The Share-Cropper South

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Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 6.07.44 PMA friend sent me a link to an article which waxed poetic about Flannery O’Connor and the ‘grace’ of her Catholicism, retribution, and a vengeful God.    There are some scholars, including Ralph Wood, who consider Flannery O’Connor the only great Christian writer this country has ever produced.[1] As a Christian, and having grown up in the deep south, I think Wood is wrong.

Earlier today, a friend sent me a link[2] to an article about Flannery O’Connor. The author waxed poetic about the author and the ‘grace’ of her Catholicism, retribution, and a vengeful God. My first and only religious comment is that you cannot give a pre-Vatican II, southern writer today’s hard-core evangelical Calvinist sensibilities. It doesn’t work. For one thing, the basic political premise of today’s conservative Calvinist evangelical is more about the politics of the psychopath Ayn Rand blended with an almost ideological version of psychopath John Calvin. Never mind the fact that O’Connor, in a letter dated May 31, 1960, basically condemned her writing.[3] It also exposed either the arrogant narcissism of O’Connor, or a strange sense of humor.

“…I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky….[4]

To begin with, I am not a fan of O’Connor’s work, primarily because it is like perverse version of the Waltons as envisioned by Federico Fellini, with out the artistic creativity. The only thing I know that adequately compares to it would be the classic X-Files episode, Home, which was so violently repulsive, after it’s first showing, it was banned from network television. Much has been made of her almost hard-core version of ironic fate. The author considered her work to be an almost comic version of fate and faith. What is more, if you read the March 28, 1961 letter, it provides a clue to the woman’s temperament.

“…The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.

My tone is not meant to be obnoxious. I am in a state of shock…”[5]

This is not a woman of humility. In many ways, she reveals a clue to her inner-being, and in turn, a clue to the social class and era from which she was spawned.[6] Recently, there has been quite a bit of discussion about the ‘racism’ of her writing. Her admirers try to claim that she was trying to expose the racism of her era. Maud Newton, reviewing a biography of O’Connor by Brad Gooch, write, “…O’Connor’s zeal, sanctimony and intolerance are sometimes suffocating. When Betty Hester, a pen pal who was joining the church under the writer’s guidance, admitted to being kicked out of the Army for a lesbian affair, O’Connor responded in classic “love the sinner, hate the sin” fashion. Worse, she actively goaded another friend, deeply committed to the civil rights movement, with racist jokes. Not only did O’Connor tell the jokes, she apparently relished them, saving them up and spinning them out in a series of letters that have never been published. That she was (at times grudgingly) in favor of equality herself doesn’t lessen the blow of this disclosure…”[7]

O’Connor was a product of the very racist, Depression-era, share-cropper South. Georgia was a state dominated by the white supremacist policies of Edward Talmadge.   Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights act on July 2, of 1964. The writer from Milledgeville, Georgia died on August 3. Many of her short stories explore racism. Yet, the endings are almost always repulsive, almost horrific. One analysis of her story, Everything That Rises Must Converge is about the irony of the new South and desegregation. In it, the old Southern woman, who resents her lot in life, is eventually struck and basically dies at the hand of a black woman wearing the same hat. Allegedly, the story is about unconditional love,[8] but there is nothing about love in the tale. Instead, if you understand the backhanded parlance of the South, at that time, the hidden message is that the ‘uppity’ black woman is a danger to the old Southern lady. It is almost a racist stereotype of the juxtaposition in social classes in those tumultuous days.

Hidden in her work, even though she supported the mission of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.[9] is this hidden theme that Southerners of her era mistook for their own progressive anti-racist values. There are ‘our’ good blacks and then there are others who aren’t, because they are not part of our little world. David E. Anderson explains it best, in an article for Religion and Ethics entitled Flannery O’Connor Redux. Her so-called Christian sensibilities and great Catholic faith are almost hidden.

“…Perhaps O’Connor greatest lapse, and the element that makes her fiction more of a footnote in the history of American literature than work of enduring value, is her total exclusion of the civil rights movement and the religious elements—black Protestants especially, but also white mainline Protestants and Catholics—that fueled it and that were so much a part of the texture of everyday Southern life in the period in which she was writing. It seems a curious omission for a writer of O’Connor’s sensibility, who sought to be attuned to the action of “grace through nature’’ and who boasted of being a Southern writer, a regional writer, to ignore that drama of biblical proportions being played out in her own front yard. It was a drama with many of the same elements—violence, lynching, castration, rape—that she rooted her fiction in. The critic Ralph Wood is most probably correct when he says O’Connor was no racist, but he fails to explain away her ambiguous attitudes toward African Americans and her contemptuous dismissal of efforts, especially by Northern sympathizers and others, to heed the call of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to join in the struggle to dismantle segregation, in some instances by giving up their lives.

“The South is traditionally hostile to outsiders, except on her own terms,’’ O’Connor wrote in “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South.’’ “She is traditionally against intruders, foreigners from Chicago or New Jersey, all those who come from afar with moral energy that increases in direct proportion to the distance from home.’’ Apparently O’Connor feared that “moral energy’’ might dilute or undo the racial status quo on which Southern identity depended, believing that only time and history would resolve the race issue. In Wood’s view, racism and segregation were, for O’Connor, “a species belonging to a much deeper and more pernicious genus of evil.’’ If so, it is nowhere evident in her work….”[10]

Like so many of her generation, in the South, she was a product of her environment. Her world was one transition. She was born the same year as my father, coming of age in the Depression era South. She matured during World War II, and experienced the worst of the Jim Crow era. Before we wax too poetic about her life, it needs to be stressed that the woman died of lupus before Desegregation truly began. She never had time to evolve beyond the era. We don’t know how she would have reacted to Vatican II.

