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Understanding Flannery O’Connor: A Review Article

Danny E. Olinger

Flannery, by Brad Gooch. New York: Little, Brown, 2009, 448 pages, $8.89, paper.

The Terrible Speed of Mercy, by Jonathan Rogers. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012, xviii + 189 Pages, $9.99, Paper.

In June 1952, the month following the publication of her debut novel Wise Blood, twenty-seven year-old Flannery O’Connor learned that she was suffering from lupus erythematosus, the autoimmune disease that had killed her father in his mid-forties. Physically limited by both the disease and its side effects, she lived with her mother on the family farm, Andalusia, in Milledgeville, Georgia, the remaining twelve years of her life. Undeterred by her diminishing health she made it her practice to write two hours every day producing one more novel (The Violent Bear It Away) and two volumes of short stories (A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything that Rises Must Converge). When she died in 1964, her literary reputation was firmly established, but nowhere near its current status. O’Connor is now widely praised as one of the great writers of the twentieth century; some even consider her the most important Christian writer that the United States has ever produced. Nearly two hundred doctoral dissertations and over seventy books have been written about O’Connor; since 1972, her alma mater, the now Georgia College, has operated the Flannery O’Connor Review, which annually publishes critical pieces regarding her writings. Two new biographies, Brad Gooch’s Flannery and Jonathan Rogers’s The Terrible Speed of Mercy, reflect the growing interest in O’Connor and add to the understanding of her and her work.

At 448 pages, Gooch’s Flannery is professional, impeccably researched, and well-written. It will undoubtedly serve as the standard for straight biographical information on O’Connor, her life, influences, and relationships. However, it is also not terribly exciting. Gooch seems to acknowledge this in the epigraph where he places O’Connor’s declaration, “As for biographies, there won’t be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.”

Gooch recognizes that the dominant influence in O’Connor’s writing—as well as in her life—was the Roman Catholic Church. After rising daily at 6 a.m. to pray, O’Connor rarely, if ever, missed morning mass, and her practice at bedtime was to read twenty minutes of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. When confronted with the claims of modernism at the then Georgia State College for Women, O’Connor claimed that it was her Christian faith that preserved her, “I always said: wait, don’t bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read” (114).

In graduate school at the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, O’Connor marked up heavily French Catholic Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, particularly his statement, “Do not make the absurd attempt to sever in yourself the artist and the Christian” (156). O’Connor took as her creed Maritain’s contention that the job of the Christian writer was pure devotion to craft, to telling strong stories, even if the stories involved the undesirables of culture.

O’Connor was also in the words of a friend a “demon rewriter” (145). O’Connor remarked, “When I sit down to write, a monstrous reader looms up who sits down beside me and continually mutters, ‘I don’t get it, I don’t see it, I don’t want it.’ Some writers can ignore this presence, but I have never learned how” (86). Her eventual publisher, Robert Giroux, took a chance and signed O’Connor as an author because he thought “this woman is so committed, as a writer, she’ll do whatever she’s made up her mind to do” (172).

Surprisingly, Gooch stays away for the most part from interpreting O’Connor’s fiction other than giving a summary statement or relating how a real life experience affected a story. Gooch relates, for example, that, while staying at the home of Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, O’Connor had reached an impasse in the development of the character of Hazel Motes in Wise Blood. Her solution in moving forward came from reading a copy of Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. Just as Oedipus had blinded himself in recognition of his sins, she had Motes remove the mote in his own eye by blinding himself with quicklime. Gooch observes this pattern would often be repeated in O’Connor’s fiction, the use of the grotesque to convey a shocking Christian vision of original sin.

Regarding O’Connor’s acclaimed short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Gooch notes Giroux’s reaction upon first reading it, “I thought, this is one of the greatest short stories ever written in the United States. It’s equal to Hemingway, or Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener.’ And it absolutely put her on the map” (227). Gooch, however, never goes into detail on what made “A Good Man is Hard to Find” so exceptional. He simply says that the Misfit is a prophet of existential nihilism far more harrowing than Hazel Motes, and quotes a friend of O’Connor’s who believed that the grandmother was a version of O’Connor’s mother, Regina. This is the pattern that Gooch uses throughout the book. He provides interesting background material, but at the same time maintains a critical distance.

