The Art of Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor continues to interest many readers and critics. A slow and painstaking writer who died young (of lupus at age 39), she did not produce a large body of literature, but what she did produce (in three genres: letters, literary criticism, and fiction) is superlative. Her letters, collected primarily in The Habit of Being, are delightful and witty, penetrating and powerful. They reveal a bright and cheerful soul, a remarkable judge of human nature and the literary arts, and an effective apologist for Christianity, especially the Roman Catholic faith. Her essays and lectures in literary criticism, collected in Mystery and Manners, offer exceptionally insightful and clearly stated judgments on life and literature. O’Connor is perceptive and profound in her remarks on region, realism, the grotesque, the imagination, human nature, and the human and artistic limitations that make literature great as well as the difficulties facing a Christian novelist writing for an unbelieving audience—or audiences that are merely superficial or sentimental believers.
Just as O’Connor excels in the arts of letter writing and literary criticism, she also excels in her fiction (two novels and thirty-one short stories). Manifesting her integrity, the fiction incarnates the same vision of human nature, modern aberrations, and divine grace and judgment that she discusses in her letters and criticism. She wrote remarkably well-crafted stories with depth upon depth of meaning (some claim that she’s America’s best twentieth-century writer of short stories), and her prophetic fiction challenges the liberal, gnostic, nihilistic, and secular assumptions of the modern world. She is a writer to be reckoned with, and critics by the hundreds are attracted to her work: The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States notes that “O’Connor attracts the critical attention of more scholars each year than any other twentieth-century American woman writer.” Another indication of O’Connor’s stature is The Library of America edition of her Collected Works.
Because of O’Connor’s stature, it is no surprise that Ralph Wood and Christina Bieber Lake have presented books on her fiction. It is fortunate as well, for O’Connor’s readers do often need a guide to her fiction, and not all guides can be trusted. Wood, University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University, examines O’Connor’s Christ-haunted fiction in connection with the religion and culture of the American South; he explores her work and the region’s ecclesiastical and cultural milieu, dealing with pertinent works of religious sociology and history, and with a host of past and current scholarly studies of O’Connor and her work. His premise is that the South’s history of slavery produced “the greatest historical guilt of any American region,” and that while the South lost the War Between the States, it “won the spiritual war by retaining its truest legacy, not the heritage of slavery and segregation and discrimination, but the Bible-centered and Christ-haunted faith that it still bequeaths to the churches and the nations as their last, best, and only true hope.” O’Connor’s fiction, with its Bible-centered and Christ-haunted backdrop, and the very clear embrace of the Christian gospel evident in her letters and essays, is central to Wood’s hopeful thesis.
Like most people in academia, Wood is extremely sensitive to racial issues, much more sensitive perhaps than he need be. He chides O’Connor for expressing “ugly racial sentiments” in one of her letters to a friend (actually, O’Connor’s racist jingle targeted white liberals more than blacks), though to Wood’s credit he does not detect racism in her fiction, as some readers and critics do. His reading of “The Artificial Nigger” focuses on O’Connor’s use of Negro suffering as “a sacrament of reconciliation” for two proud, sinful racists. Given his thesis, it is not an error of emphasis that Wood devotes more than two chapters of his book to discussions of race and slavery. However, I would question his premise that the South bears more historical guilt than other regions. That said, I would not question Wood’s thesis: that the South’s Bible-centered and Christ-haunted faith, along with O’Connor’s clear and confident statements regarding Christian orthodoxy, offers hope for a secularized world.
Some of Wood’s discussions (for example, of Eugene Genovese’s historical studies of Southern culture) may seem off the point, but actually they put O’Connor’s fiction in historical perspective. Likewise, Wood examines the Southern Agrarians, H. L. Mencken, Walker Percy, Louis Simpson, and others, comparing and contrasting their views of the South with O’Connor’s. So Wood’s book goes far and wide to place O’Connor in a historical and contemporary perspective. In addition to race, Wood’s book examines O’Connor’s admiration and sympathy for the South’s fundamentalist Protestant believers, the preachers in her fictional world, her depiction of nihilism as a major corrosive in the modern world, the significance of baptism and the Eucharist in her life and fiction. There is a final chapter on O’Connor’s eschatology, especially as revealed in the short story “Revelation.”
