[percy-l] Flannery O'Connor

Jim Forest jhforest at gmail.com
Sun Apr 11 15:53:34 EDT 2010

As Walker Percy readers are often admirers of the work of Flannery O'Connor,
let me attach this piece from Commentary. It's a year old but things like
this don't date.

Jim Forest

* * *

Commentary magazine / March 2009


*Believing in Flannery O’Connor*

by Terry Teachout

In 1952, the landscape of American fiction was dominated by a group of
literary celebrities who had published their first novels after or near the
end of World War II. James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Ralph
Ellison, Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Gore Vidal: these were the
up-and-comers about whom everyone was talking in the days when serious
fiction still mattered to the educated public, the ones who were expected to
do great things.

But while all of them are remembered today, none save Bellow came anywhere
near living up to his promise. And though the most consequential American
book of 1952 was undoubtedly Ellison’s Invisible Man, the year’s most
significant literary debut turns out in retrospect to have been a slender,
poorly reviewed novel about a half-crazed itinerant evangelist who preached
the gospel of the Church Without Christ, a book whose all-but-unknown author
was a young woman whose home was not New York but a small town in rural

It took a number of years for Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood to be
recognized as a modern classic, but once recognition came, it was decisive.
Today O’Connor, who died in 1964 at the age of 39, is generally acknowledged
as one of the foremost American fiction writers of the 20th century. Not
only has she emerged as a key figure in postwar American letters; she is by
far the most critically acclaimed of the many Catholic writers who came to
prominence in this country after World War II, as well as one of the most
widely read novelists, short-story writers, or poets to have been born in
the American South. As Brad Gooch points out in Flannery: A Life of Flannery
O’Connor (1) the first full-length biography of O’Connor, the Library of
America’s 1988 volume of her collected works “outsold [William] Faulkner’s,
published three years earlier.” (2)

That an author who published only two short novels and twenty stories (not
counting student work) in her lifetime should now be the subject of such
posthumous acclaim is the stuff reevaluations are made of. Might some of the
attention now being paid to O’Connor and her modest oeuvre arise from the
fact that she died so young? Or could it be that certain of her admirers are
going out of their way to praise a writer who — unlike the once-big literary
guns of the 50’s — was a woman?

Tempting though such mean-spirited speculation may be, it is misguided.
O’Connor’s laconic, formidably tough-minded novels and stories are fully as
good as their reputation, and vastly better than anything published by
Baldwin, Capote, Mailer, Salinger, or Vidal. After she died, Thomas Merton
wrote that “when I read Flannery O’Connor, I do not think of Hemingway, or
Katherine Anne Porter, or Sartre, but rather of someone like Sophocles.”
Though O’Connor herself would surely have scoffed at such praise, she is
among a bare handful of American writers, modern or otherwise, of whom such
a thing might plausibly be said.

But her reputation rests in part on a persistent misunderstanding. Unlike
most of the other major American novelists of the 20th century, O’Connor
wrote not as a more or less secular humanist but as a believer, a rigorously
orthodox Roman Catholic. Her fiction was permeated with religious language
and symbolism, and its underlying intent was in many cases specifically
spiritual. Yet most of O’Connor’s early critics failed to grasp her
intentions, and even now many younger readers are ignorant of the true
meaning of her work.


Brad Gooch’s excellent book is likely to clear up this misunderstanding once
and for all. Flannery: A Life is attractively written, thorough but not
obtrusively detailed and—most important — wholly to the point. Unlike much
of what has been published about O’Connor in recent years, it is the work of
a biographer whose goal is not to advocate or justify but simply to tell the
story of O’Connor’s too-short life and (insofar as possible) show how it was
mirrored in her fiction.

As Gooch makes clear, O’Connor’s religious beliefs were central to her art.
She was a “cradle Catholic,” one of the very few novelists of her generation
to have been born into the church rather than converting to Catholicism as
an adult, and she appears never to have weathered any crisis of faith. What
inspired her to write fiction, however, was not her own reasonably
straightforward relationship to the Catholic Church so much as the church’s
more complex relationship to the world around her.

Roman Catholicism has long been viewed with suspicion in the South, where
evangelical Protestantism in all its myriad varieties is woven into the
fabric of a culture that is, in O’Connor’s oft-quoted phrase,
“Christ-haunted.” O’Connor, on the other hand, was both a Catholic and an
intellectual, a pair of traits that set her as far apart from the common
life of rural Georgia as did the chronic illness that forced her to lead the
reclusive existence of a semi-invalid. (3)

Yet O’Connor, to her credit, took the homespun beliefs of her fellow
Southerners with the utmost seriousness. Even more surprisingly, she
regarded them with exceptional imaginative sympathy, seeking to portray in
her fiction the sometimes bizarre ways in which spiritual enthusiasm
manifested itself in the lives of people who, lacking an orthodoxy to guide
them, were forced to re-create the forms of religion from scratch. As she
explained in a 1959 letter:

“The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I
as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic. It’s full of
unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous religious
predicaments. They have nothing to correct their practical heresies and so
they work them out dramatically.”

Her sympathy, she added, arose from the fact that “I accept the same
fundamental doctrines of sin and redemption and judgment that they do.”

Hence the ambiguity of Wise Blood, a concisely picaresque novel about Hazel
Motes, an uneducated Southerner who longs to free himself from the
Christianity in which he was raised but “cannot get rid of his sense of debt
and his inner vision of Christ” (as O’Connor put it) and ends by blinding
himself in order to better “see” his inner vision of divine grace. What
gives Wise Blood its characteristic tone is that O’Connor plays Motes’s
desperate struggle for laughs — but without ever making the mistake of
viewing it, or him, with contempt.


O’Connor, as Wise Blood proves, was no run-of-the-mill religious novelist.
In addition to having a deeply philosophical turn of mind, she was a
thoroughgoing modernist who adhered no less devoutly to the Jamesian precept
to “dramatize, dramatize!” Moreover, her youthful reading of Jacques
Maritain, the Catholic philosopher who argued in Art and Scholasticism
(1930) that “the pure artist considered in the abstract as such ... is
something completely unmoral,” had persuaded her that the serious Catholic
fiction writer had no moral obligation to be preachy.

Between them, these two inclinations led O’Connor to write stories in which
religious faith (or its absence) and its effects on her characters were
portrayed with little or no explanatory authorial comment. Because these
stories are in the broadest sense comic — and because they portray a culture
of which most educated Americans of the 50’s knew little or nothing — it was
inevitable that they would be misunderstood by many of their first readers,
who wrongly pigeonholed their author as a purveyor of the same Southern
gothicism and grotesquery that they had previously encountered in such
novels as Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (1932) and Truman Capote’s Other
Voices, Other Rooms (1948).

To be sure, the undeniable brilliance of O’Connor’s writing won her
near-immediate acclaim from the American intelligentsia. Her cause was
promptly taken up by such noted editors and writers as Robert Giroux, Robert
Lowell, Katherine Anne Porter, and Philip Rahv, who published two excerpts
from Wise Blood in Partisan Review. But it soon became evident that some of
those who most admired her writing failed to grasp its point, and the
middlebrow publications of the day reviewed her with a blend of puzzlement
and disdain.

Typical of the critical response to O’Connor’s early work was Time’s
unsigned review of A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955), her first short-story
collection, in which sympathetic detachment was mistaken for cutting satire:

Georgia’s Flannery O’Connor has already learned to strip the acres of
clay-country individuality with the merciless efficiency of a cotton-picking
machine. ... The South that simpers, storms, and snivels in these pages
moves along a sort of up-to-date Tobacco Road, paved right into town.

O’Connor was unsurprised by such obtuseness. “I have found,” she wrote with
dry amusement, “that anything that comes out of the South is going to be
called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which
case it is going to be called realistic.” Yet it vexed her all the same, and
when Wise Blood was reissued in 1962, it was accompanied by a newly written
author’s note in which she called the book “a comic novel about a Christian
malgré lui.” (4)

Some of O’Connor’s friends were dismayed by her decision to speak so frankly
about the book’s religious implications, no doubt because many of them, as
Brad Gooch makes clear in Flannery, preferred not to believe that orthodox
belief was so salient an aspect of her work. Even the usually sympathetic
Gooch describes the note to Wise Blood as “rather heavy, and blunt.” By
then, however, it had become apparent to most of O’Connor’s critics that she
was writing from a specifically religious perspective, though only a few saw
that she identified herself with her Christ-haunted preachers and prophets.

Consider, for instance, the critical reception of The Violent Bear It Away
(1960), a dark and shocking short novel whose protagonist, Francis Tarwater,
is a fourteen-year-old boy torn between the crude but passionate
Protestantism of his great-uncle, an angry old man who believes himself to
be a prophet, and the bloodless secularism of his uncle, a school teacher
who longs to bring the boy “out of the darkness into the light.” Francis is
ignorant, willful, and violent, and there is nothing obviously sympathetic
about the way O’Connor describes him — but he has still been touched by
grace, and so she sides with him in his quest. “The modern reader will
identify himself with the school teacher,” she told a friend, “but it is the
old man who speaks for me.” Yet Time, though its reviewer sensed something
of O’Connor’s larger purpose, failed to perceive her sympathy, claiming that
the book showed “the secure believer poking bitter fun at the confused and

It was not until 1979, fifteen years after her death, that the full extent
of O’Connor’s orthodoxy became widely known. In that year a collection of
her letters, The Habit of Being, was published, revealing her to have been a
witty, engaging correspondent. (5) Paradoxically, it was The Habit of Being
that cemented O’Connor’s reputation, displaying her as a person in a way
that her fiction never does (though Flannery reveals that a considerable
amount of her private life made it onto the page, albeit in cryptic form).
But O’Connor also tore the veil of symbolism away from Wise Blood, The
Violent Bear It Away, and such widely anthologized stories as “A Good Man Is
Hard to Find,” writing with straightforward specificity about their
religious aspect.

