Where to Begin with Flannery O’Connor

by | May 14, 2019 | Classics, Uncategorized

Common Themes: Flannery O’Connor, Christianity, Catholic, evil, literature, American culture, short stories, Southern, humor, horror, post-world war II, 1950’s

Authors Worldview: Catholic

Common Genres: short story, novel, letters

By: Courtney Guest Kim

There’s a famous person in the Bible who provoked nice people to complain, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  The same could be said of Flannery O’Connor.  She’s known as a Catholic writer, but the sort of Catholics who have no sense of evil don’t like Flannery much, especially when they find out that she recommended avoiding devotional literature.  If you’ve never perceived evil in your vicinity—the petty kind, with no glamor to make it titillating—don’t bother reading her stories.  You won’t understand why she’s supposed to be such a great writer, and you’ll walk away indignant at the unpleasant things she describes.

Cracking a book of Flannery O’Connor stories is like opening a bottle of single barrel,  handcrafted, sour mash, whiskey straight bourbon.  If you’ve never tried it before, you may be shocked at the punch it packs, and astonished at the complexity of the flavors.  This is not something you take with you to the beach, or that you consume at one sitting.  Sip slowly, and reserve for special occasions: the sort of occasions when your back is to the wall, and the pall mantles your shoulders.  When the miasma of falsehood suffocates you, and you gag on ready-made answers to questions you’re not asking—then reach for her.  She will brace you and ease the burden for a while.  She’ll make you laugh out loud too, without quite knowing how that can be possible.

O’Connor was twenty-one years old when she walked into the office of Prof. Engle at the State University of Iowa, in 1946.  Her Milledgeville, Georgia accent was so thick that he could not understand what she was saying and had to ask her to write down her name and request on a notepad.  But her writing sample was “imaginative, tough, alive,” so he accepted her into the Writer’s Workshop.  In 1947 she was awarded a prize offered by a publisher for a first novel, and for three short years she enjoyed both literary success and good health.  Then in 1950 she was stricken with lupus, the disease that her father had died of.  She retired to her mother’s house outside Milledgeville and continued to write and to publish until her death in 1964.  Thomas Merton compared her to “Sophocles… for all the truth and all the craft with which she shows man’s fall and his dishonor” (“Flannery O’Connor: A Prose Elegy,” in The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton).  Flannery herself prefaced her work by saying: “That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence.”

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If you’re intrigued, but a little concerned about how to handle an intense Southerner with an unpredictable sense of humor and a tendency to delve into dark places, the Modern Spiritual Masters Series is an excellent place to begin, with Flannery O’Connor: Spiritual Writings.  The editor, Robert Ellsberg does a fine job juxtaposing excerpts from her fiction with selections from her personal correspondence to show what she’s aiming to create, and how she goes about it.  He also situates her writing in relation to her context.  It’s her vantage point at a specific moment in American history that makes her work important still.

World War II had morphed seamlessly into the Cold War.  While the democracies demobilized, the Soviets pressed forward, aiming for world domination.  On Friday, February 21, 1947, an exhausted Great Britain passed the baton of freedom to the United States with a blue piece of paper addressed to Secretary of State, General Marshall, expressing His Majesty’s Government’s devout hope that the United States could assume the burden in Greece and Turkey.  On March 12, 1947, the President officially stated the Truman Doctrine, declaring as essential to American policy “the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free of coercion.”  Americans rolled out of bed, caught five hundred years’ worth of pulverized post-colonial world in their arms, and realized they were a superpower.

Just at that moment, morality was going out of style.  Intellectual elites were going atheist.  Evangelism was going mass market.  Flannery was not the only American novelist who was worried about this conjunction of events, but she’s the only one who believed in redemption, and who had one foot in small town America, one foot in a New York publishing house, right when the population was tipping from rural to urban.

Who were these people who were supposed to assure the creation of conditions for a world free of coercion?  Flannery will show you… with some horror and some humor.  Anyone who is interested in the peculiarities of the American mentality should take a look through her microscope.  Is she showing you the belly of the Beast?  Is she showing you a warm, generous, palpitating heart?  Flannery dissected the Devil for a generation that was busy explaining evil away.  She parsed the grace of God for people who were pretty confident they didn’t need it.  She fought a valiant last stand against cultural insanity as a Southerner with polite habits and no illusions.  She perceived God at work in grotesque places.  Was she right?  I hope so.