Readers interested in spirited discussions of wide-ranging religious, social, and cultural topics will enjoy Wood’s book, and they should definitely read his footnotes, which cast light in many different directions. One very provocative footnote claims that Allen Tate and Russell Kirk, two prominent traditional conservatives, had a “functionalist understanding of Christian faith”—that is, they used Christianity as a prop for Western civilization and merely wrote generically about morality, God, and religion. I wonder if Jesus’ reply to John in Mark 9 might be noted here: “For he that is not against us is for us.” Be that as it may (and God is the judge in these matters), in general the confessional quality of Wood’s book, his unabashed embrace and defense of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and his vigorous style are attractive and bracing. Wood does not pull his punches (“Conservative and liberal eschatologies are equally sub-biblical”), and he offers stunning glimpses of biblical realities and signification in his explication of O’Connor’s fiction. This is a good book for the novice and an excellent book for anyone who wants to come to terms with O’Connor’s work in connection with its Southern milieu.
In The Incarnational Art of Flannery O’Connor, Christina Bieber Lake, Associate Professor of English at Wheaton College, presents the following thesis: “Only O’Connor’s insistence upon the unique character of the Incarnation can adequately explain the drama of the stories, her aesthetic philosophy, and her unique employment of the grotesque.” This study reveals O’Connor’s awareness of and antipathy for the Gnosticism underlying much of contemporary American religion. Lake is familiar with the books O’Connor read and marked, and her explication of O’Connor’s fiction elaborates upon theological and aesthetic insights offered by some of O’Connor’s guides—Aquinas, Gilson, and Maritain, for instance. Lake is also familiar with a great deal of O’Connor scholarship, much of it ideological or tendentious and some of it quite sophisticated and theoretical. Perhaps it is necessary to defend O’Connor from the ideological critics, though I sometimes wonder if they are worth the time and ink. One recalls O’Connor’s complaint: “The Theories are worse than the Furies.”
Lake notes that the “Catholic theology of the Incarnation relies heavily upon its theology of the creation,” and she therefore rightly emphasizes the importance of the concrete, of the body, of the limited, and of the particular in O’Connor’s fiction (and a corresponding wariness on O’Connor’s part of gnostic, angelistic thinkers such as Descartes and Emerson). She offers illuminating readings of The Violent Bear It Away (identifying many biblical parallels) and “The Enduring Chill” (showing the connection between Asbury’s artistic and spiritual failings). She also presents a convincing discussion of two kinds of the grotesque in O’Connor’s fiction, the early grotesque as a negative feature, the later grotesque as positive.
Because O’Connor’s fiction is easily misunderstood, and because the ideological critics have claimed her as one of their own, I do recommend both of these books. While both may stray into uncertain ground (Woods on race, Lake in taking the trouble to refute the ideologues and in occasionally being overly theoretical), they still admirably reveal the key artistic and spiritual virtues of the fiction. Other recent worthy O’Connor studies are Hank Edmondson’s Return to Good and Evil: Flannery O’Connor’s Response to Nihilism and Marion Montgomery’s Hillbilly Thomist: Flannery O’Connor, St. Thomas and the Limits of Art.
O’Connor herself is one of the best guides to her fiction. Knowing this, Wood and Lake (Edmondson and Montgomery as well) quote O’Connor frequently, letting her pithy, provocative, and penetrating comments elucidate her fiction, the fiction writer’s craft, and the aberrant modern condition. With G. K. Chesterton, O’Connor is one of the most quotable of twentieth-century writers. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations should take note. One finds in her writings a host of prophetic and accurate judgments about morality, theology, literature, human nature, and the connections of these things one with another, such as her contention that “There is something in us as storytellers and as listeners to stories that demands the redemptive act.” For those seeking further explanation after reading O’Connor herself on her work, both books reviewed shed light on an already very bright writer.
Michael M. Jordan, an Assistant Editor of this journal in the early eighties, recently collected and edited Marion Montgomery’s Southern essays (On Matters Southern: Essays About Literature and Culture, 1964-2000—McFarland, 2005). He is Professor of English and Chairman of the English Department at Hillsdale College.
Posted: March 19, 2007