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On Flannery O’Connor

Mystery and Manners

by Flannery O’Connor, occasional prose selected and edited by Sally Fitzgerald, by 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 the farm, one of them with a photograph of peacocks on it. Then in the fall of 1960 I wrote her that I was going to be in the South on a trip, and could I come to see her? She’d be delighted, she said, and sent instructions on how to get from Atlanta to Milledgeville, some hundred miles downstate.

Flannery and her mother, Regina, a formidable looking woman whom I judged to be about sixty, met me at the bus station in their car, which Mrs. O’Connor drove, while Flannery sat in the back, her crutches resting against the seat alongside her. “I expect you’ll want a shower,” was the first thing she said to me. It had been a hot afternoon and the bus hadn’t been air-conditioned. I told her I would and climbed in front. We drove through the town, which had been the state capitol for a time after the Civil War and was the home of the Georgia State College for Women, the school Flannery had gone to.

She conducted the drive as a mock exercise in Southern pride of place. “There’s one of the real famous gardens round here,” she said once, and later, “that place with the decadent columns is where our second most distinguished citizen lives.” The big-porched, wide-pillared house turned out to be the home of Carl Vinson, the long-time chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee. Then we came to a house with an even bigger porch and pillars and Flannery said, her tone shifting to affection, “and that was the house of our most distinguished citizen.” It was the boyhood home of Oliver Hardy, who, Mrs. O’Connor remembered, used to sit and rock alongside his mother on the porch, a great rotund youth who was gathering energy to pick himself up and go star in Hollywood.

The farm was much bigger than I’d expected, an expanse of planted fields with a stretch of timberland beyond. Mrs. O’Connor was engaged just then in selling some trees for lumber—“I don’t know how we’re going to keep this place up, with no help you can depend on and nothing coming in,” she said in what seemed a strangely aggressive apology—and throughout my stay I could hear the dull whine of distant buzz-saws.

After my shower I joined Flannery at the side door of the rather nondescript white farmhouse, where she was sitting feeding her peafowl. She handed me the can filled with dried corn kernels and I gingerly held them out to the birds, which were not in feather then, being instead rather scruffy-looking, dirty-brown creatures. (There is a splendid account, with the flavor of one of Lawrence’s essays, of her feelings and ideas about peacocks, which appeared in Holiday in 1961 and is reprinted in this collection.)

There, with the sun going down and the birds coming jerkily and indifferently up to be fed, we began to talk, and became so engrossed in it that Mrs. O’Connor, of whose martinet qualities I was to have further experience, had to shout more and more vehemently when dinner was ready. It was a conversation that ranged over religion, American life, ourselves, and, especially, literature, and it was to go on with only the most necessary interruptions for the entire three days I was there.

I realize that I have not yet described her, and this delay is true to what happened that day. Before I met her I had found out something about her illness. She was suffering from lupus, a terrifying disease related to arthritis, which generally attacks the blood vessels and of which her father had died in his early forties. I had known she was crippled and that the disease had distorted her face, but the only picture of her I had seen had been on the back of Wise Blood and been taken before the illness broke out.

Knowing what I did, I had held off looking at her from the moment of my arrival. Uncertain and afraid of what I might feel, self-conscious and ashamed of it, I had found myself glancing past her face, averting my eyes when she moved laboriously about, not wanting yet to see her. But then, as we talked, something broke and I was looking at her, at her face twisted to one side, at her stiff and somewhat puffy hands and arms, and at her thinning and lusterless hair. From then on, although I would be shaken by an occasional spasm of pity I hated feeling, her appearance was absorbed for me into her presence and—I don’t use the word lightly—transfigured by it.

Tough-minded, laconic, with a marvelous wit and an absolute absence of self-pity, she made me understand, as never before or since, what spiritual heroism and beauty can be. There was nothing soft in it, no “radiance,” no conventional serenity. She could be cutting, as in her remarks about certain writers she thought were frauds or about the kinds of stupidity she encountered in some of her admirers. She could exhibit impatience, doubt, pleasure in compliments, great distress at unfavorable reviews. But she was almost most entirely free from calculation, from concern with what might be expected of her, and from any desire to question her fate or move into outrage.

She went to mass every day, said grace, and wasn’t ashamed of saying “Our Lady.” But as she writes in a number of essays in this book, her Catholicism was mainly a matter of belief in mysteries and in the perilous balance between grace and the despoliation of the self. She was the furthest thing from a moralist; I never heard her make a moral judgment that wasn’t first or at the same time a philosophic or an aesthetic one.

She was extremely firm in almost all her judgments and possessed nothing of what we like to call an “inquiring” mind. But this wasn’t the consequence of her Catholicism or of her being Southern, as some unsympathetic critics have argued. Being with her I had the feeling that just as her fiction cost some effort to go beyond its immediate exotic data, its local colorations, and apparently perverse violence, so she had to be seen as only tactically “narrow” or unsophisticated. For one thing, her illness had put her against the wall, so that being interested in anything that wasn’t fiercely to her purpose in the small space she had to operate in was a rare luxury. Beyond this, she wasn’t being called upon to “know” anything; she was an artist, and I think she was right in what she wrote in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” reprinted here: “there’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once.” To write is to sacrifice what you think you know.

