The new documentary Flannery is the cinematic equivalent of a full-court press on Flannery O’Connor‘s behalf, to protect her place in the pantheon of great American writers from the charge that she was a racist. Unfortunately, evidence gleaned from other sources, such as Paul Elie’s recent article for The New Yorker, demonstrate that she certainly was. I sensed a leitmotif of anxiety underlying what is otherwise a very measured and carefully crafted look at O’Connor’s life. Directors Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco’s defensive tactic is subtly interwoven with the accounts that several writers, friends, relatives, biographers, and even O’Connor’s publisher give about her short, arduous life.
Tommy Lee Jones, Conan O’Brien, and William Sessions discuss the overweening influence of Catholicism on O’Connor’s art. Writers like Alice McDermott, Mary Gordon, Mary Carr, and Tobias Wolff discuss the humor that undergirded her stories. The film even attempts to make her a martyr, with one unnamed interviewee saying: “In some ways we can say ‘Thank god for her suffering,’ because it allowed her to produce the work that she produced.” The full-court press becomes clearly apparent when the talking heads attempt to deflect and reason away the evidence of racism in O’Connor’s writing, particularly in personal letters to her friend, playwright Maryat Lee.
One scene employs the arch and austere editor Sally Fitzgerald (who befriended O’Connor after taking her in as a temporary boarder) to explain away the writer’s address to Lee in one letter as “Dear Nigger Loving New York White Woman.” Fitzgerald claims, “It was the ‘New York White Woman’ that was the hidden insult.” But this doesn’t jibe with her letter to Lee from 1964, which states: “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 is one of the most incisive, truthful, and brilliant analysts of US culture ever, but she couldn’t see past his skin color to recognize his insight.
Other defenders include Alice Walker, Hilton Als, Richard Rodriguez, and Lan Samantha Chang, the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. On O’Connor’s politics, Walker says, “She just saw the mystery of the craziness without always trying to make the craziness black or white.” Rodriguez makes the case that she was too faithful a scribe of her culture: “She’s too good … her mimicry of the voices around her is too acute, and in that accuracy she doomed herself because a lot of these stories are judged by modern readers as unacceptable.” This is like answering a job interview question about one’s worst trait by saying “I work too hard.” Als offers: “I don’t think that Flannery was racist so much as she had a knee-jerk reaction to race in the way that she had a knee-jerk reaction to her mother.” So now racism (the reduction of another human being to the sign of their skin color) is analogized to the Freudian mechanics of parent-child relations? This justification just can’t be justified.
I think that all of these claims and observations can be comfortably considered true at once alongside O’Connor’s racism (aside from Als’s defense) to see her as a whole, complex, and flawed human being. More than being a Southern writer, a Catholic (this is given much weight), the daughter of a father who died of Lupus (the same disease that would take her at age 39), she was a brilliant chronicler of her time and place. Reading her in my 20s, I found her one of the keenest observers of how personal ideology enchants the real, political, corporeal world into and out of focus, demonstrating how some of us are always living in a carefully cultivated dream. The directors might have made a more convincing portrait if they had led with what writer Mary Gordon says toward the end: “She looks at the darkness unflinchingly, and she approaches it with clarity and with precision. And that, I think, is her greatness.”
Flannery O’Connor knew the contours of this darkness by heart. She lived them. She became a literary emissary with enough self-awareness to show her readers the mysteries of ideology, the tortuousness of a belief in a god. In her short story “Greenleaf,” these traits are prismed through a white woman farmer who is gored by a bull, and perhaps in her dying moment admits something she could not before. We don’t know exactly what that is, because the author doesn’t let us know. O’Connor was like this in both her life and her writing: a faithful narrator who told some harsh truths, but also whispered the worst parts of herself and her culture under her breath.