LONDON, ONTARIO – The American short story writer and novelist, Flannery O’Connor (1925-64), was always ready to joke about her Catholic faith and the apparently crazy things it drew out of her and made her do. She knew there were times others bristled at the depths of her convictions, and would attempt to head them off at the pass, proclaiming, "You shall know the truth, and it will make you odd." But she wasn’t prepared to soft-pedal (let alone deny) her faith for the sake of keeping any social exchange pleasant; not even one that could advance her literary career if she played her conversational cards diplomatically. Her epistolary account of how she stunk out the joint at a salon-type evening at Mary McCarthy’s is one of the highlights of her collected letters, entitled, The Habit of Being:
“I was once, five or six years ago [this would make her about 25] taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband . . . She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say . . . Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. [Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the centre of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”
In his one hour documentary, Flannery O’Connor: The Storyteller, Bishop Robert Barron of the Word on Fire Institute, comments on this courageous declaration that it should never be interpreted as the frightened utterance of some threatened literalist who was pooh-poohing the value of symbolism. Though only two collections of short stories (A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge) and two novels (Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away) appeared in her short lifetime, O’Connor is universally hailed as one of the finest American writers of the 20th century. This singularly accomplished artist had no lack of appreciation for the power and the value of symbolism and metaphor and analogy and all the other tools in a writer’s chest.
She would be the last person in the world to deny the utility and importance of symbolism. But even in the face of social ruination, she would not demote the dreadful and demanding primacy of faith to the level of an intellectual comfort or conceit. She knew full well the sort of mediocre cesspool where that sort of sloppy thinking led: "One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is our own sweet invention."
Or, as she put it more succinctly on another occasion: "What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross."
A bit of an anomaly from birth, Flannery O’Connor was the only child of devout Catholic parents in Savannah, Georgia; a region of the southern United States which many would designate as the centermost buckle of the Protestant bible belt. Catholics weren’t so thin on the ground that they didn’t have their own churches scattered here and there (and some of them quite handsome) but they were members of a poor minority, rarely able to rise in Georgia society, and were generally regarded as pretty rare birds – like the peacocks which O’Connor raised at Andalusia, the family’s rural home where her widowed mother ran a dairy farm.
O’Connor also briefly raised swans and at the age of five, she somehow taught a chicken to walk backwards; an amazing feat which aroused such interest that a Pathe film crew was dispatched to record the maneuver for one of their newsreel presentations that were screened in theatres along with previews and cartoons before the big feature. The girl’s prize chicken, however, pulled a Norma Desmond on the day the Pathe crew arrived and refused to perform its amazing trick on cue; a reticence which the impatient director overcame (in a 1930 instance of ‘fake news’) by simply running the footage backwards for that section of his report.
After her death from lupus (a debilitating and intractable disease which she contracted from her father who died when O’Connor was fifteen) the peacock became her personal emblem. In some form or other – fan open and radiantly splayed or trailing behind like an exotic bridal train – a peacock is invariably worked into her book jackets and other illustrative commemorations such as postage stamps.
In a touching photograph by Joe McTyre of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, O’Connor stands supported by long aluminum crutches on the front steps of Andalusia in a dark summer dress. Her face is slightly puffy from the steroid medications she was taking and her wing-tipped glasses (which she never would trade in for something more stylish or flattering) further accentuate her owlish face. Her crutches are pointing backwards and outwards ever-so-slightly and this stance mirrors, almost perfectly, a curious and confident peacock who approaches along the top step with his own protruding tail feathers and long white quills scritching over the bricks.
McTyre's photo also illustrates what O'Connor was getting at when she joked to one of her correspondent that when she was standing around on those crutches, they made her look like "a structure with flying buttresses."
Like many other writers, O’Connor had dreamed as a young woman of fleeing that corner of the country where she was born and making a name for herself elsewhere. As a university student who won residencies at prestigious writers’ workshops in Iowa and at Yaddo and landed early stories in the best quarterlies and journals, all that seemed to be coming together for her. But she had no sooner finished the final draft of her first novel, Wise Blood, over the winter of 1950/51 then it became clear that her lithe body was being stiffened and wracked, her energy sharply depleted (allowing her, at most, three hours a day for writing) and her horizons radically diminished by the very same disease that had carried away her father ten years before.
Living on her own, significant travelling, marrying and having children or even contemplating some sort of romance . . . all of that was suddenly and permanently placed beyond her reach. At the age of twenty-five and perched on the brink of what promised to be a brilliant career, she had to place herself in the full time care of her decidedly practical and woefully unimaginative mother. Regina O’Connor devotedly loved Flannery and wanted the best for her in her chosen career but couldn’t really understand or appreciate what she was up to. Regina became infamous among Flannery’s many visiting colleagues and friends for taking them aside while her daughter was having a restorative nap and asking if there was anything they could do to persuade her to write nicer and more cheerful stories.
Mother and daughter would chat together over breakfast every day with the local newspaper close to hand to provide conversational grist and, quite often, details and ideas for Flannery’s stories. Regina encouraged friends to drop around and even stay over for a few days - which meant that she would be operating a restaurant and inn as well as a dairy farm - knowing that it did Flannery good to spark ideas with people who really shared her interests. Stubborn and conventional as she undoubtedly was, Regina nearly always had the grace to honour Flannery’s work; taking care to not burden her with any concerns that might fog up her mind and leaving her to it during those few productive hours each day.
