“Life is suffering and it is violent, so overwhelming is it that we cope by voluntarily consenting to spiritual deafness,” Michael Rennier observes. “The reality of sin must be forced home to us by an act of divine violence so that our pretensions can once and for all be torn away.”
This is what he draws from Flannery O’Connor’s life, which is being featured on PBS in a new documentary, Uncommon Grace. Director Bridget Kurt agrees. “She wasn’t using violence to glorify it; she was showing how extreme moments in our lives are spiritual wake-up calls.”
Like the time when an escaped convict points a gun at a grandmother’s head. In that moment, all of her religiosity melted out of her, leaving her nothing but Jesus. She could have been a good woman had someone been there to threaten her everyday. That would have been respectable. But she didn’t need to be a good woman. She needed Jesus.
Perhaps O’Connor is just too Christian for secular schools. Kurt , a transplant from Northern Wisconsin, found less help than she expected when looking for material on O’Connor’s life.
“Even at her alma mater, GSCU in Milledgeville, very few students that we ran into on campus knew who O’Connor was,” Kurt told Milwaukee Magazine. “In Wisconsin, most of us know that Frank Lloyd Wright was a Wisconsin native because we are taught about famous Wisconsinites and we name libraries and schools after them. I’m not sure how much Flannery O’Connor is taught in Georgia schools.” (Via Prufrock News)
“When I taught English classes at a university in the Midwest,” Sarah Domet writes, “I often turned to William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! as a representative sample of a ‘Southern’ book. . . . At the heart of the novel stands a character who both transcends and is forever bound by his roots.”
Interestingly, I have never taught Absalom! Absalom! in any Southern classroom. Perhaps this is due to my fear of being outed as an outsider myself, my fear of being seen as the dreaded Yankee stereotype who instructs Southerners on the ways of the world. Yet, as I was recently re-reading this great Southern novel, something struck me: My desires to belong to a new region—my anxieties of place, too—are all very Southern, at least in a literary sense. In my fear of not being Southern enough I was playing out the very themes of Southern fiction. Time and time again Southern writers confront the conflicting notions of what it means to live in the South, be of the South, find a home in a place with a complicated history. Time and time again Southern writers have reminded me that misfits and outsiders alike all have a shot at redemption. It is Flannery O’Connor herself who famously notes, “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”
Flannery O’Connor’s desire to help us see.
Critic and editor Christopher Ricks suggests that this process is actually a good litmus test for determining the literary quality of a sentence, image, or phrase: if the words come to you, unbidden, as you are driving down the road or drinking a glass of water, then the writer has succeeded. Personally, after reading Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” I cannot look at a bare tree on a bright winter day and not admire the play of light through branches: “The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.” So, too, Saul Bellow’s description of a water glass in his novel Seize the Day is now firmly etched in my mind, and I find it true of even bottled water when the sun hits just right: “And a glass of water is only an ornament; it makes a hoop of brightness on the cloth; it is an angel’s mouth.”
“To believe nothing,” she says, “is to see nothing.” (via Prufrock News)
Jason Morgan asks, “Should you be telling the truth like Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, or Dewey Short?”
Let us say you are in a large lecture hall. The teacher begins to compare Scott Walker to Hitler. (Would that this were only a hypothetical case, but Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, recently took to Twitter to do just that.) Your hand goes up, perhaps against your better judgment. The professor looks up and acknowledges you. Now what?
Select Shorts offers this performance for Southern literature lovers (via Jeffrey Overstreet).
What did Flannery O’Connor pray for? To be guided toward the right people.
The Georgia Center for the Book has O’Connor’s prayer journal on the list of books all Georgians should read. The list for adults started in 2002. The Center’s coordinators started with a list of 25 books. They now add ten new books to the list each year. See all of their selections here.
Regarding the prayer journal, Betsy Childs describes it, saying, “O’Connor wasn’t a writer sitting at her typewriter crafting prayers; she was a girl pouring out her heart in longhand.”
As a small example, the young Georgia woman, while in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1946, prayed, “I dread, Oh Lord, losing my faith. My mind is not strong. It is a prey to all sorts of intellectual quackery.”
If only all Georgians would follow her Lord and heed this warning.
Nowhere did this spiritualizing of the material become more evident to Flannery O’Connor than in the civic boosterism of the 1950s. An editorial in Henry Luce’s Life magazine angered her because it charged that the nation’s novelists, in their existentialist angst, were failing to celebrate their prosperous and optimistic country. Luce’s editorialists thus summoned American writers to exhibit “the joy of life” and “the redemptive quality of spiritual purpose.” Where was such joyful purpose to be found? For Luce and his barkers, it lay in the nation’s remarkable decade of success: its unprecedented wealth, its world-dominating military power, its virtual achievement of a classless society, at least in comparison with other nations. For Flannery O’Connor, joy and purpose found in such places are gossamer and ephemeral things indeed.
This is not to say that O’Connor was an ingrate concerning her American freedoms. She was critical of her country because she loved it. She regarded the threat of Soviet communism as serious, for instance, even constructing a bomb shelter on her Georgia property. The family of refugees from post-war Poland whom she and her mother welcomed as workers on their dairy farm became the occasion for one of her best stories, “The Displaced Person.” O’Connor also refused, in 1956, to sell her work to Czech and Polish publishers, lest they use it for anti-American propaganda, as they had done with Jack London’s fiction. O’Connor also admired Reinhold Niebuhr for his principled opposition to Stalin’s desire to remake the whole of humanity into homo Sovieticus. For all the limits of American self-congratulation, it was infinitely preferable to the mind-body-soul destroying politics of the Gulag Archipelago.
From Ralph C. Wood’s “Flannery O’Connor: Stamped But Not Cancelled” (via Prufrock)