Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

On Flying Mules and the Southern Cabala: Flannery O'Connor and James Baldwin in Georgia

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

On Flying Mules and the Southern Cabala: Flannery O'Connor and James Baldwin in Georgia

Article excerpt

I believe that the truth of any subject only comes when all sides of the story are put together, and all their different readings make one new one. Each writer writes the missing parts of the other writer's story. And the whole story is what I'm alter.

--Alice Walker, "Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O'Connor" (1)

IN a letter often quoted by scholars, Flannery O'Connor responds to her friend Maryat Lee, a social activist and playwright living in New York, who wants to set up a meeting between O'Connor and James Baldwin:

No I can't see James Baldwin in Georgia. It would cause the greatest trouble and disturbance and disunion. In New York it would be nice to meet him: here it would not. I observe the traditions of the society I feed on--it's only fair. Might as well expect a mule to fly as me to see James Baldwin in Georgia. (April 25, 1959, CW 1094-95)

Although in 1959 Flannery O'Connor refused to meet James Baldwin in Georgia, her keen moral observations of southern manners, especially as they play out in relationships of power based on race, gender, and class, are oddly similar to his. By declining Lee's invitation, O'Connor shows herself to be bound to the manners of her cultural environment at a particular moment in history. O'Connor and Baldwin produced much of their major work in the years after Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), when the old southern manners, ritualized under segregation, were under siege. "At such a moment," writes Baldwin in "Faulkner and Desegregation" (1956), "one clings to what one knew, or thought one knew; to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed" (CE 209). Both authors were thus witness to white Southerners' nostalgia for the past and panic for the future at this moment of change, which involved, in Baldwin's words, "the breakup of the world" as they had always known it (CE 209). At the end of O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge," Julian, an adult son still living at home, lashes out in exasperation at his old-fashioned mother: "The old world is gone." Julian sees himself as progressive on racial issues and seeks to distance himself from his mother's worldview: "The old manners are obsolete and your graciousness is not worth a damn" (CW 499). In a rare interview O'Connor reluctantly consented to in June 1963, she confirms the value of southern manners: in the past they provided the formal structure and "social discipline" necessary under segregation for blacks and whites to interact harmoniously and extend to each other both "privacy" and "charity." According to O'Connor, a new set of manners will have to be developed to serve a similar function in the changing social landscape, and she notes that manners can never be legislated by a committee; they have to be worked out slowly over time among the people. (2)

Baldwin's commentary about white Southerners seems to describe many of O'Connor's fictional characters, as well as the society into which she was born and in which she remained immersed. "I talked to many Southern liberals," Baldwin writes at the end of his essay "Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South" (first published in 1959, the same year O'Connor wrote her letter), "who were doing their best to bring integration about in the South, but met scarcely a single Southerner who did not weep for the passing of the old order" (CE 207-08). Given that O'Connor was living among those very people, white Southerners who were weeping for that old order, it is understandable that she would hesitate to entertain Baldwin in Georgia. The idea of her hosting him there would be seen as a scandalous crossing of social boundaries. "It would cause the greatest trouble and disturbance and disunion." In O'Connor's mind, Lee, with a similar southern upbringing, should know better than to suggest such an impossible meeting. O'Connor responds with some humor to what she perceives as Lee's willful naivete by turning to the southern figure of speech, "when mules fly," akin to the more familiar "when pigs fly. …

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