On November 4th, I sat in virtual attendance at a dramatized reading of an O’Connor short story. I won’t say by whom or what the story was, not wishing to publicize the production. The cast consisted entirely of People of Color, except for one cast member portraying the head Caucasian villainess. One clear intention of the production and of the representative of one esteemed university on the panel that followed the reading was to indict Flannery O’Connor as a racist. Flannery used that hurtful, terrible word. She did.
The readers were well-practiced, but the direction and the script-writing spun a political and sociological web, the invention of misdirection. With disregard for the adjectives the author used to convey the tone of the dialog, one character’s lines are spoken vapidly and dusted with saccharine. The voice of moral authority is given to a Greek Chorus of all the characters, every line spoken with indignation. But why not? Every director of every high school production assumes the license to improve Shakespeare to advance a personal agenda. When signed to play Macawber in David Copperfield on film, W.C. Fields brought juggling gear on set, intending to use them in one of his scenes. The stuttering director objected, “Dickens didn’t write anything about juggling!” To this Fields replied, “ He would have, had he thought of it.” Classical plays have been replaced, authorized by voiced declarations.
Any reader of FO’C without bias will be stricken with her malice toward bigotry. Her Characters of Color are (with only one exception, I can recall) the voices of reason. Generally, generous spirits, these characters sometimes exhibit strength through spirituality. The characters singled out for scorn in these morality plays are, in fact, the self-righteous, the privileged. Calvinists, the prosperous, the land poor, the disabled, hermaphrodites, the lazy, and vegetarians– these will please line up to flail Flannery. I am hearing criticisms of O’Connor’s stories from those who truly don’t know her work. Some critics have not read her stories at all (check YouTube if you are incredulous). I was once wary there would be a book burning. These burnings warm the public around us; many, many books are likely tinder in one community or another. I feared this could happen to Flannery’s stories. Now I think censorship is not the worst treatment. The scorn resulting from misrepresentation is viler than censorship.
Flannery was the product of her time and place. As a Catholic, she was also hated by the Klan, and she was wary. She wrote with hostility about religious and racial bigotry, but even under the weight of her time and place and purpose, she used that hurtful, terrible word. She did. Still, her heart was pure. Please don’t believe me; believe Alice Walker.
Once finished with O’Connor, we can turn on Greta for using the phrase “fossil fuel.” Enmity can neither be created nor destroyed.