“Her racial attitudes were uncharitable at best, and they showed up in her work.” It’s just a sentence but nothing has disturbed me more all week. It was in the Janet Maslin’s review of Flannery, Brad Gooch’s biography of Southern storyteller, Flannery O’Connor (NY Times, February 22, 2009). Even before I read her short stories or Wiseblood, I loved the idea of O’Connor; another writer from the south who even though writing about a specific region of America unfamiliar to most Americans, nailed a universal condition that the post colonial West Indian, The post Stalin Russian and the post (if you were lucky) dictatorship Latin American could all identify with. Had any other 20th century author so flirted with 19th century Gothic and still managed such a profoundly contemporary worldview? And yet here I was, seriously considering getting rid of her books.
It’s an old argument but not a tired one. What should a black reader do if he finds out that one of his favourite authors was racist? I made that question specific, because it’s too easy to weaken the idea by broadening it with something like, “what if an author/poet/artist/ musician turned out to have done something or believe in something that was anti you? What if he hated Jews? Indians? What if he used to hit women? Do we forget the artist and look at the art? After all, isn’t the reverse just another way that we read writers and not books? These questions are all valid, but who feels it knows it and it’s easy to dismiss a writer’s bigotry (alleged or no) when you’re not the one being bigoted against. It’s easy to look past a homophobic genius like Dylan Thomas if you’re not a homosexual.
It was easy to erase any trace of Jack London from my house after I heard his remarks about Jack Johnson. I had my doubts about Faulkner until I came upon him addressing those very doubts, in Ebony Magazine no less. O’Connor would be hard to ditch, but the world of literature is just too vast, too top heavy with brilliance for me not to find another heroine, and Nadine Gordimer is better any way. But as I said before, who feels it knows it. I wonder if I’m a hypocrite. Sure my shelves are free of Jack London because he might have hated blacks, but I have 7 novels from Knut Hamsun, a Norwegian writer so in love with the Nazi Party that he gave Joseph Goebbels his own Nobel medal. By ditching O’Connor and keeping Hamsun I become a hypocrite. Or at the very least I render near everything in the previous two paragraphs moot.
How do I justify Hamsun? Is prejudice only prejudice when it affects people like me? What do I tell my Jewish friends when/if they find Hamsun in my house? Turns out that it’s not so easy hating haters after all, especially when another NY Times review of Brad Gooch’s biography leads right into a review of my book, a factor that may have contributed to heightened interest in my own work. I wish this were easier. And I wish people would stop bandying about the love the art, hate the artist mantra and if such a thing weren’t intellectually dishonest. Sure we can appreciate the work of the despicable as long as their despicable acts do not affect us. My being expected to tolerate or even like Flannery O’Connor, or any other racist on the grounds of aesthetic excellence may be admirable in theory but it’s as ludicrous in practice as a Jewish person writing about the structural brilliance of Albert Speer. The problem with this of course is that if you start exhuming the dead and brilliant for their grievous character flaws, you’re going to find yourself neck deep in a lot of bones. Should I stop wearing Allure Homme because Coco Chanel was a Nazi Collaborator? It’s not long before you become appointed judge and jury of all, even if the court is in your own mind. We also end up cheating art. Once an artist, or writer or even dancer creates something it’s not really theirs anymore. I don’t have to stop reading O’Connor, because Wiseblood is no longer her book, nor can she control who reads and how he chooses to read it. Bruce Springsteen can’t control right wing nuts who fist-pump to Born in the USA anymore than Jack London could stop me from casting a black child in white fang. Art is ours even when we do not want it and it that sense it almost doesn’t matter who made it.
A black woman loving Wiseblood in spite of Flannery O’Connor is a better person than O’Connor ever was. In some ways the art lover is more crucial than the artist. The lover of art or literature by embracing art embraces the very best of that person, something that more often than not, the artist doesn’t deserve. It’s doesn’t mean that we should rewrite Leni Riefenstahl as Isak Denisen, but it does mean giving her books on Africa the acclaim they deserve. Besides, a world without A Good Man is Hard To Find is one I’d rather not live in.