The Truth About O'Connor's
Religious and Racial Beliefs
June 2006 - Robert P. Hilldrup
Two major mistakes in interpretation seem to have crept into some recent articles
about Flannery O'Connor, the Georgia writer whose premature death in 1964 at age 39 deprived the world of a voice both Southern and Christian.
The first mistake is that O'Connor, a most orthodox Catholic, was deeply hostile to Protestants and their many forms of practice and belief.
The other mistake is that she, a resident of Milledgeville, GA in the 1950's,
outspoken racial liberal.
One could refute both positions by examining her fiction, perhaps. But fiction often deals in the occluded
and is subject to interpretive speculation.
Non-fiction is much clearer and nowhere does O'Connor make her beliefs as clear as in her letters, edited by Sally Fitzgerald after her death,
The Habit of Being.
22 Nov. 58 (to "A", an anonymous correspondent): "...the crisis theologians...are the greatest of the Protestant theologians writing
today and it is to our misfortune that they are much more alert and creative than their Catholic counterparts.
We have very few thinkers to equal Barth and Tillich, perhaps none.
18 July 59 (to Dr. T. R. Spivey): "The Catholic finds it easier to understand the atheist than the Protestant, but easier to love the
Protestant than the atheist."
13 Sept. 60 (to William Sessions): "...the traditional Protestant bodies of
the South are evaporating into secularism and respectability and are being
replaced on the grassroots level by all sorts of strange sects...and sometimes the genuinely inspired."
19 Nov. 60 (to Maryat Lee) (speaking of a visiting minister): "I was expecting a
Unitarian or some pious liberal fraud; instead, bless us, a real man of God."
Let us be clear. A more orthodox Catholic than O'Connor probably never lived. But when she wrote about Protestants, even twisted and distorted ones, she did not trivialize their characters or beliefs, presenting them as seriously as they saw themselves. To suggest otherwise is to show either ignorance or malice.
Much of what she wrote about race was in the context of sit-ins, protests and other desegregation demonstrations. Her words were hardly
liberal or politically correct.
21 May 62 (to her liberal friend Maryat Lee): "I have a plan for you. Come South at your own expense & let the White Citizens Council send you back. You could tell them that you was a little light but a guaranteed nigger."
9 Nov 62 (to Maryat Lee): "I take several Catlic papers which are always yapping about racial justice. Actually, I am the
conservative in this family."
2 Feb 63 (to "A" in reference to troubles with Louise): "The Negro's
method of escape is foolproof. She can effect complete mental
absence when she wants to--she's there, grinning, agreeing but gone gone. No white person can
cope with this, not even my parent."
11 Oct 63 (to Janet McKane): "The local Negroes have just petitioned the city
council to do the usual things... One item on their list was to integrate the
library. It turns out the library has been integrated for a year and they didn't know it."
21 May 64 (to Maryat Lee): "About the Negroes, the kind I don't like is the
philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind. Very ignorant but never silent...[Martin
Luther] King I
don't think is the age's great saint...My question is usually, would this person be endurable if
white? If Baldwin were white nobody would stand him a minute."
10 July 64 (to Maryat Lee, apparently in reference to various racial disturbances): "That grasshopper you left in the cage for me reminded me so much of the
poor colored people in the jails that I let him out and fed him to a duck."
O'Connor also goes on in many letters to comic recitations of negro misbehavior among the workers on her mother's
farm--from lye and boiling water
throwings, to cuttings, drunkenness, lying and her mother's endless fruitless efforts to keep them out of trouble.
So, given this evidence, was O'Connor a closet racist, a secret segregationist or merely a creature of her time and place? The latter comes closest, but I think there is another answer.
O'Connor held the world's face to the fire in almost everything she wrote. She was a realist. She did not romanticize anything. With blacks, she was the antithesis of political correctness even before the term was invented. She reported black behavior as it was,
offering neither explanation, excuse or apology.
She told the truth as she saw it. A good writer does no less. Those who attempt a revisionist flattery are really practicing idolatry. The result, in her case, is a disservice.
Mr. Hilldrup is a writer and former newspaperman. He lives in
Guilty By Association?
A Response Regarding O'Connor's Religious Perspective
July 2006 - Stephen Sparrow
I may be being overly sensitive,
but in Robert Hildrup's recent article "The Truth About O'Connor's
Religious and Racial Beliefs" (June, Comforts of Home) I detect a hint of
mild irritation at my rather effusive admiration for O'Connor.
