Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor

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Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch

Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) is not only one of my favorite authors, she is one of my favorite people. I was 12 years old when she died. She’s like that friend you always wish you had as a kid. What I want to know is: why did it take me so long to meet you?

If it hadn’t been for a friend quoting one of Flannery’s zingers a couple of years ago about art I would not have gone beyond the one short story I had read in school. Obviously, I wasn’t ready for Flannery back then. It  all changed when I read her essays Mystery & Manners and then her The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor edited by Sally Fitzgerald over the summer of 2005.

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I was thrilled when I read in the New York Times Book Review  New York Times Book Review March 1, 2009 that a biography of Flannery had just been published. The review, by Joy Williams, didn’t really critique the book. She condensed it – and did it rather well. I thought she really liked Flannery whether or not Gooch had written a good book or not. Needless to say, I bought the book and read it non-stop. (This past Sunday’s NYTimes Book Review had a letter to the editor complaining with much emphasis on the fact that Williams did not review the book!)

Gooch, who wrote City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O”Hara in 1994, has done a fine job of tracing Flannery’s life and writing, her relatives, friends, and her academic and professional career, and what some might call her quirks (the peacocks and other fowl; her quick wit). He doesn’t conjecture, but takes all the threads of her life and entwines them. This is a careful, well-researched and documented biography that moves right along. At one point I felt like I needed a geneology chart; at other times I wanted to see more photos especially of her mother and the many authors who were her friends and/or contemporaries. The funny thing is, although I couldn’t put the book down, or didn’t want to, I didn’t feel like I had learned a great deal more about Flannery than what I gathered from her Letters: The Habit of Being.  Flannery has comprehensive endnotes for each chapter and an Index, although not every name was listed there.

Gooch does add more light on Flannery’s relationship with her dominating mother, Regina, than Letters. He found people or memoirs of people who witnessed their strained way of being together and Flannery’s necessary dependence on her mother because of her lupus.

Flannery O’Connor was a very bad speller, and I take great consolation in this fact!

For those of you who may not know Flannery O’Connor: she was one of the 20th century’s most outstanding American novelists, make that Catholic novelists (short-story writer, essayist).  Her genre was “Southern Gothic” and her characters grotesque; redemption and grace in the “Christ-haunted” South her theme. She is also very, very funny; salty and observant. She never married and the consensus seems to be that she was an innocent. She seems to have fallen in love at least once, but knew she would never marry. She had a great capacity for friendship. She was, in every way, a Catholic – but a strong Catholic who knew that by grace she would not wilt in the face of sin or humanity – rather than the pious, lace, flowers, and plaster-statue rosary-weilding  kind (which she disparaged at every opportunity.)

For a quick review of her life and writing, see Flannery O’Connor Wikipedia and if you are intrigued, I suggest reading Habit of Being and Flannery: A Life as companions. They compliment each other.

What fascinates me is Flannery’s insight and commentary on the relationship between art and religion. She truly has something to say about fiction, and by extension, cinema as art – though she seems to have not frequented the movie theater very often. What she says about fiction and story-telling as art is what can influence modern story-tellers. She refused to preference “message” over art. Art came first. Good art = good religion. Bad art = bad religion. (I think Sr. Wendy Becket would agree though their art forms are different.)

You may also wish to check out this excellent article on Flannery that appeared in Commonweal, November 21, 2008: What Flannery Knew: Catholic Writing for a Critical Age by Paul Elie.

Archbishop George N. Niederauer wrote Flannery O’Connor’s Religious Vision  for the Lane Center Lecture in September, 2007. It was published in America magazine in December 2007. It is well worth a read for his take on Flannery’s vision about the Church’s human element and flaws and “empty religion”. Too bad Bill Maher (Religulous) never met, or evidently read, Flannery O’connor.

