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“A Moral Intelligence”: Mental Disability and Eugenic Resistance in Welty’s “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies” and O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”
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“A Moral Intelligence”:
Mental Disability and Eugenic Resistance in Welty’s “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies” and O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”

When Mr. Shiftlet, the one-armed itinerant of Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” attempts to convince Mrs. Crater, his would-be host, that he is useful despite his handicap, he argues against the existence of a link between physical ability and moral character: “There ain’t a broken thing on this plantation that I couldn’t fix for you, one-arm jackleg or not. I’m a man,” he says, “even if I ain’t a whole one. I got . . . a moral intelligence!” (149). Mr. Shiftlet’s declaration is savvy given his own condition and that of Mrs. Crater’s daughter, who has severe mental disabilities. In disputing a connection between physical fitness and moral competence, Mr. Shiftlet denies one of the central tenets of the eugenics movement, which was most influential in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century.

Privileging nature over nurture, eugenic ideology held that heredity determined both the biological and moral traits of the individual. This connection created a hierarchy in which moral intelligence correlated with physical wellness and separated the “fit” from the “unfit.” According to Edward J. Larson, national eugenic discourse was concerned with fortifying Caucasian racial purity, limiting the ills perpetuated by the [End Page 69] “degenerate and feeble-minded,” and preventing “dysgenic” marriages (1). In the purported interest of improving humanity, eugenicists sought to institutionalize people with mental disabilities and segregate them by sex in order to prevent reproduction. Later the emphasis shifted to promote the forced sterilization of the “unfit” (Larson 8). Within such a paradigm, marriage involving one partner with a mental disability was a eugenic worst-case scenario. The mentally disabled partner constituted a threat to communal morality, as would any potential offspring who might inherit the parent’s ethical and physical deficiencies and thus impede genetic improvement.

Eudora Welty’s “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies” and Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” both engage this “dysgenic” scenario. Written during and after the peak of eugenic influence in the United States, these texts feature the prospect of the marriage of a woman with mental disabilities. With this proximity in mind, I argue for reading Welty’s and O’Connor’s stories, written in 1937 and 1953 respectively, as two critiques of the eugenic rhetoric of human improvement. Here I will examine these stories within the historical and rhetorical context of the eugenics movement, particularly as it affected conceptions of moral intelligence and the significance of bloodlines in the U.S. South.

Historicizing Eugenic Ideology

The eugenics movement had its origin in England, and particularly in the work of Francis Galton, who, in 1883, coined the term eugenics, derived from the Greek for “well born” (Rosen 5). Inspired by the research of his cousin, Charles Darwin, Galton sought to understand how heredity, selection, and variation caused human development. He was eager to replace traditional religious narratives of creation and fallen humanity with secular conceptions of evolutionary progress. Galton believed giftedness was a family characteristic and thus advocated for governmental encouragement of marriages between socially ascendant men and women. These kinds of proposals were termed “positive eugenics,” as opposed to the “negative eugenics” strain developed by later proponents, which focused on preventing marriages between those deemed unfit (Larson 19). In eugenics, Galton saw the opportunity for science “quickly and kindly” to accomplish the improvements that Nature facilitated “slowly and ruthlessly” (qtd in Rosen 5). Galton’s work gained an audience in the United States, where the eugenics movement achieved its greatest influence between 1895 and 1945 (Larson 5). [End Page 70]

In the U.S., eugenics found a home among other so-called progressive reforms, which generally sought to solve social problems caused by urbanization and industrialism. Although progressive movements had various manifestations and ideological underpinnings, they shared a few common features. They tended to rely on interventionism, employ scientific expertise, and privilege efficiency and reason in addressing contemporaneous social...