After the publication of The Habit of Being, there was no longer any excuse
for readers to ignore or misinterpret the religious underpinnings of
O’Connor’s fiction, or to fail to take at face value her categorical
statement that “I write the way do because (not though) I am a Catholic. ...
The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or
less sentimental than Christian realism.” By then, though, O’Connor’s work
had taken on a life of its own, and to this day it remains common for
readers to assume that her comic portraits of Southern Protestantism are
hostile rather than sympathetic.


Therein lies the O’Connor “problem,” if problem it is. To what extent is her
fiction accessible to those who do not take its religious wellsprings
seriously? This is far more of a problem today than it was in the 50’s and
60’s, for American intellectual culture has lately become almost entirely
secularized, and it begs a hard question: Will O’Connor’s work survive only
by being misunderstood?

It is true that she has much to offer beyond her spirituality. O’Connor was
also a consummate craftsman whose stories are both beautifully wrought and
closely observed. A case in point is “Parker’s Back,” a story from
Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965), her second and last collection,
on which she was working at the time of her death. She describes a
small-town boy who sees a man covered with tattoos at a fair and immediately
undergoes something like a conversion experience:

Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he
saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything
out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed. Even then it did not
enter his head, but a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind
boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know
his destination had been changed.

In many of O’Connor’s best stories, “Parker’s Back” prominent among them,
the religious theme is so subtly dramatized that it can be overlooked by
casual readers unaware of the author’s larger purpose. Whatever else her
fiction is, it is not Catholic propaganda. (6) In the end, though, a
critical approach that denies or downplays O’Connor’s faith will necessarily
result in only a partial appreciation of her work. It is no more possible to
understand a book like Wise Blood without taking Catholicism seriously — if
only to reject it — than it is possible to understand the fiction of Isaac
Bashevis Singer without taking Judaism seriously.

The difference, of course, is that Singer viewed religion with reluctant
skepticism, O’Connor with unswerving certitude. As I once wrote in these

“O’Connor’s Christ-haunted characters differ profoundly from Singer’s
demon-infested Jews. In O’Connor, unbelievers living in a fallen world
tainted by modernity suddenly find themselves irradiated by grace, but, like
Hazel Motes ... they struggle in vain against its revelatory power. In
Singer’s world, by contrast, there are no sudden revelations, only the
unquenchable desire to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that
life has meaning.” (7)

Might O’Connor’s faith cause the brilliance of her art to fade in an age of
increasingly militant secularism whose cultural tastemakers do not share her
beliefs? The fact that her reputation has continued to grow when so many of
her contemporaries have become critical also-rans says something about her
staying power. Yet there have always been doubters. In 1972, O’Connor was
posthumously given the National Book Award for an omnibus volume of her
complete stories. Robert Giroux, her longtime editor, was accosted at the
ceremony by a dubious colleague who asked, “Do you really think Flannery
O’Connor was a great writer? She’s such a Roman Catholic.”

It will be interesting—and revealing—to see whether that question is asked
with increasing frequency in the years to come.


1 Little, Brown, 416 pp., $30.00.

2 Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works contains all of O’Connor’s published
fiction and a generous sampling of her essays and letters (Library of
America, $35).

3 Throughout her adult life O’Connor suffered from lupus, a physically
debilitating autoimmune disease that ultimately led to her death.

4 That is, a believer in spite of himself. The reference is to Molière, the
greatest of comic playwrights, and his play The Physician In Spite of
Himself (Le médecin malgré lui).

5 Most of the letters originally published in The Habit of Being are
included in Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works, along with 21 additional
unpublished letters.

6 Nor is it conservative in any meaningful sense of the word, though critics
on the Right have long warmed to the savagely funny parodies of liberal
humanism that are found in The Violent Bear It Away and such stories as
“Good Country People” (from A Good Man Is Hard to Find) and “The Lame Shall
Enter First” (from Everything That Rises Must Converge). O’Connor’s
“conservatism,” such as it was, was exclusively religious in its
orientation. She had no political interests of any kind beyond a
Southerner’s understandable interest in racial segregation (which she

7 “I.B. Singer and Me,” COMMENTARY, September 2004.

* * *

About the Author: Terry Teachout, COMMENTARY’s chief culture critic and the
drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, is the author of Pops: The Life of
Louis Armstrong, out this fall from Harcourt, and the libretto for The
Letter, an opera by Paul Moravec that will be premiered in July by the Santa
Fe Opera.

* * *

Jim & Nancy Forest
Kanisstraat 5
1811 GJ Alkmaar
The Netherlands

photos: www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/collections/
Jim & Nancy web site: www.jimandnancyforest.com
Forest-Flier Editorial Services: http://www.forestflier.com/
In Communion site: www.incommunion.org

On Pilgrimage blog:

A Tale of Two Kidneys blog:

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