The Red Scare of the 1940s and 50s is long past, but the raw feelings behind it still echo to this day.
This was evident at “The Lowell Affair: Catholics, Communists, and Yaddo’s Red Scare,” a panel discussion held at Lowenstein Center’s Pope Auditorium at the Lincoln Center campus on Wednesday, Oct. 29.
The discussion focused on the interplay of faith, art and politics in the Cold-War era that took place when in February 1949, poet Robert Lowell accused his fellow artists at Yaddo, a retreat in Saratoga Springs, of harboring communists. The ensuing imbroglio pitted Lowell and several others against members of the literary left and served as a precursor to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s nationwide anti-communist campaign.
The panelists agreed that mental illness was responsible for most of Lowell’s behavior, many of his actions were explained away as either political or religious awakenings. But there was sharp disagreement over the actions of one of his fellow artists, Flannery O’Connor.
Steven Gould Axelrod, Ph.D., professor of English at the University of California at Riverside and Paul Elie, a senior editor with Farrar, Straus and Giroux and author of The Life You May Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, got into a heated disagreement over the culpability of O’Connor in a paranoia-driven anti-Communist investigation that was set into motion by an FBI inquiry of Yaddo alumna Agnes Smedley and that resulted in the temporary suspension of the head of the colony.
“Do you have any quotations or documents of Flannery O’Connor’s anti-communism?” Elie asked Axelrod, in response to Axelrod’s assertion that she was more than a mere onlooker.
“I think they were frightened and confused, and Lowell seemed to know what he was doing and have a way out for everybody, so they seized it,” Axelrod, said. “The more I think about it, the more I sort of feel that everybody was a victim of a cultural psychosis that was going on.”
Eli refused to accept Axelrod’s explanation that Lowell had been permitted to speak for all of the guests at the retreat, which is still in operation in Saratoga Springs.
“I’m going to ask again; do you have any, what words of Flannery O’Connor’s could you cite to support the position that she was an anti-communist?” he asked. “I haven’t encountered evidence that she herself was an anti-communist in the way that you just asserted. “Isn’t that the same kind of argument that people made at that time, that just by being at Yaddo you were a facilitator; insinuation based on slander?”
Moderator Micki McGee Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at Fordham University, who also invited author Saskia Hamilton and Yaddo director of foundation and corporate relations Vince Passero to the panel, then volunteered her experience editing Yaddo: Making American Culture (Columbia University Press, 2008) and organizing an exhibition about it for the New York Public Library.
“One of the most puzzling documents I came across in the archive is one of the petitions signed by the folks that I call the Lowell Four, and O’Connor’s name is crossed off. Her name is crossed of in pencil. It’s blacked out. And the first time I saw that, I wondered who did that? You can’t really tell who has redacted Flannery O’Connor’s name,” she said.
“Ruth Price, who wrote the essay for the volume about this for [my]book, she’s an expert on Agnes Smedley, comments that she felt that Flannery didn’t have the heart for it; she just didn’t have the heart for this battle, that it wasn’t really her battle, but perhaps, taken as she was with Lowell, as Vince Passaro has hypothesized tonight, that she may have been kind of carried away on the train, so to speak, around this. But then your description, Paul, where she’s a very forceful and self determining young woman bespeaks another version of Flannery. My sense is that there are many versions of Flannery O’Connor that are at play here.”
The panel was sponsored by the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies.