The Power of Flannery O’Connor

Collected Works

by Flannery O'Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald
Library of America, 1,281 pp., $35.00

The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists

by Ralph C. Wood
University of Notre Dame Press, 310 pp., $32.95


Hobbled and enfeebled by a disease that would kill her at age thirty-nine, but determined not to be a drain on her mother’s household economy, Flannery O’Connor, in her dozen years of fame, was inclined to seize every chance to earn a modest honorarium on the college lecture circuit. Venturing as far as Notre Dame or Wesleyan or as near as her hometown alma mater, Milledgeville’s Georgia State College for Women, she would read a story or deliver one of her standard, virtually interchangeable, talks about “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction” or “The Church and the Fiction Writer” or “The Catholic Novelist in the South.” And to hear her tell it, the questions from the floor were almost as predictable as the lectures. “Everywhere I go,” she once observed, “I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.”

It is easy to picture what she had in mind. Always punctilious in her dealings with strangers, O’Connor was more bothered than most writers by hapless apprentice manuscripts and pleas for help. They made it that much harder for her to husband scarce energy for her fiction while answering every letter she received—even the one from a young man who proposed collaboration on a novel “as good as Gone with the Wind,” and the one from “a real West Virginia mountineer” who praised her for writing “sinsationally, wow, ha ha,” and still another from an eligible Cincinnati bachelor “who has not read anything of mine,” she told a friend, “but doesn’t really see how I can say a good man is hard to find.”1 Those interruptions at least gratified O’Connor’s comic sense, but unsolicited student prose may have provided the severest test of her forbearance.

The truth is, however, that O’Connor had no cause to disprize university writing programs, for she herself, despite the marked individuality of her work, was the first prominent American author to have been significantly shaped by one. Scholars who examine her early manuscripts, housed at what is now called simply Georgia College, are always taken aback by their awkwardness.2 As she freely acknowledged, she came into her own as an artist only after undergoing a full New Critical initiation at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop under the tutelage of Paul Engle and Andrew Lytle, with Brooks and Warren’s then ubiquitous Understanding Fiction providing the models.

Like so many college-trained writers who have succeeded her, O’Connor never wrote without a sense of the critics looking over her shoulder. Nor, in her shorter fiction at least, did she ever stray from the regnant Creative Writing mode. Even the most impressive and original of her stories adhere to the classroom formula of her day: show, don’t tell; keep the narrative voice distinct from those of your characters; cultivate understatement; develop a central image or symbol to convey your theme “objectively”; and point everything toward one neatly sprung ironic reversal. No one has ever put it…

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