For a YouTube lecture on Flannery O’Connor Yale University Lecture on Wise Blood. The film  Wise Blood VHS  directed by John Huston is available from Amazon.com (In researching these I discovered that Benedict Fitzgerald, the son of Robert and Sally Fitzgeraldwho were great friends of Flannery – Sally edited Letters: The Habit of Being –  wrote the screenplay for Wise Blood (1979) – and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.)

For a dramatization on YouTube of one of Flannery’s short stories, Good Country People (1960′s).

In 2007, over 200 letters between Elizabeth “Betty” Hester, the anonymous “A” in Letters: The Habit of Being, were made accessible to the piblic. The LA Times covered the event, and what they mean in view of O’Connor scholarship here Letters give new insight into Flannery O’Connor.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from Flannery O’Connor (Letters: The Habit of Being unless otherwise noted):

“You would probably do just as well to get that plot business out of your head and start simply with a character or anything that you can make come alive. Wouldn’t it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write rather than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you.”  -  Unpublished letter to Elizabeth “Betty” Hester

I see no reason to limit the Holy Ghost to fire.  He is full of surprises. 1958

It is what is invisible that God sees and that the Christian must look for. Because he knows the consequences of sin, he knows how deep you have to go to find love.  

Pornography and violence and anything else in excess are all sins against form, and I think they ought to be approached as sins against art rather than sins against morality.

At least this is practical in these times when most writers are pagans and if you are going to talk in terms they can understand. The pious style is a great stumbling block to Catholics who want to talk to the modern world.       1956

About scandalizing little ones … I spoke to a priest about it and the thing he said to me was, “You don’t have to write for fifteen year old girls.” Of course, the mind of a fifteen year old girl lurks in many a head that is seventy-five and every day people are being scandalized not only by what is scandalous of its nature but what is not.

The fact is that in order not to be scandalized, one has to have a whole view of things, which not many of us have.   1956

I’m not one to pit myself against St. Paul but when he said, “Let it not so much be named among you.” I presume he was talking about society and what goes on there and not about art. Art is not anything that goes on “among” people, not the art of the novel anyway. It is something that one experiences alone and for the purpose of realizing in a fresh way, through the senses, the mystery of existence. Part of the mystery of existence is sin. When we think about the Crucifixion, we miss the point of it if we don’t think about sin.    1956

Fiction is the concrete expression of mystery – mystery that is lived. Catholics believe that all creation is good and that evil is the wrong use of good and that without Grace we use it [good] wrong most of the time. It is almost impossible to write about supernatural grace in fiction. We almost have to approach it negatively. As to natural Grace, we have to take that the way it comes – through nature. In any case, it [Grace] operates surrounded by evil.

I am to give a talk on the dizzying subject – “What is a Wholesome Novel?”.  I intend to tell them that the reason they find nothing but obscenity in modern fiction is because that is all they know how to recognize. – Letter to John Lynch, 1956 p. 176 HOB

I mortally and strongly defend the right of the artist to select an aspect of the world to portray and as the world gets more materialistic there will be much more to select from. Of course, you are only enabled to see what is black by having light to see it by… Furthermore, the light you see by may be altogether outside of the work itself. The question is not is this negative or positive, but is it believable.

About bad taste, I don’t know, because bad taste is a relative matter, There are some who will find almost everything in bad taste, from spitting on the street to Christ’s association with Mary Magdalen. Fiction is supposed to represent life, and the fiction writer had to use as many aspects of life as are necessary to make his total picture convincing. The fiction writer doesn’t state, he shows, renders. It’s the nature of fiction and it can’t be helped. If you’re writing about the vulgar, you have to prove they’re vulgar by showing them at it.

The novel is an art form and when you use it for anything other than art, you pervert it. I didn’t make this up. I got it from St. Thomas [Aquinas] (via Maritain) who shows that art is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made; it has no utilitarian end. If you manage to use it successfully for social, religious or other purposes, it is because you made it art first.

 

 

“I have found 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.” –Flannery O’Connor, “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction”

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