The great American author Flannery O'Connor once remarked, "When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist."
"If these stories are in fact the work of a young lady," Evelyn Waugh responded when the publisher sent him advance proofs of the volume, "they are indeed remarkable." The young lady in question was Flannery O'Connor and the short stories were in a collection called A Good Man is Hard to Find. The year was 1955.
Waugh's caution about the authorship of the stories is understandable. The stories were fierce, violent, and darkly comic in a Southern Gothic tradition extending from Poe to Faulkner — hardly the expected work of a young lady. Moreover, the accomplished technique suggested that the stories came from the hand of a mature practitioner rather than a new writer.
About the fundamental merit of the work, though, Waugh had no doubt. The stories had been sent to him in the hope of gaining an advertising blurb from an honored, widely-known Catholic writer. One can imagine that he found in them — stories from the other side of the Atlantic and in a uniquely American mode — a reflection of his own moral views and literary aims. Here indeed was another remarkable Catholic writer.
Like Waugh, O'Connor made no secret of her religious faith and its central place in her writing. "I write the way I do because and only because I am a Catholic," she declared. "I feel that if I were not a Catholic I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason to feel horrified or even to enjoy anything." As she well knew, the remark flies in the face of conventional aesthetic wisdom. Religious commitment — so the view goes — limits a writer's freedom to portray life as it is, the world as it turns. O'Connor held that the reverse was true. "When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist."
On the surface her work is far removed from the recognizable Catholic world. Catholic characters and settings are almost entirely absent, as is the familiar language of Catholic spirituality. O'Connor's fictional world is drawn from Southern backwoods fundamentalism — a world of self-proclaimed prophets, tent revivals, and rocks scrawled with the bald truth that "Jesus saves." Yet behind the stories, propelling the characters in artfully-made plots often ending in violent death, is a deeply serious and sophisticated Catholicism.
O'Connor was born into a Catholic family in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925, graduated from Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College) in Milledgeville, and went on to the graduate writing program at the University of Iowa. While still in Iowa she published her first short story and, on the basis of a portion of the manuscript, received a publisher's prize for her first novel, Wise Blood, and admission to the artistic community at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York.
She was working on the novel and staying with the family of the poet Robert Fitzgerald and his wife Sally in rural Connecticut when she was stricken with lupus, the disease that had taken her father's life at an early age. Thereafter she returned to the South, living with her mother on a family farm outside Milledgeville until her death in 1964 at age 39.
In her abbreviated writing life O'Connor published two novels, The Violent Bear It Away in addition to Wise Blood, and two collections of stories, the second, Everything That Rises Must Converge (the title drawn from Teilhard de Chardin, a writer O'Connor admired), appearing shortly after her death. The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor, published in 1971, won the National Book Award for fiction and has remained in print ever since. The recently published Best American Short Stories of the Century, co-edited by John Updike, includes her powerful story "Greenleaf."
O'Connor's critical success as a writer, both early and late in her career, belies the difficulty her work posed — poses still — for many readers. The violence of her stories and novels can seem harsh and unfeeling, overwhelming her moral vision as well as her comic effects. O'Connor's explanation for the off-putting "grotesque" elements in her fiction was characteristically forthright: "The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural .... When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."
The same point was offered in a different way when she remarked that "I have found... from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil. I have also found that what I write is read by an audience which puts little stock either in grace or the devil."
Given the dramatic necessities of fiction, the action of grace in O'Connor's work is usually collapsed into a brief encounter rather than parcelled out as prolonged experience. Similarly, the instrument of grace is more often than not outfitted as one of the devil's disciples rather than an angelic presence. In the title story of the collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find, for example, grace comes to a pride-stuffed grandmother in the person of an escaped killer known as the Misfit. After each member of the grandmother's family is systematically shot, the Misfit fires three bullets into the old woman's chest. A grim ending, needless to say — but in the story, O'Connor insisted, the reader "should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother's soul, and not for the dead bodies."
In other of her works grace arrives with a Bible-selling seducer, a displaced person from Poland, a college girl from Wellesley, a club-footed juvenile delinquent, a seemingly blind street preacher and his ribald daughter. And the bodies pile up: shot, hung, beaten, gored by a bull, overrun by a tractor. But it remains that the heart of the matter for O'Connor is never the violent end but what precedes it — the response to grace that opens the way to Divine life, or blocks it forever.
It is the action of grace, not the inner nature of the experience — what, if anything, a character feels or comprehends — that we witness in O'Connor's fiction. A notable exception is "The Artificial Nigger," a story O'Connor called "my favorite and probably the best thing I'll ever write." Here the content of grace is revealed in the astonishing insight of a prideful old man, Mr. Head, who has cruelly denied knowing his grandson Nelson, then been forgiven by the boy. "He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that some sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise."
Understood as the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil, O'Connor's fiction can seem written to a rigid formula — and a formula to which Catholic readers would seem to have special access. In fact, the stories and novels are vastly richer and more complex than any formula can suggest — and disturbing for readers regardless of religious belief. "Catholic life as seen by a Catholic," O'Connor noted, "doesn't always make comfortable reading for Catholics." She added, "We Catholics are very much given to the Instant Answer. Fiction doesn't have any. It leaves us, like Job, with a renewed sense of mystery."
At the same time that her fiction renews the sense of spiritual mystery, it relishes in full measure the human comedy in its backwoods Southern variety. For the antics and especially the talk of that world, O'Connor had an exact eye and perfect pitch. The extended opening scene in a doctor's office in "Revelation" — thought by many to be her finest story — is a telling example.
Until the long-awaited biography of O'Connor appears, the most revealing account of her private and professional life comes from her letters, collected in a 600 page volume called The Habit of Being, the title drawn by the editor, Sally Fitzgerald, from O'Connor's admiration for Jacques Maritain's Art and Scholasticism. The letters show in ample detail not only the habit of art and unwavering religious faith but O'Connor's zest for the immediate world about her.
In one letter she reports that her mother was "vastly insulted" by Evelyn Waugh wondering if her daughter's stories were really the work of a young lady, putting "the emphasis on if and lady." "Does he suppose you're not a lady?" her mother asked. And added, "Who is this Evalin Wow?"
Weber, Ronald. "A Good Writer is Hard to Find." Catholic Dossier 5, no. 4 (July-August 1999): 30-32.
Reprinted with permission of Catholic Dossier.
Ronald Weber is professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame.Copyright © 1999 Catholic Dossier
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