to write it, but I managed to hold onto my Old Time Religion (paganism), thank goddess.
Anyway, the reactions to the racist joke revelations tended to fall into two paths:
1) Oh, dear, I so loved Flannery O'Connor and those quirky Southern "characters" of hers! She was such an eccentric! So weird! So Outsider! Where did she get those names? But now I can't like her anymore, because she's a racist! I will never read her again. Why do all my idols have to fall?
2) She was a woman of her time, and she just couldn't HELP it if she thought like that. Everyone thought like that back then. Look at Fitzgerald and Wharton--they were anti-semites!
Both arguments are wrong in too many ways to know where to begin, and I think, just from my reading, that they're both wrong about O'Connor, too. Her other published letters, while not as explicit as perhaps the material in Gooch's book, make it clear that she just really, really liked fucking with people, especially Northern liberals. Check this little parody piece out from a letter to a friend and see if it isn't kin to Randy Newman's "Rednecks":
"What you ought to do is get you a Fullbright to Georgia and quit messing around with all those backward places you been at. Anyway, don't pay a bit of attention to the Eyetalian papers. It's just like Cuddin Rose says all us niggers and white folks over here are just getting along grand--at least in Georgia and Mississippi. I hear things are not so good in Chicago and Brooklyn but you wouldn't expect them to know what to do with theirself there."
She thought James Baldwin was a blowhard and got ticked when people kept telling her she had to meet him. But she also got ticked when her Catholic friends tried to make her go to Lourdes (and she made fun of the place, even as she caved and went on a pilgrimage). She was terribly impatient with the veneration of the Virgin, and she said just looking at the book The Nun's Story made her want to throw up. And all this from one of the most devout, thoughtful, committed Catholics anywhere. She mocked hypocrisy wherever she found it, flicked her own forehead for her petty sins of pride and vanity (without making a big, breast-beating deal out of it--because that's about the most vain, prideful thing to do of all). I recognize in the letters the character in the stories who is the modern thinker, the enlightened progressive, and usually grotesquely evil (she preferred, by the way, word grotesque to the word gothic). I speculate that in those characters she saw herself as she sometimes was, might have been, might be, but, quite literally, for the grace of God.
In short--equal opportunity hater, a woman with little time or patience for anyone. "My question is usually, would this person be endurable if white?" she wrote in another letter. And she found very few whites endurable. I don't think anything really mattered to her but the truth of the incarnation, the mystery of flawed people making up the perfect Church, and the mortal modern error of denying the existence of the Devil. Her God stops at nothing, including allowing the death of his son and self, asking simply if he deigns to speak at all: Where were you when I made the world?
None of which I believe, and none of which robs her writing of a bit of power for me.
It's not about people with funny names and odd habits and colorful diction. It's not about color much at all, but about our reaction to it, and our desperate need to believe we are good, decent people, when by most lights, we are pretty shaky, maybe mostly monstrous, and by the lights of a Catholic like her, without grace we are all condemned, and all the rearranging of bus seats in the world (Everything that Rises) won't change that.
I think if O'Connor were alive today, she might well be like Colbert or Sarah Silverman--or at least writing sketches making fun of movies with a Magic Negro, maybe, or the Crying Indian. Colbert popped into my head because he is also a Southern Catholic, and because of his still untopped and wildly, widely misunderstood jerimiad at the Correspondent's Dinner. But I'm glad she lived and wrote when she did.
And Fitzgerald and Wharton? Fitzgerald was a basket case who was so insecure he'd put anyone down that he could get away with. He wasn't so much a racist or anti-semite as a narcissist (those are related a lot, I think). But don't forget the venal Tom quoting Henry Ford in Gatsby. Balance goes to Fitzgerald. As for House of Mirth, Rosedale and Lily are two of a kind, the only ones who see the whole game and realize they have to play it carefully, and see each other playing it. He always respects her skills, but it isn't until the end that she sees past her prejudice and respects his. The snap judgments are in the mouths of the characters, not the author, in that case, I believe.
Photo: Once I went to Macon and everyone there kept telling me about Flannery O'Connor and Duane Allman. I don't know as how they had read or listened to much of either, respectively. It got annoying, because I am extremely fond of both. I have a story based on it maybe I'll polish up.