I discovered O'Connor when I was in college in the North and took a course in Southern writers and the South. The perfection of her writing was so dazzling I never noticed [at the time] that no black Southern writers were taught. The other writers we studied-Faulkner, McCullers, Welty-seemed obsessed with a racial past that would not let them go. They seemed to beg the question of their characters' humanity on every page. O'Connor's characters-whose humanity if not their sanity is taken for granted, and who are miserable, ugly, narrow-minded, atheistic, and of intense racial smugness and arrogance, with not a graceful, pretty one anywhere who is not, at the same time, a joke-shocked and delighted me.
It was for her description of Southern white women that I appreciated her work at first, because when she set her pen to them not a whiff of magnolia hovered in the air (and the tree itself might never have been planted), and yes, I could say, yes, these white folks without the magnolia (who are indifferent to the tree's existence), and these black folks without melons and superior racial patience, these are like Southerners that I know.
She was for me the first great modern writer from the South, and was, in any case, the only one I had read who wrote such sly, demythifying sentences about white women as: "The woman would be more or less pretty-yellow hair, fat ankles, muddy-colored eyes."
Her white male characters do not fare any better-all of them misfits, thieves, deformed madmen, idiot children, illiterates, and murderers, and her black characters, male and female, appear equally shallow, demented, and absurd. That she retained a certain distance (only, however, in her later, mature work) from the inner workings of her black characters seems to me all to her credit, since, by deliberately limiting her treatment of them to cover their observable demeanor and actions, she leaves them free, in the reader's imagination, to inhabit another landscape, another life, than the one she creates for them. This is a kind of grace many writers do not have when dealing with representatives of an oppressed people within a story, and their insistence on knowing everything, on being God, in fact, has burdened us with more stereotypes than we can ever hope to shed.
In her life, O'Connor was more casual. In a letter to her friend Robert Fitzgerald in the mid-'50s she wrote, "as the niggers say, I have the misery." He found nothing offensive, apparently, in including this unflattering (to O'Connor) statement in his Introduction to one of her books. O'Connor was then certain she was dying, and was in pain; one assumes she made this comment in an attempt at levity. Even so, I do not find it funny. In another letter she wrote shortly before she died she said: "Justice is justice and should not be appealed to along racial lines. The problem is not abstract for the Southerner, it's concrete: He sees it in terms of persons, not races-which way of seeing does away with easy answers." Of course this observation, though grand, does not apply to racist treatment of blacks by whites in the South, and O'Connor should have added that she spoke only for herself.
But essential O'Connor is not about race at all, which is why it is so refreshing, coming, as it does, out of such a racial culture. If it can be said to be "about" anything, then it is "about" prophets and prophecy, "about" revelation, and "about" the impact of supernatural grace on human beings who don't have a chance of spiritual growth without it.
ALICE WALKER is a writer and poet. She is the author of many books, most recently Possessing the Secret of Joy (Simon & Schuster, 1991) and a collaborative work, Warrior Marks (Harcourt Brace, 1993), with Pratibha Parmar.
Excerpts from "Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O'Connor" in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose, © 1975 by Alice Walker, reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace & Co.
Copyright 1995 Sojourners. December 1994 - January 1995 (Vol. 23, No. 10).