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 all together with greater deftness.
A cynic might say, then, that in lionizing O’Connor the American university has not so much acknowledged a literary genius as bestowed a posthumous laurel on its most diligent student. Whatever the reason, O’Connor now holds a niche in the anthologies nearly as secure-looking as Hemingway’s or Faulkner’s and more so than those of, say, Anderson, Fitzgerald, Lewis, and Dos Passos. Virtually every American survey course sets aside a day for one of her crystalline, eminently teachable stories such as “Revelation,” “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” or “Good Country People.” The violence of action and freakishness of portraiture that troubled many of her earliest readers scarcely raise an eyebrow today, while the ironies, paradoxes, Doppelgängers, and image patterns that she so painstakingly implanted in her texts stand available for moralized “close reading” of exactly the sort that she herself mastered at Iowa four decades ago.
As this description may imply, however, the question of O’Connor’s stature is hardly settled for good. Is she really to be acknowledged as the preeminent fiction writer of the postwar period? No less an honor must have been intended by the publication, last year, of her Collected Works in the prestigious Library of America series—the closest thing to a formal canonization that our dispersed and eclectic culture can now bestow. But to contemplate not a story or two but her whole body of fiction wedged against those of such demigods as Melville and James and Twain is to face the issue of her plenitude, or lack of it, in a suddenly glaring light. Placed in such company, O’Connor’s works for all their brilliance cannot conceal a certain narrowness of emphasis and predictability of technique.
O’Connor’s sensibility, as she well knew, was maladapted to the incremental, circumstantial, untranscendent development that typically sustains a novel between its moments of peak signification. Her two quirky novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, are considerably alike in theme and structure if not in texture. Both of them, especially Wise Blood, are top-heavy with obvious symbols. More damagingly, neither succeeds in enlisting most readers’ sympathy with, or even their credence in, the final turn toward salvation that the author imposes on her spasmodic, one-dimensional, Christfleeing protagonist. And even the individually dazzling stories, once we have been alerted to the world view that animates them, can all be seen to be performing the same religious maneuver—namely, a humbling of secular egoism to make way for a sudden infusion of God’s grace. That is not, one would think, a device with a great deal of literary mileage left in it, either inside or beyond the university.
Indeed, the current iconoclastic mood of academic trend setters might suggest that even within the world of “English,” O’Connor’s stock is due for what Wall Street calls a correction. After all, the religious neo-orthodoxy of the post-World War II university has long since evaporated. A demystifying sensibility cannot help but be restless with O’Connor’s latent premise of a fixed theological backdrop to human action, with God and Satan vying for possession of the individual soul and with the author standing helpfully by to mete out rebukes to the impious. Meanwhile, the recent revival of forthrightly ideological habits of reading portends a related kind of trouble. In a time of rapidly expanding ethnic and egalitarian sentiment in the universities, O’Connor’s provincial conservatism, especially with regard to the race issue, will probably come to seem harder to discount.
Academic second thoughts about O’Connor already appear to be astir, although, curiously, it is her would-be protectors who chiefly manifest them. Here and there, one notices, her penchant for settled judgments is being treated as a worrisome problem. But today, no less than in the prime of the New Criticism, the professorial instinct when a difficulty looms is not to face it squarely but to reach for a methodological wand that can make it disappear. In the Fifties that protective principle was “organic unity” or “ironic vision”; now it is some form of deconstructive loosening whereby the offensive content can be represented as neutralized or altogether negated by subversive textual forces.
Consider, for example, an article in the December 1989 number of American Literature, the flagship journal in its field: James M. Mellard’s “Flannery O’Connor’s Others: Freud, Lacan, and the Unconscious.” Until recently, Mellard claims, O’Connor’s religious explications of her own works placed her high among those modern authors “who have had their way with critics.” But today, he says, any “metaphysics of presence” whatsoever, to say nothing of an explicitly Catholic variety, is anathema to us; we can’t allow ourselves to heed “irrelevant” authorial directives along such lines. What should we do instead?
The solution, I suggest, is to displace O’Connor’s way toward something else, some other Other, the Otherness that postmodernists such as Lacan find inside human texts—and the text that is human—rather than outside in some metaphysical space. In a critical turn that no doubt would utterly have dismayed O’Connor, we are enabled to see that a reading through Lacan, rather than Freud, leads to another notion of the Other. The Other of her art is not necessarily any God of theology, and it may yet be the Other of psychoanalysis and the unconscious.
Thus the critic, for O’Connor’s own presumed good, proposes to disregard the “higher” thematic content of her works and insert a suitably lower one in its place. Where God was, there shall the Lacanian unconscious be. And though this appropriation may appear violent, it turns out, Mellard says, “to include a vindication of sorts for O’Connor.” Once we have chosen to regard the unconscious, rather than Christ, as the proper goal of reconciliation toward which everything finally points, “the end results for the subjects of her fiction remain very much the same.” There is benefit here, then, for both of the affected parties: O’Connor gets to keep the positive and negative moral judgments that she passes on her characters, and we get to replace the embarrassing theological basis of those judgments with something congenially secular, subterranean, and Continental.
To illustrate how the academy’s now favorite offshoot of Freudianism can be supposed to pervade O’Connor’s fiction, Mellard devises a standard Lacanian reading of “A View of the Woods.” Characters, scenes, and even single words are said to reverberate in what Mellard calls “wonderfully Lacanian ways,” with cryptic (if often far-fetched) reference to castration, the mirror stage, the moi, the law, the Other, the Name of the Father, and the Imaginary and the Symbolic. And with this much compliance extorted from the text, O’Connor’s obsolete Christian theme can be confidently recast in more palatable terms. In killing his nine-year-old granddaughter, the story’s seventy-nine-year-old protagonist is not, as O’Connor thought she meant, thereby resisting salvation but rather expressing narcissism and an oedipal fixation on his mother.
It may be doubted, however, whether such patent critical tampering really constitutes a vindication of O’Connor’s art. The very extremity of Mellard’s tactics appears to bespeak discomfort with her fiction in its unadulterated state. Moreover, the critic can hardly be said to have disposed of the problem that originally troubled him. Though he has managed to spurn O’Connor’s obnoxious Christian glosses, his Lacanian reading reinstates a “metaphysics of presence” no less rigid than the redemptive meaning it is supposed to dislodge. If one is worried about allowing complex literary texture to congeal into allegory, what is there to choose between one Name of the Father and another?
Mellard appears to realize that his master key for thematic substitutions will appear trivial unless he can provide a show of biographical justification for it. Freud, he therefore alleges, actually was O’Connor’s psychic “Other”—the figure she most feared, since his explanatory system covered the same terrain as her own while eliminating any recourse to theism. But this hypothesis requires as much license with the facts as does the critic’s reading of “A View of the Woods.” Thus, for example, when O’Connor rejects a correspondent’s surmise that Sheppard in “The Lame Shall Enter First” is really a representation of Freud, Mellard finds that she is “protesting too much,” denying her all-consuming fear of “possession” by her true psychological master. Mellard cannot afford to consider that O’Connor may simply be right: Freud and Sheppard bear no resemblance worth mentioning.
This is not to deny, however, that Freud played a part in O’Connor’s moral and psychological thought. She realized that he had anticipated her idea that human beings are deluded by their mental estrangement from drives that must nevertheless find expression. But in O’Connor’s world view, the “natural” human core that gets sublimated and perverted is not libido but an innate love of the Creator. Since to a third party the Christian and psychoanalytic systems, of explanation would appear equally undemonstrable and reductive, it is culturally parochial to say, as Mellard does, that the spiritual strivings of O’Connor’s characters must “really” refer to the castration complex, the mirror stage, and so forth. O’Connor emerges from Mellard’s attempted salvage operation looking as intractable as ever to a postmodern, poststructuralist makeover.
A parallel effort to save the author from her announced values can be found in the latest of the twenty-two books on her to have appeared thus far, Robert H. Brinkmeyer’s The Art and Vision of Flannery O’Connor. Unlike Mellard, Brinkmeyer is at heart an old-fashioned thematic critic, seeking only to discover what makes O’Connor’s works coherent and successful in their own terms. Significantly, however, he too regards her Catholic principles as a potential threat to her stature. In particular, he worries about an apparent unyieldingness in her, a tendency to “suppress and punish” those characters who defy her supernaturalism. Unless that impression can be effectively countered, Brinkmeyer feels, we must resign ourselves to thinking of O’Connor as a minor artist.
For a remedy, Brinkmeyer turns to a truncated, moralized version of the great Soviet critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s now modish idea of “the dialogic imagination.” O’Connor, he asserts, grasped the unfruitfulness of aesthetic “monologism,” whereby “artists do not interact with their characters but manipulate them to illustrate and validate their own visions.” She saved herself from this error, Brinkmeyer claims, by imaginatively entertaining two radically incompatible versions of Christianity, channeling all her “fundamentalism” into her narrators and then turning those narrators into objects of Catholic judgment. The outcome, he says, is an endlessly extended Bakhtinian interplay of voices, affirming neither one theology nor its rival but only the desirability of keeping the self in a constant state of revision.
This sounds plausible enough until one returns to O’Connor’s works and begins looking for those satirized “fundamentalist” narrators. They are nowhere to be seen. Instead, we find a uniformly urbane and laconic manner of storytelling that generates abundant irony, but never detectably at the expense of “the narrator.” Brinkmeyer has simply invented a scapegoat figure so that O’Connor herself can be absolved of the cardinal sin against his own age: the harboring of “a univocal and finalized consciousness.”
The lesson of suspended judgment and perpetual flux that Brinkmeyer draws from O’Connor’s works, furthermore, is foreign to everything she passionately believed. She faulted her contemporaries not for monologism but for being, in her words, “swept this way and that by momentary convictions,” and she detested nothing so heartily as Brinkmeyer’s ideal of self-development for its own sake. Her fictional universe is one in which, as she herself put it, “everything works toward its true end or away from it, everything is ultimately saved or lost.” Though there is much that is disturbing and even ambiguous about O’Connor’s world, critics who seek to justify her in postmodern terms would do well to cease evading her intellectual and emotional loyalty to a single value system.
In the entire body of Flannery O’Connor’s available statements, both public and private, one finds not a whisper of dissent from the central teachings of Roman Catholicism—from the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and the reality of heaven, Satan, and the angels to the belief that the Church is God’s sole medium for dispensing both redemption and divine truth. The literally present body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, she declared, “is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” Nor did she experience her hereditary faith—she was a fourth-generation Georgia Catholic—as inhibiting her art in any way. On the contrary, she considered Christian dogma at once “an instrument for penetrating reality” and a preventative against the relativism that was threatening, she felt, to leave modern fiction insipid and directionless.
Those who know O’Connor only through one or two popular stories are unlikely to realize the intensity of her Christian commitment. One need only scan her letters, however, to grasp the point. The first of her two collections of tales, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, consisted, she accurately wrote to Sally Fitzgerald, of “nine stories about original sin, with my compliments.” And the “standard of judgment” informing those stories, she insisted to another friend,
concerns specifically Christ and the Incarnation, the fact that there has been a unique intervention in history. It’s not a matter in these stories of Do Unto Others. That can be found in any ethical culture series. It’s the fact of the Word made flesh. As the Misfit said, “He thrown everything off balance and it’s nothing for you to do but follow Him or find some meanness.” That is the fulcrum that lifts my particular stories.
When even Christian readers kept perceiving her as a nihilist, moreover, O’Connor began making her redemptive theme more explicit, so that she could be “known at last to the Baptized.” Both The Violent Bear It Away and several of the stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge were reworked with that goal expressly in mind.
This built-in doctrinal emphasis has given an initial advantage to O’Connor’s Christian critics, who tend to make up in theological alertness for what they sometimes lack in literary sensibility.3 Most of us would recoil, for example, from one believer’s proposal that the escaped bull in “Greenleaf” symbolizes “the justice of God in its destructiveness and the love of Christ in its function of saving Mrs. May by revealing the truth to her”4—this in the act of goring her to death!—but O’Connor’s overriding concern with redemption impelled her, time after time, to impart just such last-moment visions to her main characters. Though not itself divine, the bull is indeed meant to be recognized as an instrument of God’s stern benevolence. Or again, take the gruesome remark of the serial killer, “The Misfit,” as he stands over the bullet-ridden corpse of the Grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: “She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” It may seem like lunacy to assert, as the pious critics regularly do, that this sadistic outburst embodies O’Connor’s own view of the matter. Yet her numerous surviving remarks about the story leave little doubt that she, too, wanted us to grasp that, as one critic puts it, “had death been perennially present to remind the Grandmother of her total dependence on God, she would have trusted in his grace rather than her own gentility.”
This last comment comes from Ralph C. Wood, who allots O’Connor two chapters in his unflaggingly devout new book, The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists. (The other three writers are Walker Percy, John Updike, and Peter De Vries.) Those chapters contain some of the best-in-formed and most discerning theological criticism O’Connor has yet received, and they press the case for a strictly Christian understanding of her work as far as it can plausibly go.
For Wood as for the other Christian exegetes, O’Connor is fundamentally a comic writer. Her droll puncturing of her characters’ self-satisfaction is underwritten by a larger comic sense deriving from the good news of Catholic eschatology. What the secular reader may perceive as barren “Southern Gothic” terrain, by turns banal and terrifying, is actually, Wood claims, suffused with prevenient grace—a divine pressure on the wills of characters whose entanglement in original sin has left them psychologically alienated from their Saviour. Through violence or humiliation or both, they must learn that it is futile to hide from an infinitely caring God.
From this point of view, the grace that is implied at the end of both of O’Connor’s novels and most of her stories cannot be faulted as a deus ex machina device; it resolves an underground spiritual battle at work from the outset. According to O’Connor’s comic vision, her heroes never stand a chance of possessing the worldly independence they think they want. Instead, they get liberated into the only freedom that counts: the freedom to obey. As O’Connor declared about Wise Blood, for some readers “Hazel Motes’s integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure [Christ] who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, his integrity lies in his not being able to.”
So far, so orthodox. As Wood feels obliged to concede, however, the quality of “Christianity” apparent in O’Connor’s relation to her characters must give us pause. Outside her fiction, she insistently avowed her allegiance to Vatican II theology, whereby God is regarded as continually expressing his benevolence within ordinary life. Such an outlook ought to prompt depictions of a world in which charity and compassion make at least a modest daily showing against sin. But the fiction tells a quite different story. With few exceptions, O’Connor’s characters can be divided into the stupid, the wicked, and the insufferably pretentious. However they may be presumed to stand with God, they strike us as objects of unremitting condescension. There is something suspiciously cruel, moreover, about a divine love that manifests itself chiefly in catastrophic, often annihilating, interventions against smugness. O’Connor’s God would seem to manifest himself only in exercises of power less reminiscent of the New Testament than of Jahweh at his most dyspeptic. As Wood observes with mournful delicacy, “O’Connor the Christian writer does not always discern that God’s resounding Yea always precedes and follows his devastating Nay.”
