Essay / Literature

Book Review: “The Complete Stories,” Flannery O’Connor

John Mark Reynolds, 2004. Books: The Complete Stories

O’Connor is difficult for me. She challenges every notion I hold about race, women, and the culture. She is such a clear writer and her work is dark without being morbid. O’Connor is the rare writer who is willing to parody the intellectual class without glorifying the anti-intellectual. She also writes in a thoughtful way about race relations. She is neither anti-Southern nor content to repeat modern “wisdom.” What of race? O’Connor reminds us that the old segregated South had virtues. The system was evil and had to go, but it also was the system under which people had lived for several life times. It was the thing they knew. Because it was destroyed by a revolution from above (the federal government), individual attitudes were not changed and much that was good was lost. Racism remained, but was driven underground to thrive where it could not be found. As a result, it is plausible to believe that race relations are less advanced than they might have been if change in laws had happened in more local manners. Could this have happened in the segregated South? Could states with strong rights have been preserved and yet become socially integrated? It is hard to see how, so I am left supporting the Civil Rights Act and other things that brought rapid change and much pain.

It also brought the end to an ability to talk openly about issues of race and racism. The racist I could see and shun yesterday learned code languages. As Bobby Jindal, Republican candidate for governor of Louisiana, discovered, racists are not real conservatives. Though he is a social conservative, he lost the “Bubba vote” over his color. Did federal intervention help in the end? Many people of color were allowed the liberty God gave to all men. This is a positive good. On the other hand, many if not most people were confused and harmed by the social disruption caused by such sudden change. It is hard to see that rapid change of long existing evils is good for a nation. As Burke points out, such things tend to breed contempt of the law and for the older members of society.

What should have been done in the South? The facile answer is to wish some organic change could have been brought by persuasion and change over time. That is easier to say when opportunities are not be denied to you. So I am left to wonder: was this revolution worth it? It made “diversity” a great god, when it is not even clearly a good (in and of itself). It disrupted much that was orderly and good in the South without replacing it with anything else. But great social injustices cannot long continue. . . just as revolution had to come to Iraq from without, because Iraq could not free herself. . . so the segregated South had for too long denied the rights that states cannot deny to part of her population. She had been given time and misused it. Therefore, the federal intervention seems justified.It is just good to reflect for a moment on why conservatives might have had pause at the time.

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