The deed is done. A week after the decision by Loyola University Maryland to remove Flannery O’Connor’s name from one of its buildings, the cherry-pickers arrived on the school’s bucolic campus in northeast Baltimore and, letter by letter, the name of one of America’s most iconic Catholic writers disappeared from the dormitory that had been known for more than a decade as Flannery O’Connor Hall.
The unnaming was anticlimactic. The campus is empty, not only because it is high summer, but also because of COVID-19. As a result, there were few witnesses. When students arrive back on campus, whenever that might be, few are likely to notice the change, because these days so few undergraduates are devotees of literature. Most are probably unaware of who Flannery O’Connor was and of the books she wrote. She meant little to them before, and will mean less than little after this.
But to a great many people, Flannery O’Connor means a great deal. This has never been more evident to me than now. In the wake of the public statement issued by the university’s president, Rev. Brian Linnane, SJ, explaining that O’Connor’s name would be removed because she does not “reflect Loyola’s Jesuit values,” hundreds of writers, scholars, readers, and admirers of O’Connor’s work have expressed their shock and sorrow to see her repudiated by the university. Many have posed the question, in essays, in emails, and in social-media posts: How is it possible that O’Connor, a devout Catholic who embraced her vocation as a Catholic as passionately as she embraced her vocation as a writer, could be ‘canceled’ by a Catholic university, and, effectively, her own Church?
This question is easier to answer than one might suppose. It’s possible because of an essay published in the June 22 issue of the New Yorker, a magazine not generally sympathetic to Catholic writers, and written by Catholic critic and biographer Paul Elie. In the essay, bearing the incendiary title “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?,” Elie replicates passages from a recent book on Flannery O’Connor and race, using them to try to prove that O’Connor was a racist.
In the interest of full disclosure, I wrote the book in question, Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor, wherein I present and explore those passages in an effort to arrive at an understanding of how a writer who created the powerful anti-racist parables we all know and admire—“Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “The Artificial Nigger,” “Judgment Day,” “Revelation,” and more—was in her personal correspondence also capable of entertaining and confessing racist thoughts.
Elie mines the book for what he refers to as “nasty” passages, removes them from the historical and personal context necessary for understanding them, and presents them to the New Yorker readership with little explanation, all as evidence of O’Connor’s American sin of racism. The problems with his essay are many. It is confusing, it is irresponsible, and it is an attempt to make the erroneous claim that he is the only critic ever to deal frankly with O’Connor’s complex attitude toward race. Critics have been wrestling with this since the early 1970s. Readers of Elie’s essay are never informed of this. There is, in short, nothing new or notable in what he presents.