Like other Christian interpreters before him, Wood attempts to save the day by drawing finer theological distinctions. For him, O’Connor is not a Manichean who despises the world but only a latter-day Jansenist—a sympathizer, that is, with the branch of Catholic thought that rejected humanism, conceived of Christ as stern and inscrutable, and emphasized suffering and penitence as the only road to holiness. But this, as O’Connor recognized whenever she herself commented on Jansenism, is no defense at all, since the mainstream Church has always accused the Jansenists precisely of being Manicheans. Thus she strenuously and repeatedly disavowed any belief in Jansenist principles. Indeed, she even risked an opposite heresy by endorsing the mystical “evolutionary Christianity” of Teilhard de Chardin, whereby organic matter itself supposedly contains an inherent salvational teleology.
Yet at bottom the satirically minded O’Connor was anything but a mystic. It seems reasonable to conclude that in embracing Teilhard’s pseudoscience, she was doing what she could to neutralize, not exactly a contemptus mundi, but a temperamental impatience with what she took to be a virtually universal inanity. If so, her case is much like that of Graham Greene as she described it in a letter. Greene’s convictions, she wrote, are Catholic but his sensibility is Manichean; and of course, she pregnantly added, “you write with the sensibility.”
O’Connor’s own Manicheism expresses itself not only in the portrayal of an undignified human species but also in an emphasis on redemption so uncompromising as to be dubiously Christian in spirit. In her rendered world, mere suffering elicits no authorial sympathy; nor, more tellingly, does the infliction of suffering incur her unequivocal blame. Both Hazel Motes and young Tarwater commit murders along their paths to acceptance of their Saviour, yet in neither case are we given reason to feel that this grave sin appears as such to either the hero or his author. What does count absolutely for O’Connor is faith in Christ, arrived at by any means necessary; and the active imagination of evil that facilitates that faith is thus a higher virtue for her than ordinary decency. The Misfit, in his deranged obsession with the truth or falsity of the resurrection story, appears closer to O’Connor’s heart than the whole innocuous family that he massacres.
One of the earliest critics to drink in that truth without gagging was the novelist John Hawkes, who asserted in 1962 that O’Connor, like Blake’s Milton, was of the Devil’s party without knowing it.5 Though he and O’Connor became friends, they could never settle that issue between them. They were classically talking past each other—O’Connor the clear-principled intentionalist, secure in her knowledge of what she wanted her fiction to convey, versus Hawkes the phenomenologist of the sentence, insisting that only a diabolical consciousness could have created such pitiless grotesques as a young mother whose face is “as broad and innocent as a cabbage,” or an old woman “about the size of a cedar fence post,” or a confidence man with “an honest look that fitted into his face like a set of false teeth.”
The Hawkes-O’Connor debate has not subsided in the quarter-century since O’Connor’s death. It is the vortex into which nearly every other question about her work gets inevitably drawn, and there is never a shortage of volunteers to replace the original antagonists. Thus today a Christian interpreter like Wood must try his best to fend off a secularist like the French critic André Bleikasten, who maintains, in the best Devil’s-party tradition, that O’Connor’s fictions show merely a token interest in spiritual growth, that her freaks are just freaks and not “prophet-freaks,” and that the tyranny she exercises over her characters’ fates derives from her identification with a counterterrorist deity who settles her private scores against the world.6
The Devil’s-party school has performed a valuable function in returning O’Connor criticism to earth—in preventing all the talk of grace from obscuring the actual antics, as Hawkes put it, of “soulless characters who leer, or bicker, or stare at obscenities on walls, or maim each other on a brilliant but barren earth.” Ultimately, however, this way of reading misses a crucial fact: O’Connor is most “diabolic” precisely when she is being most militantly Catholic.
This connection can be plainly discerned in her less guarded prose—as, for example, in a letter in which she calls the Church’s position on birth control
the most absolutely spiritual of all her stands…. I wish various fathers would quit trying to defend it by saying that the world can support 40 billion. I will rejoice in the day when they say: This is right, whether we all rot on top of each other or not, dear children, as we certainly may.
This Bosch-like nightmare, with humanity conceived as a putrefying heap which is nonetheless bound to its torment by divine law, is closer to the Church’s historic social vision than most modern Christians can bring themselves to acknowledge.
At the heart of O’Connor’s value system, it would seem, lies neither charity nor sympathy with the Devil but rather a stern fanaticism, a scorn for the liberal attempt to dispense with supernatural aid. As she put it in one of her least noticed but most revealing statements, her introduction to a memoir of a little girl who had died from a hideous cancer, our age attempts to govern by “a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror.” O’Connor thus casts a cold eye on the whole modern world, whose recent cataclysms are just what it deserves, in her opinion, for having taken up with the Enlightenment’s fatal substitution of reason for revelation. From this reactionary standpoint, it would be better not to address pain and injustice at all than to do so in a secular way.
O’Connor’s absolutism doubtless served to sharpen the edge of her satire. At the same time, it also helps to explain why she had so little access to novelistic empathy and why she could not be shaken by the momentous events occurring just beyond her porch in the Fifties and Sixties. Even the Christians among us, I should think, must feel the shortcomings of a perspective that narrows all social problems to the abiding question of whether an individual can believe that Jesus died for his sake. Precisely when she is being (from her point of view) most expansive, casting her eyes upward to a realm of awesome illumination, O’Connor is most vulnerable to the charge of resorting to parochial and quietistic reflexes.