Jonathan Rogers acknowledges openly that his biography covers much of the same ground as Gooch’s biography. The difference, according to Rogers, is that his interest is in exploring the spiritual themes in O’Connor’s writings, which Gooch does not emphasize. The question is whether Rogers has included enough new material to distance himself from Gooch’s volume. In reading the biographies back to back, the amount of overlap was painfully obvious for the first third of Rogers’s volume. Thankfully, once Rogers gets to Wise Blood, the book starts to pick up speed, although it never really takes off as it should.

Rogers argues that what occurs in every O’Connor story is that a person must face the truth that he or she is accountable before the living God. In Wise Blood, Hazel Motes seeks to deny this truth, but Jesus proves to be a wild, ragged figure moving from tree to tree in the back of Motes’s mind. Motes cannot escape the conviction that Jesus had redeemed him, and, in the end, Jesus wins.[1] Deformed as he was by original sin, it was not something that Motes did that brought him to Jesus. It was only the grace of God, but the way that grace appeared was scandalous. That to Rogers is the essence of O’Connor’s writing. She will offend conventional morality because the gospel itself is an offence to conventional morality.

In analyzing The Violent Bear It Away, Rogers makes the case that this book represents O’Connor distilled and fortified. In the long opening sentence, fourteen year old Francis Marion Tarwater is drunk, haunted by his dead uncle who remains seated at the breakfast table. A Negro passing by to get his jug filled—the boy and his uncle being moonshiners—has to finish digging the grave, drag the body from the table, and bury the body in a decent and Christian way, with the sight of its Savior at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up. The combination of the sign of the Savior juxtaposed with sniffing dogs looking to uncover an old man’s rotting flesh is a capsule of O’Connor’s fiction as a whole. It is a picture of this world at its ugliest, but overshadowed by the grace of God.

O’Connor herself commented that the story was about the boy’s struggle not to be a prophet, which he loses. In that sense, Rogers observes that Francis Marion Tarwater is yet another Protestant prophet tormented by “wise blood,” the visceral hunger for the holy (133). Much like Hazel Motes, Francis Tarwater’s tenuous grasp of reality does not change the fact that ultimate realities have a firm grasp on him and will not let him go.

Rogers finishes the volume by briefly commenting upon the stories that would comprise O’Connor’s posthumous volume, “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” and with a concluding chapter on the rapid deterioration of her health and death in August 1964.

Rogers’s style is not as smooth as Gooch’s, and the editing is a little inconsistent. Still, Roger’s biography is helpful in filling out the picture of O’Connor’s spirituality in her life and writings. Rogers’s fundamental insight about O’Connor’s writings, that she saw a broken world that was beyond self-help or instant uplift, alone distinguishes his book from many of the critical theories regarding O’Connor and her literature that would undoubtedly horrify the author if she were still alive.[2]

However, for those who desire to supplement Rogers (and Gooch) with a fuller understanding and appreciation of O’Connor’s fiction, a number of helpful books still remain in print or are available online through Amazon.com or other used book stores. The single best book on Flannery O’Connor’s literature remains Ralph Wood’s Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South.[3] Not as well-known by Wood, but also extremely helpful in understanding O’Connor’s writing, is his Comedy of Redemption,  in which he devotes two chapters to O’Connor as a satirist of the negative way and comedian of positive grace. The later chapter contains perhaps the best defense against charges of racism against O’Connor. Wood argues that O’Connor’s

concern with divine mercy explains her refusal to give the standard moralistic account of black-white relations. Only because God’s justice is not primarily wrath but forgiveness can human injustice also be made redemptive rather than destructive.[4]

Wood’s “From Fashionable Tolerance to Unfashionable Redemption” in Harold Bloom’s excellent anthology, Flannery O’Connor, is also very valuable. There Wood argues that O’Connor’s work must be understood as religious to the core. “The single religious concern woven through the tapestry of the entire O’Connor oeuvre,” says Wood, “is that the heedless secularity of the modern world deserves a withering judgment.”[5]

Bloom’s volume also includes two chapters from O’Connor’s close friend and literary executor, Robert Fitzgerald, which are “must reads” when it comes to O’Connor’s writings. The first “The Countryside and the True Country” analyzes O’Connor’s short story “The Displaced Person” and it gives a seminal insight into O’Connor’s writing.[6] According to Fitzgerald, O’Connor’s stories are always pointing beyond the visual to the unseen, beyond even the pastoral to the yet realized. This, according to Fitzgerald, energizes O’Connor’s writing with a Pauline quality that does not abide the religiously lukewarm. Almost all of her characters consequently are displaced, whether they realize it or not.

