Flannery O’Connor is one of the boldest and most original writers in the American Catholic literary tradition. The subject of O’Connor and race, vexed since the publication of many of her letters in The Habit of Being in 1979, has become more so with the publication of long-withheld remarks of O’Connor’s by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell in her book Radical Ambivalence. It is the remarks themselves that are damaging to O’Connor’s reputation, and it’s the grim recognition of this by people who cherish her that has led to their being downplayed and/or withheld for so long—and that has now led O’Donnell to downplay them in Commonweal.
In my 2003 book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, I addressed the topic of O’Connor and race at length. Of her letters, I observed that “there is the word ‘nigger’ running through the correspondence. There are quips about blacks, offered again and again as punch lines. There is, in the letters, a habit of bigotry that grows more pronounced as O’Connor’s fiction, in matters of race, grows more complex and profound—a habit that seems to defy the pattern established by her art.” I’ve been pondering O’Connor ever since: teaching her fiction at Georgetown, publishing essays (including in Commonweal), reading newly archived O’Connor materials when they become available, and lecturing on O’Connor and race.
At an academic conference in Atlanta last November, I heard CUNY professor Carole K. Harris present a paper about O’Connor’s friendship with Maryat Lee. Harris cited a PhD dissertation by O’Donnell from 2018, which discussed O’Connor and race. Back in New York, I downloaded the dissertation, read it, and saw O’Connor’s long-withheld remarks for the first time. I wrote to O’Donnell and asked for proofs of her then-forthcoming book, a revision of the dissertation, which was scheduled for release in June 2020. Meanwhile, I’d seen a rough cut of a documentary film about O’Connor also set for release in spring 2020. In December, I proposed an essay on O’Connor and race to the New Yorker.
Radical Ambivalence is published in Fordham University Press’s Studies in the Catholic Imagination: The Flannery O’Connor Trust Series. In 2018, Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, where O’Donnell is associate director, was granted $450,000 by the trust to “promote the work of America’s most distinguished Catholic writer” and Catholic literature more broadly through scholarly initiatives. In a news item about the grant, O’Donnell set out a position on the correspondence: “Some writers stumble around trying to find their subject and their voice, but not O’Connor. Even in her letters she knew she was writing for posterity.”
In the book, O’Donnell quotes for the first time the remarks in O’Connor’s correspondence that scholars have known about but only paraphrased; she cites the “happy turn of events” whereby the author’s estate has let her “make those remarks public” in “the interest of truth-telling.”
Here are the long-withheld remarks. In a letter to Maryat Lee dated May 3, 1964, O’Connor wrote:
“You know, I’m an integrationist on principle & a segregationist by taste anyway. I don’t like negroes. They all give me a pain and the more of them I see the less and less I like them. Particularly the new kind.”
Those remarks were followed by others that have been known since 1979. But on May 21, 1964, O’Connor wrote to Lee again:
“About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind. Very ignorant but never silent. Baldwin can tell us what it means to be a Negro in Harlem but he tries to tell us everything else too. M.L. King I dont think is the ages great saint but he’s at least doing what he can do & has to do. Don’t know anything about Ossie Davis except that you like him but you probably like them all. My question is usually would this person be endurable if white. If Baldwin were white nobody would stand him a minute.”