The wrenching issue in O’Connor’s time and place was, of course, civil rights and she was far from oblivious to it. It figures prominently in several of her later stories, most notably “Revelation” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” More generally, black-white relations are of signal importance throughout her work—never more so than in the penultimate tale she wrote, “Judgment Day.” The fact that that story deals with interracial friendship as well as interracial violence has been highlighted by critics seeking to mitigate the casual racism that crops up in some of her correspondence about “the niggers” on her mother’s farm. And indeed, the black characters in her fiction generally do come off better than the whites—more humane, more intuitively sensible, and of course markedly less susceptible to the status anxiety and self-aggrandizement that she loved to pillory.
The problem in O’Connor’s handling of race, then, is not a lack of insight into her black characters—not, at least, into those who occupy traditionally subservient roles. In view of the social and political tensions of her time, her refusal either to demonize or to sentimentalize “the Negro” bespeaks an admirable insistence on applying a single standard of judgment to everyone. The problem lies with what she leaves unexpressed—namely, any appreciation of the stakes for human dignity at play in the civil rights movement. In story after story, the only white characters who even pretend to care about black emancipation are hypocritical, self-deluded fools who presumably would be better occupied looking out for their own salvation. By default, then, we are left to gather that any active concern to break down the South’s apartheid must be a form of vanity—and therefore, ultimately, of resistance to God. O’Connor’s deity, it could be inferred, won’t stand for venial hubris but shrugs at large-scale and systematic oppression.
Ralph Wood puts the best face on this coldness by telling us that O’Connor found it “more courageous…to write about liberal self-satisfaction than about racist injustice.” But it took no courage for a white Georgian in the Fifties and Sixties to belittle the civil rights movement, as O’Connor usually did. It wasn’t courage, for instance, that prompted her to declare in an interview, “White people and colored people are used to milling around together in the South, and this integration only means that they are going to be milling around together in a few more places.”7 Nor was courage required for her to reject a correspondent’s suggestion that she entertain James Baldwin in Milledgeville:
It would cause the greatest trouble and disturbance and disunion. In New York it would be nice to meet him; here it would not. I observe the traditions of the society I feed on—it’s only fair. Might as well expect a mule to fly as me to see James Baldwin in Georgia.
As she put it in another letter, her real feelings amounted to “a plague on everybody’s house as far as the race business goes.”8 Surely there is a link to be drawn between such vexation and the transcendentalizing tactics of her fiction, whose predictable fadeout to the horizon obviates any need to make a final reckoning with racial guilt.
O’Connor’s religious critics, harboring their own predilection for ennobling glimpses of the beyond, remain largely blind to this problem. Insofar as they perceive any dissonance between the author’s Christian tenets and her complacency about social injustice, they cope with it by scouring her oeuvre for instances of positive assurance that everyone, black and white alike, is eligible to be saved—as if the only issue were how O’Connor feels about the next world rather than the one we actually know. And when they find such an instance of general salvationism, they incautiously award the highest aesthetic status to the work that embodies it.
Here again Wood is representative:
At its worst,…her fiction is animated by a baleful desire to lash modernity for its unbelief, and thus to depict this late stage of human history as uniquely damned and devoid of grace. At its best, however, O’Connor’s work overcomes this incipient dualism. She discerns that the Kingdom of Heaven is not borne violently away by frustrated atheists; it is gratuitously given to the unsuspecting children of God.
Thus Wood exalts O’Connor’s own dubiously chosen favorite among her stories, “The Artificial Nigger,” in which the protagonist undergoes an explicitly Christian expansion of sympathy and, for once, is rewarded with a no less explicit assurance that he is saved:
[Mr. Head] realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.
The trouble is, however, that these lines, which Wood singles out for praise, belong to one of the few trite, dramatically unearned, propagandistic passages in all of O’Connor’s mature fiction.
In context, furthermore, this gratuitous epiphany takes on another troubling aspect. As O’Connor wrote to a friend, the Sambo figurine that occasions Mr. Head’s vision is meant to suggest “the redemptive quality of the Negro’s suffering for us all.” “It points,” as Wood emphasizes, “to a suffering that has been willingly, patiently borne.” But this reversion, in the year of Brown v. Board of Education, to the exemplary passivity of Uncle Tom must strike us as a regressive political act—and doubly so when the lesson turns out to be not the need for black freedom but access to heaven for “us all.” Far from demonstrating O’Connor’s compassion or silencing doubts about her sensitivity to the race issue, “The Artificial Nigger” epitomizes her penchant for beating retreats from social struggle to allegedly eternal meaning. And it does so by means of a lame device, a too obviously “planted” symbol that is supposed to initiate a spiritual metamorphosis in an otherwise earthbound character.
By now, I imagine, readers who care about Flannery O’Connor for her distinctively literary qualities—her extravagant yet piercingly apt imagery, her subtle wit, her eye for the maliciously revealing detail, her infallible sense of pace and timing, her knack of sliding seamlessly between the petty and the sinister—must be thoroughly exasperated. They could gather that I have been depreciating her fiction for its failure to pass a crude litmus test for liberal sentiments. My aim, however, is just the opposite: to show that we can never recognize the strongest examples of her fiction, or let them work their magic on us, if we keep demanding that they also flatter our opinions.