Fitzgerald’s second article, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” shows that while O’Connor did parody certain philosophies like existentialism, the parodies were quite serious.[7] That is, she gave godlessness a force proportionate to what it actually has—Hazel Motes preaches with passion what the world believes—nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar. The pushing back of belief, then, must be as violent as the force pushing against it.[8] Fitzgerald maintains, then, that the humility of her style is deceptive for “the true range of her stories is vertical and Dantesque in what is taken in, in scale of implication.”[9]

One reason such commentators as Wood and Fitzgerald are so helpful is that they allow O’Connor to speak for herself in her literature, and also in her lectures, letters, and interviews that have been collected and preserved. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald selected and edited O’Connor’s occasional prose for Mystery and Manners,[10] and Sally Fitzgerald did the same for O’Connor’s letters, Habit of Being.[11] Conversations with Flannery O’Connor is also a wonderful collection of print interviews with O’Connor.[12] What O’Connor makes apparent throughout is that the character of her books and short stories is Christian. She wrote the way that she did because of her faith, not in spite of it, and that, combined with a gift for language and storytelling, has resulted in a literary corpus that is remarkable for its power and insight.

Endnotes

[1] Although Rogers communicates this theme from Wise Blood clearly, the line “in the end, Jesus wins” is not found in his biography. Reportedly, this is what producer Michael Fitzgerald, son of Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, told director John Huston that the book was about in the 1979 filming of Wise Blood as a movie. Francine Prose recalls the episode:

In the preface to the second edition of Wise Blood, O’Connor made her novel’s stance toward the life-and-death nature of Christianity unmistakably clear, even for those readers who saw the story’s grotesqueness without quite catching its gravity. Huston himself seems to have been one such reader, persuaded throughout the filming of the unmediated comedy of Hazel’s obsession, until [Brad] Dourif questioned him about the meaning of the last scenes. Without giving anything away, it seems safe to say that the dark plot turns considerably darker as Hazel, the prophet of the Church Without Christ—“where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way”—takes an exceedingly sharp turn toward Jesus. The Fitzgeralds had believed all along that they were making a film about redemption and salvation, but Huston had been under the impression that he was shooting a picture about the semi-ridiculous religious manias prevalent throughout the South. According to Huston biographer Lawrence Grobel, a hasty script conference about Hazel’s faith persuaded Huston that at “the end of the film, Jesus wins.” See, Francine Prose, Wise Blood: A Matter of Life and Death in the Criterion Collection, May 11, 2009.

[2] As one example of many, see Flannery O’Connor: New Perspectives, edited by S. Rath and M. Shaw (University of Georgia Press, 1986). The editors state that the book’s aim is to offer new directions and insights into reading O’Connor’s fiction in light of new critical insights from gender studies, rhetorical theory, dialogism, and psychoanalysis. The articles, at least to this reader, are dreadful and already outdated, as literary theories from the decade of the eighties have shifted to new paradigms.

[3] Ralph C. Wood, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). See Danny E. Olinger’s review of this book in Ordained Servant 16 (2007): 124.

[4] Ralph C. Wood, The Comedy of Redemption (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 132.

[5] Harold Bloom, ed., Modern Critrical Views: Flannery O’Connor (New York: Chelsea House, 1986), 55.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] O’Connor’s passion for this belief is seen in her adopting the Douay translation and its reading of Matthew 11:12 for the title of her second book, The Violent Bear it Away.

[9] Bloom, Modern Critical Views, 35.

[10] Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, eds., Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970).

[11] Sally Fitzgerald, ed., Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988).

[12] Rosemary M. Magee, ed., Conversations with Flannery O’Connor (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1987).

Danny E. Olinger is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2013.

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