“She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a
martyr if they killed her quick.” This characteristically witty sentence
of Flannery O’Connor’s opens Lorraine V. Murray’s fine biography of the
Southern writer who died in 1964 at the age of 39 in Milledgeville, Georgia. Today,
thanks to the recent attention given by George Weigel to the 600-page volume of
letters written by Flannery to relatively unknown people, there is renewed
interest in her stories, her two short novels, and her literary reflections.
But very few critics would be likely to agree with me that she was the best
American writer of short fiction in the second half of the 20th century.
Superficially, Flannery O’Connor’s life was too uneventful
to merit devoted attention. For her last 14 years, after being diagnosed
with lupus, the disease that killed her father when she was barely 16, Flannery
moved between the chicken yard and her mother’s house. Her day
began with prayer, followed by two hours of writing, and then by more relaxed
reading, letter writing, and scrutiny of fiction sent to her by aspiring
authors. Visitors shared her affection for the chickens, ducks,
burros, and peacocks that brought colour to her simple rural existence.
Since she never complained, we can only guess at the suffering conferred by her
knowledge of how little time had been given to her to exercise her creative
O’Connor’s stories are difficult for intelligent people
without solid literary training to understand: not least, because her
protagonists are large and startling creatures—fundamentalist preachers,
ungainly farmers, loners, and misfits–whose usual behaviour is grotesque.
Struggles for an ascendancy that is perpetually out of reach take place
in patches of dirt or squalid rooms, lonely city blocks, or deserted meadows
mysteriously connected with the eternal. Red moons, black lakes, and
burning trees scar the landscape. Innocence and satanic knowledge compete
for the souls of young men with prophetic gifts.
In the usual O’Connor tale the afflicted are exploited,
neglected, or destroyed by those responsible for them. Battles with
rationalism and faith, the certain and the mysterious, the holy and the unholy,
the instinctual and the rigidly self-conscious often end violently. Characters
who pride themselves on their cleverness or moral superiority discover for the
first time “the world of guilt and sorrow”. What is dramatised, again and
again, is the human will’s refusal to pursue what it should, and the arduous
struggle, common to every life, of the will’s journey towards health.
By and large, Lorraine Murray does not analyse Flannery
O’Connor’s fiction. Her focus is O’Connor’s spirituality—the Catholicism that
informs her every word. Because she devotes a great deal of space to Flannery’s
correspondence with individuals whose religious faith is shaky, and her
untiring efforts to give these confused souls a truer, deeper perspective on
life’s inevitable disappointments, what emerges is memorable and moving. Tales
worth telling, O’Connor maintains, dramatise many wills battling in the soul of
a single human being. If the Eucharist is a mere “symbol”, as Mary McCarthy
claimed, “the hell with it”.
Priests, we are told, whatever their ordinary limitations—for
example, a lack of interest in literature, or the tendency to be
unimaginative—model the sacrificial love of Christ. Giving sound spiritual
direction requires a species of genius. Convictions, because they take so long
to acquire, matter enormously. Self-sacrifice is the essential feature of a
serious writer’s existence. Passive diminishments, which entail forms of
suffering that must be accepted because their existence cannot be altered, are
inevitable in the daily round of a person struggling with bedrock health
issues. Christ is found by those who concentrate on other people’s pain rather
than their own.
On writing itself, O’Connor was candid and amusing. For her,
two daily hours spent at a manual typewriter felt like pushing a stone uphill
with her nose. Regularly reading sentimental gobbledygook in Catholic
magazines, or enduring interminable money-raising campaigns led by local
bishops unconcerned about the more weighty spiritual realities preoccupying the
teachers she could not do without–Aquinas or Guardini, Hopkins or Therese of
Lisieux–did not help. By immersing herself in the reflections of the most
faithful Catholics available to her in print, she fortified herself so that she
could better manage her vocation as a writer.
Understandably, Flannery O’Connor thought that it is much
harder to believe than not to believe. Prophets, she said, were realists of
distances. What we fail to understand is more interesting as a subject for
literature than what we can readily grasp. The harm we do from the things we do
not face should concern all of us. Inadequate views—for example, Flannery’s own
youthful assumption that black people are inferior to whites—must be abandoned
and replaced. A capacity to see “goodness in the making” is essential.
Since the beliefs that are basic to Christianity—including, of course, a belief
in the reality of Satan—are not held by many readers, the aim of a Christian
writer must be to make moments of grace utterly believable and right.
Many stories told by Lorraine Murray dramatise O’Connor’s
closeness to God. Flannery’s battle, for instance, to write something candid
but unflinching about a disfigured child dying of a cancer and nursed by nuns,
or her acerbic asides about religious “junk shops” specialising in kitsch, or
her descriptions of the resplendent qualities of peacock feathers, are memorable.
Equally unforgettable is her response to a query about the meaning of the
Biblical phrase “the lame shall enter first”. This, she said, would be the
destiny of the lame because they would use their crutches to push everyone else
Since O’Connor always pooh-poohed the suggestion that she herself
was saintly, her close friend Sally Fitzgerald’s remark that Flannery’s speech
could have an “unsightly edge” is worth pondering. In Murray’s book, Flannery
O’Connor comes across—like the figures in her stories—as earthy and imperfect:
funny, shrewd, serene, and devotional. The fact that her own mother had trouble
with her fiction must have rankled, but she never said a harsh word about
Regina’s criticisms. At bottom she took it for granted that appreciation is
hard won, and that bedrock change in an individual heart and soul is as long
awaited as cultural change in a region as scarred by racial bigotry as the
Susan Moore, Ph D, is a
retired teacher and inveterate reader who has written books and articles on adult
and children’s literature, education, religious thought, and the history of
ideas. She lives in Sydney.