That mistake is shared in roughly equal measure by O’Connor’s Christian and anti-Christian critics. For James Mellard, O’Connor is too profound to be taken for a mere Catholic; she must rather be attuned to the abysmal Lacanian powers in which he invests his own faith. For Richard Brinkmeyer, in contrast, O’Connor has to be an acolyte of the unfinished, experimental self—the therapeutic ideal of a more mobile and narcissistic epoch than her own. James Wood is able to avoid such fatuity because he can gladly embrace O’Connor’s values and purposes as she herself understood them. But even here, we notice, the critic has situated his pulpit over a trap door. Precisely because Wood broadly shares O’Connor’s theology, he cannot grant that her most successful art tends to be that which is least doctrinally explicit, allowing basic and sometimes terrifying uncertainties to remain in fruitful play.
O’Connor’s fiction regularly presents us with a grimmer, more “godforsaken” world than we could have guessed from her collected remarks about it. At the same time, however, that world is suffused with a portentousness whose undeniable source is the author’s religion—her belief in a looming metaphysical presence that casts an ironic shadow on nearly everything her characters attempt to do. Her best writing is that in which “mystery,” as she called it, drastically intrudes on the mundane without requiring us either to embrace a dogma or to suspend our belief in naturalistic causation.
Take, for example, the most celebrated of O’Connor’s tales, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” which is at once plausible in each detail, cumulatively horrific, and refractory to straightforward interpretation. Is The Misfit a psychotic, a sinner, a lost pilgrim, or the Devil himself? And in calling him “one of my own children” just before she is killed, is the Grandmother surmounting her earlier vanity and expressing a Christlike grace, or is she simply continuing to plead selfishly for her life? Instead of trying to resolve such indeterminacy, we need to accept it as a product of conscious artistic tact. To be sure, O’Connor eventually offered her own, predictably orthodox, answers to our questions about the story’s meaning.9 It is too seldom remembered, however, that she gave those answers as a reader of her work, looking backward with an eye to doctrinal vindication. As an author, she aimed not at conspicuously “Catholic fiction,” which she loathed, but at the Jamesian ideal of felt life, and more often than not she brilliantly attained it.
Where the religious critics go most seriously astray is in assuming that O’Connor must have chosen the bare ingredients of her artistry—her characters, settings, actions, and tone—with a didactic end already in mind. She herself was not so naive about her sources of imaginative energy. The most influential of her distant literary forebears, she knew, was the sensationalist Edgar Allan Poe, whose taste for incongruity and horror she had already acquired in childhood. And she also acknowledged (though not fully enough) the revolutionary example of Nathanael West, the stylistic and thematic godfather of Wise Blood and the chief model for all her subsequent experiments in the grotesque. O’Connor adopted wholesale West’s surreal comic violence, his deadpan manner, and (in Wise Blood) his episodic sense of plot and his theme of the contorted religious quest. Theological reassurance, however, was one thing she couldn’t have taken from him. It ought to give the Christian critics pause to reflect that the most formative experience of her career was her literary encounter with a cynical Jewish atheist who saw no hope for humanity from any quarter.
O’Connor’s real reason for writing, she said more than once, was simply that she was good at it. In her view, a writer could only follow her imagination wherever it led and then hope to exert some ethical control over the result. As she was fond of pointing out, St. Thomas himself believed that “rectitude of the appetite” was unnecessary to art. Thus she was not as surprised as she pretended to be when people told her that her works revel in violence and spite. Catholicism, as she construed it, was not a matter of being good or even devout but of knowing that the Church and its sacraments could be called upon when needed. They were especially needed, she thought, to turn her gift for demolition to godly ends, but she was shrewd enough—and also sufficiently confident of divine approval—not to mollify the pitiless caricature and jarring metaphors that turned her otherwise taciturn prose into a minefield of harsh surprises.
Such a mixture of faith and cool professionalism is evidently too untidy for most of O’Connor’s critics, who must either reduce her work to homiletics or denounce her religious protestations as a sham. Yet there have been refreshing exceptions that deserve our notice. In 1972, for example, Miles Orvell’s Invisible Parade: The Fiction of Flannery O’Connor provided a supple appreciation of her tragicomic mode, relating it at once to her temperamental wavering between Jansenist severity and Teilhard’s evolutionary optimism, to her immersion in diverse literary models from Poe and Hawthorne through Faulkner and West, and to her consequent struggle to mediate between allegory and satire, romance and realism, an inner circle of Catholic readers and a wide audience of unbelievers. Undogmatically and convincingly, Orvell showed where the fiction manages to achieve a universal appeal—not, in a word, where O’Connor deviates from her convictions but where she most rigorously shuns the temptation to be didactic.
In 1982, again, Frederick Asals advanced Orvell’s critical enterprise in the subtlest and, to my taste, the most impressive book published to date, Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. For Asals, what sets this author apart is not the fictionalization of theology or a taste for the outrageous but something more peculiarly literary, “the tautness of concordia discors.” Asals sees O’Connor as a master of tension between bizarre action and understatement, the cosmic and the quotidian, laughter and terror. Her secret, he believes, was the sense she cultivated of how to indulge her bleakest imaginings while simultaneously subjecting them to forms of control that were both aesthetic and ascetic.
