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Flannery O’Connor, 1925–1964

I never met Flannery O’Connor, but we had been exchanging occasional letters for the last eight years or so. She invited me to visit her at “Andalusia” in Milledgeville, and how deeply I regret now that I never did. The closest I got to it was once when a freighter I was traveling on to South America put into Savannah for overnight. Wandering through those dusty, fusty little squares, I suddenly realized I was in Flannery O’Connor country and thought perhaps I could get to see her. I put in a telephone call from the booth in the lobby of the largest hotel; I remember that while I waited I studied a display of pecans and of boxes of “Miss Sadie’s Bourbon Balis” on the candy and cigar counter just outside the booth. Quite soon a very collected, very southern voice answered and immediately invited me to “come on over.” Alas, the bus connections didn’t work out so that I could get back to my freighter in time to sail.

Later she sent me some colored snapshots of herself, some with her peacocks, some of her alone, always on crutches. In these amateur snapshots she looks, in spite of the crutches, younger than her age and very much alive. From Brazil I sent her a cross in a bottle, like a ship in a bottle, crudely carved, with all the instruments of the Passion, the ladder, pliers, dice, etc., in wood, paper, and tinfoil, with the little rooster at the top of the cross. I thought it was the kind of innocent religious grotesquery she might like, and I think she did, because she wrote:

If I were mobile and limber and rich I would come to Brazil at once after one look at this bottle. Did you observe that the rooster has an eyebrow? I particularly like him and the altar cloth a little dirty from the fingers of whoever cut it out…I am altogether taken with it. It’s what I’m born to appreciate.

I feel great remorse now that I hadn’t written to her for many months, that I had allowed this friendship to dwindle just when she must have been aware she was dying. Something about her intimidated me a bit: perhaps natural awe before her toughness and courage; perhaps, although death is certain for all, hers seemed a little more certain than usual. She made no show of not living in a metropolis, or of being a believer,—she lived with Christian stoicism and wonderful wit and humor that put most of us to shame.

I am very glad to hear that another collection of her stories is to be published soon. I am sure her few books will live on and on in American literature. They are narrow, possibly, but they are clear, hard, vivid, and full of bits of description, phrases, and odd insights that contain more real poetry than a dozen books of poems. Critics who accuse her of exaggeration are quite wrong, I think. I lived in Florida for several years next to a flourishing “Church of God” (both white and black congregation), where every Wednesday night Sister Mary and her husband “spoke in tongues.” After those Wednesday nights, nothing Flannery O’Connor ever wrote could seem at all exaggerated to me.

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Flannery O’Connor was a brilliant writer. Her fiction was, above all, unexpected and disturbing and she herself was an unexpected, extraordinary person, not much like other people. The cruel suffering she endured for such a long time, her death at the age of thirty-eight, fill those who knew her with pain. I first met her when she was very young and writing Wise Blood. I remember that I found that book somehow difficult to like at the beginning. It was so fierce, so hard, so plainly, downrightly unusual. And yet, of course, I did finally like Wise Blood (you can’t easily hold out against Hazel Motes) even if I did like better the marvelous short stories, collected in A Good Man is Hard to Find. But where had all this come from? one was always asking oneself. The author had led a secluded life. She was a Roman Catholic, of Irish extraction, born and brought up in Georgia. Most of all she was like some quiet, puritanical convent girl from the harsh provinces of Canada. Her work was utterly different; it was Southern, rural, wicked, with a nearly inexplicable knowledge of the deformed and sinful, the all-too-deeply experienced. She was fascinated by street preachers, ignorant and insisting fundamentalists, by maimed persons with a matchless commitment to their grotesque destinies. She saw everything with a severe humor, local enough in accent, but more detached, more difficult to define than most other Southern writing. You’d have to call “A Good Man is Hard to Find” a “funny” story even though six people are killed in it.

“Good Country People” is an astonishing work which Allen Tate has called “the most powerful story of maimed souls by a contemporary writer.” The story starts off with an over-blown, exaggerated cast: a foolish mother, her daughter, Joy,” who has a wooden leg and a degree in philosophy, a verbose Bible salesman. These characters are, in outline, fit only for a dirty joke, and the plot continues accordingly. The Bible salesman seduces the girl with the wooden leg in a hay loft. His Bible is a fake one. When he opens it up, instead of the Scriptures out comes a whiskey flask, a pack of dirty postcards and a box of condoms. The salesman is wildly aroused by the wooden leg and makes off with it, leaving Joy stranded in the hay loft. But the story is a superb success. It is wise and memorable and entirely believable. The girl, Joy, has that sullen anxiety, along with a natural superiority, that make the assertion of her intellectuality and the philosophy degree convincing. She is an atheist, trying to hold on to her good sense, against her platitudinous mother. Her humiliation by the Bible salesman is again one of those meanly humorous and yet scorching scenes that are characteristic of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction.

No doubt every sort of religious or moral stress might be put upon this story; indeed it seems to demand it. In everything of Flannery O’Connor’s we are aware of her intense preoccupation with the ragged remnants of Protestantism, those hungry sectarians, those wandering souls with the Answer, those diviners of Revelations, and receivers of code messages from the Holy Spirit. Nearly every plot development turns in this direction. In Wise Blood, Hazel Motes sets up his own religion: The Church without Christ. “I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.”

Her second novel, The Violent Bear it Away, is about Baptism, the duty to which these mad St. Johns of the Southern wilderness are called. This novel ends in an unbearable immolation scene and is one of the strangest productions in recent American fiction. It is grotesque, painful, again “funny,” and entirely original in spirit and theme. Flannery O’Connor’s backwoodsmen need God and Faith, and especially revelation; but every mad one of them is on his own. Perhaps it is this concentration on the violent and crippling aloneness of these zealots that might be called “Catholic.” By this I mean that a Roman Catholic working out his salvation through the observances of the church is peculiarly sensitive to the incoherence of these lonely priests, each making his own religion and his own canon law. And yet I cannot help but want to hold out against a too eager “Catholic” appropriation of these stories. It has sometimes seemed to me that the author had something in her too of the girl with the wooden leg who suffered defeat at the hands of fools and frauds and wondered about good country people and good “Chrustians,” as her people pronounce it, alike.

Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant talent was of that sort that has a contradiction in every pore. She was, indeed, a Catholic writer, also a Southern writer; but neither of these traditions prepares us for the oddity and beauty of her lonely fiction.