Unless someone knew something of the era, or experienced it, first hand, O’Connor’s characters are in many ways, unremarkable. But, she was the product of a professional family. Her father was a real estate agent. Right there, if you know your old South, is a flashing light. Town-folk made themselves wealthy by cheating the country-folk during the last stages of the share-cropper era.

If we had not been forced to live in rural South Carolina during the last years of the era, I would not know anything about it. What I do know I learned from my parents. My father was from Minneapolis. My mother is from Palm Beach. Their lives had nothing to do with the rural South until my father bought into a flour mill in the middle of nowhere in 1961. It was so backward we had to drive to Atlanta to go to a movie. In the pre-I-85 years, that was something like a three hour trip. My grandparents sent my mother’s favorite products up on my grandfather’s cattle trucks. We were ridiculed for talking like Yankees.

Professionals in towns, people in real estate, feed & seed, or any business which provided goods for the farmer who was barely surviving, provided goods and services at a premium. The premium was to create a living hell for people who needed help. When the farmer couldn’t get a good crop, the feed & seed store owner would take his land, and kick the family out, or they would take the title of the land, and the former owner, white or black, became virtual slaves.

Not only did they become virtual slaves, but the land owner, at times had literal power of life and death over them. There was one land-owner in Oconee County, who was so vicious, if a person wasn’t working up to expectations, he would take his shot gun and shoot them in the head, and keep on going. Another individual chose to exercise his lord and master status by visiting the wives and daughters of his tenants. They were too terrified to refuse his advances. This was on-going, upward of the late 1950s. The landowner in South Carolina simply sold off what he had, and moved to Florida where he made a fortune.

Critics like to think that O’Connor’s work, which primarily featured ‘country people’ was religious in nature. It was a thinly veiled sociological commentary about a world which was rapidly coming to an end. Her society women were brought down by ‘uppity’ black women, reflecting every Southern lady’s angst. They feared the power of the liberated black woman. They were terrified of her, knowing how poorly they had paid her, and how badly they had mistreated her over the years. The woman’s longing for the nurse of her childhood was not a reflection of the love she had of a race not her own, but a memory of the time when black women were poorly paid household employees, nurses, and cooks.

This is about social class. In the dying Southern culture in which O’Connor lived, there were five classes of people. In order there were the aristocrats, then the professionals of which she belonged. Then there were the blacks, the mill workers, and the white trash. No self-respecting Southerner of the era of the first two classes would be caught dead associating with the bottom two. While blacks were a different race, they were far preferable than mill hill and white trash.

O’Connor brings fantasy, horror retribution on white trash, who held blacks and Jews in contempt. The business class, from which she comes, held both lower classes in contempt, considering them nothing but worthless, expendable trash. Those who were white trash were inherently racist. The aristocratic class was neither racist nor homophobic. They interacted with the business class, and often married into them. They quite often had business dealings and partnerships with blacks. The aristocrats traveled, being more at home in Europe than the South. They had money. They were liberal, encouraged civil rights, and had no problems socializing with people who weren’t of their race.

The business class could go either way. They were the ones who literally cheated the small farmer out of their land, turning them into share-croppers. They were ruthless, vicious social climbers, especially their wives. Those who were not racist, inherently, had no problems evolving into the modern world. Those who were racist, had no problems masking their true bigotries. They did not overtly support white supremacist causes, but they did nothing to stop them. If they lived in rural Southern towns, they had no problem donning the white robes of the KKK.

This was Flannery O’Connor’s world. She wrote about country men and women, who were of a lower class than she was. She did vile, evil, cruel things to them, sadistic things. One wonders how her writing would have changed over the years. Would she have evolved into a writer of true, modern horror? Or, would she have continued to churn out thinly veiled social commentaries about the lower classes getting their comeuppance?

There is nothing Christian about her writing. The so-called religious aspect was nothing but a way to hide social commentary that many people, today, do not even recognize. It was a world I remember quite well, of older men, sitting around the country store, making fun of women, treating them like dirt. These same men, though, had no problems recognizing and paying good money to anyone who did a good day’s work – just so they were male. If they knew their grandchildren had completely destroyed all racial barriers, they would be spinning in their graves.

Just remember, they were of the social class which wasn’t defamed by O’Connor.

[1] http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2009/11/20/november-20-2009-flannery-oconnor/5043/

[2] Watson, Rachel, Flannery O’Connor and the Violence of Grace, The Gospel Coalition, April 17, 2015 http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/flannery-oconnor-and-the-violence-of-grace.

[3] O’Connor, Flannery, Fitzgerald, Sally, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, p. 398, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, NYC, 1979.

[4] http://www.openculture.com/2014/06/flannery-oconnor-friends-dont-let-friends-read-ayn-rand-1960.html

[5] http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/08/i-am-in-state-of-shock.html

[6] “…O’Connor had little patience with “mass” Catholics who receive the weekly sacrament without its making any discernible difference in their lives. “The Church for them,” she wrote, “is not the body of Christ but the poor man’s insurance system.” When asked what kind of Christian she would become if she were not a Roman Catholic, she replied, far from jestingly. That she would join a Pentecostal Holiness church. Belief for Flannery O’Connor must be radical or it is not belief at all. Faith is not another item in the laundry list of one’s loyalties: it is all or nothing at all…” Wood, Ralph C., Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, p. 30, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, 2005.

[7] http://jezebel.com/5192628/judging-flannery-can-you-love-the-work-and-not-the-author

[8] http://swc2.hccs.cc.tx.us/htmls/rowhtml/foc/analysis.html

[9] http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2009/11/20/november-20-2009-ralph-wood-extended-interview/5047/

[10] Anderson, David E., Flannery O’Connor Redux, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, November 20, 2009, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2009/11/20/november-20-2009-flannery-oconnor-redux/5077/

 

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