Asals is especially helpful because, unlike the horde of critics who expound a static deductive vision on O’Connor’s part, he traces her growth toward the relative serenity of her later work. This is not to say that he undervalues Wise Blood as a precocious tour de force. On the contrary, he praises its uniquely exuberant fusion of comic and repellent images. But he also shows that after 1952 O’Connor made a concerted effort to bring her repugnance for everything physical under ironic control:
The central thrust in all of Flannery O’Connor’s later fiction is to explode [a] complacent escapism or pseudotranscendence by insisting again and again that existence can only be in the body, in matter, whatever horrors that may entail. To recall that in its deepest implications Wise Blood moved precisely in the opposite direction is to point to the profundity of the shift that occurred in her imaginative thinking. For if the narrative eye of the novel can discover no spirit in the matter at which it gazes, the author of the later work firmly suggests that there is no point in looking for it anywhere else.
In addition, however, Asals perceives that O’Connor never really discarded her dualistic outlook. Instead of attaining to the full Christian humanism that she liked to profess, she could only press her complacent characters either “downward toward the level of animals and things or upward toward the mania of numinous possession.”
For all her private loyalty to the Church’s hopeful teachings, then, the world of O’Connor’s fiction remains radically askew. Readers immersed in that fiction without a lifeline to the doctrinal assurance found in her lectures and letters tend to feel an existential vertigo at the very moments where the Christian critics want them to feel most worshipful. And this response cannot be dismissed as a mere error, a product of incomplete knowledge. O’Connor’s works, we must understand, are not finally about salvation but about doom—the sudden and irremediable realization that there is no exit from being, for better or worse, exactly who one is.
If we ask why this should have become O’Connor’s central theme immediately after the publication of Wise Blood, an obvious answer suggests itself. She was still working on that novel when she was nearly killed by her first siege of lupus. Though the immediate crisis passed, the onset of semi-invalidism canceled her hopes for an independent, normal, physically active life in the literary Northeast, where she felt with good reason that she had earned a place. In effect, she was abruptly handed a life sentence of exile, disease, and a social role, as she once memorably expressed it, of covering the stain on the sofa at her mother’s parties. To pursue her art in those conditions without succumbing to anger and self-pity required a daily heroism whose traces she assiduously hid from everyone. Yet the experience also ended by imparting a moral complexity and poignancy to the satiric aggression that had roved unchecked through the pages of Wise Blood.
It is no accident that O’Connor’s mature writing dwells on both the friction and claustrophobia of adversary family relations and on the humbling of false autonomy, especially of intellectual pride. To survive in Milledgeville without a paralyzing bitterness, she needed to assimilate her case to a general sense of the human plight, finding amusement not just in the Mrs. Turpins and Mrs. Hopewells who surrounded her but also in the Hulgas and Asburys and Mary Graces who embodied her own impotent urge to rebel, abstain, escape, obliterate. Her finest works make an impression of almost superhuman detachment, not because she is fair to all tendencies but because none, least of all her own, are exempted from mocking judgment.
The same kind of stoic impersonality, we could gather, chilled O’Connor’s relation to her God, who must have seemed to test her daily in the manner of Job. She kept her formal beliefs intact but, revealingly, saved her most acerbic sarcasms for the idea of “an emotionally satisfying faith.” To make her constricted circumstances bearable and to face death with equanimity, she had to hold tight to a self-abnegating conformism, mortifying the skeptical and individualistic side of her intellect even while she was working discreetly to mitigate smugness and cultural isolationism within the Church.10 And perhaps it was this same need to keep reconciling herself to a cruel and unanswerable God that gave her best stories their air of ruthless drivenness, of allowing merely moral issues to drop out of the equation.
Girding herself against the sentimental indulgences of “the novena-rosary tradition,” as she called it, O’Connor ended by coming dangerously near to exhausting her single thematic vein of individual pride and the “mystery” that must always strike it down. If she is indeed a great modern writer, it is not by virtue of amplitude of vision, depth of feeling, or social range but rather through the perfecting of a single hardedged mode. Yet if her outlook remains one-directional and obsessive, it is hardly more so than that of, say, Hemingway or Lawrence. Her path was less original than theirs, more bounded by academic as well as ecclesiastic rules, but it was also free of their bullying egoism and self-deception.
The primary question for criticism, in any event, should not be what the author failed to include but whether the works hold up on their chosen ground. We cannot regret, then, that O’Connor avoided using her stories and novels to untangle her twisted feelings about segregation. Rather than open that Pandora’s box, she was shrewd enough to portray the prejudice of others in a few efficient strokes—as when the self-infatuated Grandmother patronizes a “cute little pickaninny” by the roadside, or when the supercilious liberal Asbury tries to fraternize with one of his mother’s farm hands but unself-consciously calls him “boy,” or when the hoglike Mrs. Turpin thanks Jesus because “He had not made her a nigger or white-trash or ugly.” We don’t need to approve of O’Connor’s own racial views in order to see how deadly accurate she is about the way bigotry springs from the commonest forms of status anxiety.