When one admires the craft of a writer like O'Connor, it may be
extremely difficult to evade the charge of not seeing objectively--especially
when the matter centers on religion. In
this case Mr Hildrup attacked what he describes as "two major mistakes in
interpretation [that] seem to have crept into some recent articles", the
first mistake being the implication that "O'Connor, a most orthodox
Catholic, was deeply hostile to Protestants and their many forms of practice
and belief." Mr Hildrup
concluded his essay by saying, "[O'Connor] told the truth as she saw it. A
good writer does no less. Those who attempt a revisionist flattery are really
practicing idolatry." I assume he is alleging that I am the one indulging in
revisionist flattery, and if Mr Hildrup has extracted that viewpoint from my
essays, I can only say he has mistakenly seized on a straw man.
In his article, Mr Hildrup also stated
that "a more orthodox Catholic than O'Connor probably never lived."
By definition, an orthodox Catholic holds the view that Reformation
theology is erroneous. O'Connor
reinforces this viewpoint in her letter to Dr T. R. Spivey on July 18th, 1959
saying, "...if Christ actually teaches through many forms then for fifteen
centuries, he taught that the Eucharist was his actual body and blood and
thereafter he taught part of his people that it was only a symbol.
The Catholic can't live with this contradiction..." Conversely, it
must also follow that the devout Protestant, in the orthodox sense, holds the
view that for the first fifteen centuries after Pentecost, the things
pertaining to Christian theology and practice were wrong and had to be
changed, which happened when God eventually revealed the truth to some
privileged and/or outspoken individuals living in 16th Century Europe and
England. As we have seen in the
letter to Dr Spivey, Flannery O'Connor didn't buy into that, and neither
did her good friend--editor of her published letters, and Catholic
convert--Sally Fitzgerald who, in a letter to me on O'Connor's work, described
the Reformation as a "deformation".
To suggest that this bedrock faith of
O'Connor's had no effect on how she wrote is expecting a bit much.
She didn't write about life in the American south with its religious
overlay as if she was merely recording some sociological experience.
She used her Catholic faith as a lens through which to portray the
events she described, and that cannot be done without an obvious implicit
The criticism of Protestantism that
O'Connor allowed herself was that Calvinist style Protestantism was a
distortion of authentic Christianity, and is most clearly explained in a
letter she wrote to Alfred Corn on August 12th, 1962, in which she opined on
the question of free will versus determinism: "the Church (Catholic) teaches
that God does not judge those acts that are not free, and that he does not
predestine any soul to hell--for his glory or any other reason.
This doctrine of double predestination is strictly a Protestant
phenomenon. Until Luther and
Calvin, it was not countenanced. The
Catholic Church has always condemned it."
She covered the matter further in her essay "The Catholic Novelist in
The Protestant South", saying that Catholic fiction, "can't be
categorized by subject matter, but only by what it assumes about human and
divine reality. It cannot see man
as determined: it cannot see him as totally depraved.
It will see him as incomplete in himself, as prone to evil, but as
redeemable when his own efforts are assisted by grace...grace working through
nature...so that a door is always open to possibility."
Her two novels Wise
Blood and The Violent Bear It Away would be vacuous without this conflict of determinism versus free
will--Calvinism as opposed to Catholicism, although neither receives specific
mention. O'Connor manages to
highlight the matter without resorting to didactics; she lets the characters
speak to the reader. Characters
like old Tarwater from The Violent Bear
It Away may seem like caricatures of Calvinist style Protestantism, but
O'Connor, from her Catholic perspective, singled out these people not to
ridicule them but to show that in their own way they were trying desperately
to win salvation and in the process demonstrate that every human being faces
the same last four things--Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.
She says, again in her letter to Alfred Corn, that, "I don't think
literature would be possible in a determined world. We might go through the
motions but the heart would be out of it...Even if there were no church to
teach me this, writing two novels would do it." As O'Connor once told Betty
Hester, "we are not judged by what we are basically.
We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given."
I'm sure I have used that quote on more than a few occasions to
illustrate in my essays the sympathy and empathy O'Connor displayed toward her
fictional Protestant and Atheist fanatics.
Yes, Mr Hildrup, you are correct;
Flannery O'Connor never exhibited hostility
toward Protestants or toward their many forms of practice and belief, but
through her fiction she did convey her exasperation with the effects of the
16th Century Reformation. In my
essays on Comforts of Home I have
attempted to portray O'Connor's fidelity to her own faith and vision, and
at times extrapolation has been necessary to explain how Catholics view these
matters. Stirring up a lot of 16th Century dust (as Flannery O'Connor once
called it) was never my intention. As
for the other allegation, that someone said she was an outspoken racial
liberal--well all I can say is it wasn't me.