She suspected that she didn’t know the intellectual world, and was aware that it had its suspicions of her. She wasn’t, of course, wholly the product of small-time and rural education and experience; she had attended the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, had spent some time in the East before her illness with her friends the Fitzgeralds, and was in touch with other writer-friends through correspondence and occasional visits. Until the last stages of her illness she made one or two trips a year to talk at colleges or conferences. Yet I wasn’t surprised when she asked me if I thought she had “gotten right” the intellectual (Rayber, the teacher) in The Violent Bear It Away. “I don’t reckon he’d be very convincing to you folks in New York,” she said. I said, after wondering for a moment where I stood, no, he wasn’t a very convincing intellectual and, growing bolder, that in fact I thought he was one of the few occasions when her art failed because she hadn’t sacrificed what she thought she knew. She was silent and then said she thought I was probably right, and I could feel our connection deepening from this point.

I have said that she didn’t have an inquiring mind, yet one thing she wanted to know was what I thought about the way certain writers acted and lived. She was especially interested in Norman Mailer. “I just can’t understand why he doesn’t let his work speak for itself,” she said, “doesn’t he think it would?” Then she added, “Why does he always push forward and make such a spectacle of himself?” I told her that I thought that this had to do with a conflict between art and life, or contemplation and action, and that in general Jewish writers, for all sorts of social and psychic reasons, found it difficult to disappear behind their work. She greeted my comments with little nods and a shake or two of her head, as though something she’d found puzzling had at last been given clear expression, if not explained.

From time to time we talked about the South, both in its own right and as it offered itself for her work. (Many of the things she said can be found in this collection.) If she disliked being known as a Southern writer, it wasn’t because she thought there was any loss or injury in being one—quite the contrary—but for the same reason she didn’t want to be called a Catholic writer: it was reductive, misleading. The South fed her, it was a “story-telling” region, and she believed, too, that, decaying and even vicious as its manners were, they were still manners, ways of ordering and identifying relationships that the North, with its “abstract” life, lacked, and greatly useful for the writer of fiction.

But she thought herself in no sense a regionalist and had contempt for the kind of Southern writer—Carson McCullers was one she mentioned—who she thought exploited the South, rested on its easier legends, its “color” and sentimental view of itself. Faulkner she greatly admired; he had set limits and defined possibilities for any writer’s use of the region, but his work wasn’t anything you’d want your own to resemble. “After all,” she said, “nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” (The remark is to be found in one of the pieces in this book, a talk on Southern writing, which an editor’s note says she gave at a Georgia women’s college a month after I was with her. She knew a good thing when she heard it.)

All around us I saw the material of her fiction, the South she used: the leathery, taciturn country people, the hired hands, the mythical elderly ladies we met in town, the dirt roads, the pick-up trucks, Dr. Pepper signs, pentecostal churches. Most central of all was her mother, who enters into so many of her stories as the fulcrum of their violent moral action. There was something larger than life about her, which came, I realized, from her having already been transformed in my consciousness into the bearer of aesthetic news. Actually, she was a small, intense, enormously efficient woman, who, as she fussed strenuously and even tyrannically over Flannery, gave off an air of martyrdom which was the exact opposite of her daughter’s quiet acceptance.

One evening at dinner she said to me, while Flannery stared at her food in embarrassment, “now I want you to tell me what’s wrong with those publishers up there in New York. Do you know how many copies of Mary Flannery’s novel have been sold? Three thousand two hundred and seventy eight, that’s how many copies of Mary Flannery’s novel have been sold, and there is something very wrong with that, they are not doing right by her.” I said that Farrar, Straus was a fine publisher and that The Violent Bear It Away wasn’t the kind of novel likely to have a big sale. And then I added that Flannery’s reputation was more and more secure and that was the important thing. “Important thing!” she snorted, “reputations don’t buy groceries.”

I tell this incident because it seemed to me that what it represented was another of the pressures that Flannery O’Connor lived through and in the face of which made her art. No writer I’ve known had such devotion to art, felt so much a conduit rather than a source, expected so little beyond internal satisfactions. Something she wrote in an essay reprinted here seems to me to convey an essential quality of her lonely, besieged, and unnoticed life and to be a motto for the risks she took and the things she made: “The writer has no rights except those he forges for himself within his own work.”

We said goodby at the bus station, Mrs. O’Connor calling after me an invitation to come back to Andalusia, as the farm was called, whenever I found myself in Georgia, Flannery leaning over with difficulty to wave from the car window. I didn’t see her again. We corresponded, again sporadically, the last note I had from her coming a few months before she died. She would almost never fail to pay me some little compliment on things I’d written and encourage me in what I hoped to write. I felt unequal to encouraging her; all I could hope to do, and I know I never succeeded, was to try to make her know how much understanding of courage she had made it possible for me to have.

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