Micro-Review #94: How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?

by Paul Elie

Slight departure from the norm: a review of an essay rather than a book. This New Yorker article from June 2020 informs us that the famous writer of morality tales was in fact somewhat of a racist (“a habit of bigotry, most apparent in her juvenilia, persisted throughout her life”). Does this damage O’Connor’s legacy, or is it a case of modern, zero-tolerance morality cancelling a respected figure of the past?

O’Connor’s private letters included some cringe-worthy statements about African-Americans. The implication is that her missives undo at least some of the good she did with her published work, which is lauded as some of the best writing of its era. But there’s a counterargument: shouldn’t a writer’s published work be judged based on its own merits independent of the author’s life? Elie’s standards are high (the very title of the essay, although Elie likely didn’t write it, starts with a suggestion of at least some guilt). And the usual “yeah but” response: who among us, strong or weak, empowered or oppressed, has not privately committed transgressions that today are considered worthy of censure, if not outright cancellation? Should we all be held to a higher standard than many of us are capable of meeting? Or should context and degree matter? When it comes to writers who challenge the social constructs of their time—constructs that they themselves struggled with—I think perhaps the brickbats, although deserved, should be accompanied by understanding. Reviewed on Aug. 25, 2022

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