O’Connor, Updike, and the Literature of Self-Recrimination

Michial Farmer

The recent intra-literati arguments about Flannery O’Connor’s racism are, if nothing else, hard proof that ideas have consequences. Not long after the police killing of George Floyd ignited racial protests all over the world, Paul Elie—the author of a group biography of O’Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton—published an article in the New Yorker titled “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” The implied answer was, of course, “very.” My impression is that Elie wasn’t trying to “cancel” O’Connor so much as get out in front of the cancelers. If that’s true, he failed miserably. Less than six weeks after the article was published, Loyola University Maryland announced that O’Connor’s name would be removed from a residence hall. The wheels of justice, if that’s what they are, turn quickly.

Elie’s article elicited a wave of counter-articles. Amy Alznauer, writing for Bitter Southerner, points out the importance of O’Connor’s work for black artists from Toni Morrison to Benny Andrews, who have apparently not found O’Connor’s (undeniable) racist attitudes to be a deal-breaker. In Law and Liberty, Jerome C. Foss argues that focusing on O’Connor’s own sins misses the point of her art entirely. Jennifer A. Frey points out O’Connor’s awareness of her own racism and her understanding of it as a sin and a source of further sin. Jessica Hooten Wilson argues that, properly interpreted, O’Connor’s work is profoundly anti-racist. The most damning response is surely that of Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, whose work on O’Connor and race Elie used and dismissed for his own article. O’Donnell condemns Elie, not unfairly, for his “unabated accusatorial tone,” his “lack of any attempt to contextualize O’Connor’s feelings about race in the time and place she inhabited,” and his “lack of interest in honoring the complexity of a writer who was sorely tried by her times and by her conscience.”

My personal views on O’Connor stand somewhere between Elie’s and that of his critics. I think there is not really any question that O’Connor was personally a racist, and I disagree that the vast majority of her fiction can fairly be called “anti-racist.” Her story “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is a great example. Despite O’Donnell’s referring to it as an “anti-racist parable,” racism and integration are merely its backdrop. Readers are set up to see Julian’s segregationist mother as the villain in need of one of O’Connor’s patented violent influxes of grace—but the punishment lands squarely on Julian himself, the white liberal who holds the right social positions for the wrong reasons and who wrongly hates the loving mother who fails to hold those positions. (One might argue that Julian is also punished for his own racism, but his hypocrisy on the subject is not his primary sin—ungratefulness and pride are.) I’m largely unconvinced that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an anti-racist parable. So much the less for the bulk of O’Connor’s work. And that’s not necessarily a problem: only an ideologue demands that every work of art express a correct political doctrine. O’Connor’s work has a lot to say, but for the most part I don’t think it has much to say about race. Let’s not try to defend O’Connor by turning her into James Baldwin.

And yet there’s no question that Elie’s article is very, very bad. At its center is a remarkably wooden reading of O’Connor’s greatest story, 1964’s “Revelation,” probably the one story of hers that really is about race. It involves a bourgeois Southern woman who thinks she understands the hierarchy of human life. She is on top, of course, with black people and “white trash” bringing up the ignominious rear. After an unpleasant encounter in a waiting room, she comes to have a vision wherein the last are literally first, with the whole human race marching into the purgatorial fires where sin and virtue alike are burned away. For Elie, this revelation, in contrast to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, “is a segregationist’s vision, in which people process to Heaven by race and class, equal but separate …” What’s more, he says, O’Connor continued to make racist and segregationist remarks even after finishing “Revelation,” so it can’t be a repudiation of her own racism.

The tragedy of this dismissive reading of “Revelation” is that it neuters the story at exactly the point where it could help us navigate the strident times we live in. Mrs. Turpin, having been called an “old wart hog” and told to “Go back to hell where you came from,” speaks directly to God just before her vision: “What do you send me a message like that for? […] How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?” Elie points out that O’Connor signed a late letter to Maryat Lee “Mrs. Turpin”; how does he not recognize that the questions Mrs. Turpin asks God are questions O’Connor is asking about herself? “Revelation” is not so much a racist story or an anti-racist story as it is a self-critique on the subject of race. But because human beings are not purely intellectual entities that stop being sinful as soon as they recognize their sin as sin, we needn’t expect, as Elie apparently does, that writing “Revelation” would instantly purge O’Connor of her Turpinism. Approaching the story charitably allows us the possibility of conducting our own self-critique: in what ways are we hogs and ourselves both? And it gives us the grace to recognize that purgation is a lifelong process—and indeed, longer, if Catholics like O’Connor are right.

Watching the O’Connor affair unfold, I found myself thinking about John Updike’s 1966 short story “Marching Through Boston.” It is an entry in his series of stories portraying the marriage, separation, and divorce of Richard and Joan Maple. Here, Joan has become involved with the Civil Rights movement, which both annoys Richard and sexually arouses him. Surprising both of them, he insists on attending a march in Boston, where, despite his cynicism, he finds himself swept up in the atmosphere. They run into Joan’s former psychiatrist, his sister, her daughter, and the latter’s teenage best friend, and Richard is unexpectedly moved:

His sense of reality was expanding in the nest of warmth these people provided. He offered to buy them all popsicles. His consciousness ventured outward and tasted the joy of so many Negro presences, the luxury of immersion in the polished shadows of their skins. He drifted happily through the crosshatch of their oblique sardonic hooting and blurred voices, searching for the popsicle vendor.

But Richard, like so many Updike protagonists, is fundamentally incorrigible. By the end of the story, he is mocking Martin Luther King and the other leaders of the march, speaking in a minstrel patois.

It is impossible to take Richard’s side in this story. Like Joan, the reader is horrified that Richard would think to talk this way about black people, and embarrassed that it would even occur to him to do so. (This is a common feeling in the Maples stories—Joan is occasionally smug and self-righteous, to be sure, but Richard’s selfishness and cruelty are staggering.) But our reaction to the story is complicated by the extent to which it is autobiographical. Updike’s biographer Adam Begley makes the startling revelation that “This is pretty much a transcription of Updike’s own behavior. The sound of civil rights oratory triggered his urge to mimic and mock. He would launch into his blackface routine with the apparent aim of amusing his children (and himself) and irritating his wife.” Begley, incidentally, denies that this nasty habit arose out of racism, pointing instead to Updike’s well-documented distaste for mass movements and public protests. (Updike’s essay “On Not Being a Dove” covers this topic in some detail.) That explanation seems reasonable to me. But it doesn’t change Updike’s behavior, or Richard Maple’s, or the narrator’s attitude toward it, or the reader’s. Like “Revelation,” “Marching Through Boston” is the literature of self-recrimination, the work of someone who can neither approve of his own behavior nor completely abandon it.

It is no coincidence that O’Connor and Updike are both Christian writers, because the literature of self-recrimination follows in the footsteps of St. Paul: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15 NRSV). This self-recrimination is neither a self-justification nor a boast that the author has conquered sin: it’s a recognition of good and evil and an admission that he is frequently on the wrong side of that line. In the sacrament of confession, we make that admission explicit; in literature, it’s rightly indirect. But either way, it’s a call for grace, the quality most obviously and tragically absent from cancel culture, where any wrong attitude of opinion is enough to get your name wiped out of the culture’s book of life. The literature of self-recrimination allows us, if we’ll let it, to see people as bundles of virtues and vices, and to offer them the grace that we know in our bones we also need.  

Michial Farmer is one-third of the Christian Humanist Podcast and the author of Imagination and Idealism in John Updike’s Fiction (Camden House, 2017). He lives in Atlanta.

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