On Flannery O’Connor

Mystery and Manners

by Flannery O'Connor, occasional prose selected and edited by Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 237 pp., $6.95

I first came to know Flannery O’Connor through a shy little note of thanks she sent me for some words of praise I had written about her first book of stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, in an obscure Catholic magazine called Jubilee. I remember that I described the stories as strange, brilliant, wholly original, and also that I resolutely kept from discussing them in any “Catholic” perspective. She was especially grateful for that, she told me later when we had become friends. It wasn’t that she thought there shouldn’t be a Catholic perspective on her work—far from it—but that such a procedure ought to wait until her art was secure, as art. It was extremely important to her that her writing be seen as independent, particularly from any expectations about its moral or spiritual testimony.

Throughout her life she was caught in the various pressures of our tendency to classify and sociologize art, our impatience with art as itself. (“All I mean by art,” she wrote in one of the essays and talks which her good friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald have collected in this volume, “is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself.”) An intense, unapologetic, and unshakable Catholic, she was for most Catholics who were at all aware of her an agent of something inimical to faith and fatal to moral equilibrium; for a more sophisticated minority she was a writer of splendor and revelation, which were however often seen more as spiritual than as aesthetic. Besides this, she suffered from being categorized by place and theme: a “Southern” writer, a writer of the “grotesque.” As she wrote in an essay reprinted here, “even if there are no genuine schools in American letters today, there is always some critic who has just invented one and who is ready to put you into it.”

Against this tendency there was the temptation to see her as wholly strange, an unfathomable eccentric who sent off her dark comic tales from the isolation of her Georgia farm, where she remained entirely outside the gossip, the play of personality, of the literary world, and had no part in its economy or politics. I remember how, before I knew her, the reports of her illness—that she was the victim of some mysterious disease which compelled her to go about on crutches—added to her disturbing, unaccountable aura, and how unsettling it had been to find out earlier, as I did only after having read several of her stories, that she wasn’t a man. (When I visited her later I found it hard to get used to her mother’s calling her “Mary Flannery”; she had dropped the first name because, as she told me, “who was likely to buy the stories of an Irish washerwoman?”)

After my reply to her note we corresponded at long intervals, mostly Christmas cards and an occasional postcard of mine to her from Europe or Mexico and of hers to me from…

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