Nor, finally, need we come down definitively on one side or the other of the “Devil’s party” debate. If the issue still remains open for the righteous and didactic Milton, the same will surely hold for a writer schooled in the discreet and elusive aesthetics of the objective correlative. “I belong to that literary generation,” O’Connor once recalled, “whose education was in the hands of the New Critics or those influenced by them, and with these people the emphasis was on seeing that your thoughts and feelings—whatever they were—were aptly contained within your elected image.” Such reticence fostered ambiguity even where the “thoughts and feelings” may have been clear as glass. And O’Connor’s, by her own reckoning, were not. “If you live today,” as she said in a letter, “you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it’s the gas you breathe.” And elsewhere she reflected, “I doubt if anyone ever touches the limits at either end of his personality. We are not our own light.”
The exact balance in O’Connor’s mind, then, between entertaining the void and taming it with the Cross, between making artistic concessions to her readers’ godlessness and secretly trying it out as an imaginative hypothesis, can never be determined. Instead of claiming her for a party of either stripe, we need to recall that her first loyalty as a writer of fiction was to the cause of vivid, resonant, radically economical art. It is a measure of her success that we are still grasping at formulas that might explain, or even explain away, her electrifying power.
April 26, 1990
Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters, Sally Fitzgerald, ed. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), pp. 86–87. ↩
For a thorough account of those documents, see Stephen G. Driggers and Robert J. Dunn with Sarah Gordon, The Manuscripts of Flannery O’Connor at Georgia College (University of Georgia Press, 1989). ↩
For other Christian readings, not invariably connected to a profession of faith on the critic’s part, see Stanley Edgar Hyman, Flannery O’Connor (University of Minnesota Press, 1966); Carter W. Martin, The True Country: Themes in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor (Vanderbilt University Press, 1969); Leon V. Driskell and Joan T. Brittain, The Eternal Crossroads: The Art of Flannery O’Connor (University of Kentucky Press, 1971); David Eggenschwiler, The Christian Humanism of Flannery O’Connor (Wayne State University Press, 1972); Kathleen Feeley, Flannery O’Connor: Voice of the Peacock (Rutgers University Press, 1974); Preston M. Browning, Jr., Flannery O’Connor (Southern Illinois University Press, 1972); John R. May, The Pruning Word: The Parables of Flannery O’Connor (University of Notre Dame Press, 1976); Harold Fickett and Douglas R. Gilbert, Flannery O’Connor: Images of Grace (Eerdmans, 1986); Marshall Bruce Gentry, Flannery O’Connor’s Religion of the Grotesque (University Press of Mississippi, 1986); John F. Desmond, Risen Sons: Flannery O’Connor’s Vision of History (University of Georgia Press, 1987); and Brian Abel Ragen, A Wreck on the Road to Damascus: Innocence, Guilt, and Conversion in Flannery O’Connor (Loyola University Press, 1989). ↩
Martin, The True Country, p. 148. ↩
See John Hawkes, “Flannery O’Connor’s Devil,” Sewanee Review, Vol. 70 (1962), pp. 395–402. ↩
See André Bleikasten, “The Heresy of Flannery O’Connor,” in Les Americanistes: New French Criticism on Modern American Fiction, edited by Ira D. Johnson and Christiane Johnson (Kennikat, 1978), pp. 53–70. Books that join Bleikasten and Hawkes in either rejecting or largely circumventing a doctrinally based criticism include Josephine Hendin, The World of Flannery O’Connor (Indiana University Press, 1970); Miles Orvell, Invisible Parade: The Fiction of Flannery O’Connor (Temple University Press, 1972); Martha Stephens, The Question of Flannery O’Connor (Louisiana University Press, 1973); Carol Shloss, O’Connor’s Dark Comedies: The Limits of Inference (Louisiana University Press, 1980); and Edward Kessler, Flannery O’Connor and the Language of Apocalypse (Princeton University Press, 1986). ↩
Rosemary M. Magee, ed., Conversations with Flannery O’Connor (University Press of Mississippi, 1987), p. 102. ↩
This is by no means to say that O’Connor actively condoned segregation. Like most Southern writers and intellectuals of her time, she somewhat incoherently combined a tacit white-supremacist bent with cautious approval of a gradualist progress toward integration, along some unspecified path that Southerners could be counted on to find within their own “code of manners based on charity.” She was typical in supposing that “the Negro” was already a satisfied as well as a savvy participant in that code and in focusing most of her resentment not on segregation but on Northern busybodies. For an overview of such assumptions in O’Connor’s time and of their roots in the previous generation, see Richard H. King, “The South and Cultural Criticism,” American Literary History, Vol. 1 (Fall 1989), pp. 699–714. ↩
See especially Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, eds., Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), pp. 110–113. ↩
The chief record of this struggle between pietistic and ecumenical tendencies is The Presence of Grace And Other Book Reviews by Flannery O’Connor, compiled by Leo J. Zuber, edited by Carter W. Martin (University of Georgia Press, 1983). There we find O’Connor, writing for regional diocesan papers, arguing for a measure of religious tolerance and relaxed censorship but also displaying a surprising meekness and credulity—as, for example, when she toes the Vatican’s shifting line on her cherished Teilhard, or when she takes seriously a theologian’s dizzy claim that telepathy and clairvoyance are “gifts which were possessed by man before the Fall and which now appear as rudiments of those powers.” ↩