No small part of what makes Flannery O’Connor such a compelling figure is her apparently serene acceptance of a fate that seems so pitiless; the pleasures and satisfactions she derives in circumstances so reduced. In a 1953 letter to the poet, Robert Lowell, O’Connor writes: “I am making out fine in spite of any conflicting stories . . . I have enough energy to write with and as that is all I have any business doing anyhow, I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing. What you have to measure out, you come to observe more closely, or so I tell myself.”
In 1979, O’Connor’s good friend Sally Fitzgerald published the magnificent collection of O’Connor’s letters, The Habit of Being, which admirably serves as the autobiography which she never had the time to write. In her introduction to that bumper collection of nearly six hundred pages which she compiled and edited over fifteen years, Fitzgerald offers this last word on the relationship between Miss and Mrs. O’Connor:
“On the subject of Mrs. O’Connor herself, I can report a remark that Flannery made to me the last time I talked to her. She told me that she had fully come to terms with her confinement and with the physical danger in which she lived; that she had, in fact, only one great fear – that her mother would die before she did. ‘I don’t know,’ she said, ‘what I would do without her.’ The letters themselves are full of Mrs. O’Connor; she is quoted, referred to, relished and admired, joked with and about, altogether clearly loved.”
Indeed, for those who find it hard to make much headway with Flannery O’Connor’s fiction which can seem so coarse and brutal to the uninitiated, these letters smooth the path admirably, acclimatizing you to her droll southern humour and her unfailing eye for a telling detail, her generosity of spirit and steady good nature and her courageous determination to state a thing as she sees it. Herewith, a few of my favourite observations plucked from The Habit of Being:
"Writing is like giving birth to a piano sideways. Anyone who perseveres is either talented or nuts."
“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”
"You have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it."
"Total non-retention has kept my education from being a burden to me."
"To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility."
And, of course, ‘Truth’ with a capital ‘T’ brings us back to Flannery O’Connor’s faith. She read widely and deeply in theological works and jokingly identified herself as a “hillbilly Thomist”. She was, I would say, about as thorough-going a Catholic as ever drew breath and seems never to have entertained a moment of serious doubt.
In Brad Gooch’s superb 2009 biography of O’Connor, Flannery, one of her childhood friends recalls Flannery at the age of six choosing to pass on the special children’s mass in the basement of the cathedral and instead attend the un-watered-down Mass upstairs a couple hours later with her parents. Challenged by one of the nuns at her parochial school the next Monday morning about her attendance, this friend recalls, “She’d stand there and tell sister, ‘The Catholic Church does not dictate to my family what time I go to Mass.’ I was five and she was six and I knew she was different.”
Notre Dame philosophy professor (and author of the Father Dowling mysteries) Ralph McInerny identified what puzzles and puts off many people when they first read O’Connor’s fiction: “If she was a Catholic author, if her writing was influenced by her faith, O’Connor almost never chose Catholic subjects for her stories. Her characters are the underclass of the South, most of them haunted by a fundamentalist, Bible-thumping, evangelical Christianity. Her ability imaginatively to occupy the outlook of men and women and children almost retarded in their simplicity is equaled only by Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men.”
In that same documentary on O’Connor that I mentioned above, Bishop Barron likened the menacingly unreflective simplicity of so many of her characters to the pathetically endearing thugs who populate the movies of the Coen Brothers; the kind of instinct-driven brutes who avidly chow down on a stack of syrup-smothered flapjacks at the International House of Pancakes before cramming somebody’s bodily remains through the gummy portal atop the shredding gears of a wood-chipper.
It often puzzled readers why O’Connor always peopled her blackly comic and sometimes outrageously violent tales with manic and even unhinged Protestants. A fan once wrote to her asking why it was that, though she had been a Catholic all of her life and all of her writing was drenched in Christian imagery and themes, her weird and grotesque characters, from the most secretive brooders to the most raving fanatics, were invariably Protestants. O’Connor answered:
“To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief, you join the convent and are heard from no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe anything much at all down on your head. This is why I can write about Protestant believers better than Catholic believers – because they express their belief in diverse kinds of dramatic action which is obvious enough for me catch.”
O’Connor found that the unchanging creed and the rich multi-formity of Catholic worship had a way of accommodating, transforming or answering almost any dilemma that a Catholic might encounter in the course of life. And wonderfully reassuring and sustaining as this was for her personally, it didn’t make for the kind of drama O’Connor required in her stories. Stark old Protestantism on the other hand, was always drawing such props and traditions out of the way, changing the rules of membership and tweaking their beliefs to align them with a shifting social/moral consensus and thus throwing its adherents back onto nothing more than the vitality of his or her own private relationship with God at this very moment. In short, both churches had God-crazed zealots to contend with but the Catholics had ways and means of constructively containing theirs.
In Flannery O’Connor’s single most celebrated short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find, a horrible controlling grandmother inadvertently leads her family to their hideously violent doom. This snobby, bossy busybody, always wanting things her way and fretting about how things will look to others, is only able to escape the spinning hamster’s training wheel that is her mind for a few seconds when she suddenly apprehends the awful mystery and tragedy of the tormented misfit who has killed everybody else in her family and now points his gun at her. When she reaches out to touch this deformed and suffering soul in a moment of self-forgetting compassion, he draws back in revulsion and plugs her in the chest with three bullets. “She would have been a good woman,” he tells one of his accomplices later, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Bishop Barron points out in his documentary that for her final fifteen years, lupus was O’Connor’s stand-in for the misfit, graciously poised to shoot her every minute of her life; giving her the clarity to see things as they are in every possible circumstance and dimension and the courage to tell the truth in her uniquely hilarious and harrowing way. In a more subdued and thoughtful tone in one of her later letters, O’Connor expressed the same insight like this:
"In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it's always a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don't have it miss one of God's mercies."
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