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Radical Ambivalence:
Race in Flannery O’Connor
by angela alaimo o’donnell
fordham, 192 pages, $30

In 1974, ten years after Flannery O’Connor died, Alice Walker visited O’Connor’s farm in Georgia. It was located minutes from the sharecropper shack where Walker had once lived. ­Walker had read O’Connor voraciously, but put her stories away when she discovered other writers, whom she had never heard of—black, Southern, religious writers who were not being celebrated and taught. She felt “almost ashamed,” Walker recalled, that O’Connor “had reached [her] first.” But in time, Walker realized she “would never be satisfied with a segregated literature.” Her library came to include Zora Neale ­Hurston and Flannery O’Connor, Nella Larsen and Carson McCullers, Jean Toomer and William Faulkner.

Critics indict O’Connor for not writing more explicitly about race. Eudora Welty responded to the assassination of Medgar Evers by publishing “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” Walker Percy wrote essays expressing outrage toward white segregationists. O’Connor was ­quieter and more ambivalent. “The topical is poison . . .” she wrote, “I say a plague on everybody’s house as far as the race business goes.” Walker did not have access to O’Connor’s letters, in which this statement appeared, but she defends O’Connor’s fiction nonetheless: “I believe that the truth about any subject only comes when all sides of the story are put together. . . . And the whole story is what I’m after.”

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