by Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in the New York Review of Books, April 9, 2009; this version reprinted in In Rough Country.
Writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable.... To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.
—Flannery O'Connor, "The Fiction Writer and His Country," Mystery and Manners
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, "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," Mystery and Manners
Short stories, for all the dazzling diversity of the genre, are of two general types: those that yield their meanings subtly, quietly, and are as nuanced and delicate and without melodrama as the unfolding of miniature blossoms in Japanese chrysanthemum tea, and those that explode in the reader's face. Flannery O'Connor (1925–1964) came of age in a time when subtlety and "atmosphere" in short stories were fashionable—as in the finely wrought, understated stories of such classic predecessors as Anton Chekhov, Henry James, and James Joyce, and such American contemporaries as Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Peter Taylor, and Jean Stafford—but O'Connor's plain-spoken, blunt, comic-cartoonish, and flagrantly melodramatic short stories were anything but fashionable. The novelty of her "acidly comic tales with moral and religious messages"—as Brad Gooch puts it in his new life of O'Connor—lay in their frontal assault upon the reader's sensibility: these were not refined New Yorker stories of the era in which nothing happens except inside characters' minds, but stories in which something happens of irreversible magnitude, often death by violent means. An escaped convict called the Misfit offhandedly slaughters a Southern family in back-country Georgia ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find"). A conniving old woman marries off her retarded daughter to a sinister one-armed tramp named Shiftlet, who immediately abandons the girl and drives off with the old woman's car ("The Life You Save May Be Your Own"). An embittered young woman, crippled by the loss of a leg (in a "hunting accident" when she was ten), who has changed her name from Joy to Hulga, is seduced by a hypocritical young Bible salesman who steals her wooden leg ("Good Country People"). Boy arsonists set fire to a wooded property out of pure meanness, like latter-day prophets "dancing in the fiery furnace" ("A Circle in the Fire"). A widowed property owner who imagines herself superior to her tenant farmers is gored to death by their runaway bull ("Greenleaf"). A mentally disturbed girl reading a textbook called Human Development in a doctor's waiting room suddenly throws the book at the head of a garrulous middle-class woman who holds herself above "poor-white trash" ("Revelation"). In the novella-length Wise Blood (1952), O'Connor's first published book, the fanatic Hazel Motes proclaims himself a prophet of the "Church without Christ" and does penance for his sins by gouging out an eye. In O'Connor's second, kindred novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1960), the young Francis Marion Tarwater drowns an idiot cousin while baptizing him, is drugged and raped by a sexual predator, and revives and lurches off, like Yeats's rough beast awakened, "toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping."
In the 1950s, when Flannery O'Connor first began to publish such idiosyncratic and mordantly comic fiction as Wise Blood and the story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955), the seemingly reclusive young writer from Milledgeville, Georgia—in Brad Gooch's description a "sleepy community at the dead center of Georgia" of which O'Connor said dryly, "We have a girls' college here, but the lacy atmosphere is fortunately destroyed by a reformatory, an insane asylum, and a military school"—was perceived as a younger cousin of such showier, more renowned, and best-selling Southern Gothic contemporaries as Carson McCullers and Truman Capote.1 In the wake of the more robust tall-tale Gothicism of William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell, with its encoded social/political significance, and unambiguous heterosexuality, the extreme, effete, self-consciously grotesque and sexually ambiguous fiction of McCullers and Capote attracted a good deal of quasi-literary media attention: recall the simperingly effeminate dust jacket photo of Truman Capote for his debut novel Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), and the scandalous quasi-literary life of the precocious McCullers who published her first, widely acclaimed novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) at the age of twenty-three, and by the age of thirty, given to alcoholic excess and a disastrous private life, was a burnt-out case despite the considerable achievement of The Member of the Wedding (1946). How ironic that during that turbulent, highly publicized lifetimes McCullers and Capote were far more famous than Flannery O'Connor, of whose invalided private life little was known, or might be said to be worth knowing; as O'Connor observed to a friend, "As for biographies, there won't be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy."
Throughout her radically truncated career, O'Connor's outwardly sensational, quirkily "Christian" fiction aroused mixed critical responses and modest sales; yet though she was to die of lupus at the young age of thirty-nine, leaving behind a relatively small body of work, her reputation has steadily increased in the intervening years, while those of McCullers and Capote have dramatically shrunk. Having long exhausted his talent by the time of his alcohol- and drug-related death in 1984, at the age of fifty-nine, Capote is now most regarded for his "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood, atypical of his work; McCullers may be remembered as a precocious but unevenly gifted writer of fiction for young adults whose work has failed to transcend its time and place. In such anthologies as The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike, Flannery O'Connor is included with one of her most frequently reprinted stories, "Greenleaf," while McCullers and Capote are missing altogether. Indeed, no postwar/posthumous literary reputation of the twentieth century, with the notable exception of Sylvia Plath, has grown more rapidly and dramatically than that of O'Connor, whose work has acquired a canonical status since her death in 1964.2
All this, in the face of O'Connor's unfashionable religious sensibility, in a mid-twentieth-century secular/materialist literary culture indifferent if not inhospitable to conservative Christian belief of the kind that seems to have shaped every aspect of the author's life. It's instructive to learn, for instance, in Gooch's meticulously detailed account of O'Connor's parochial school background in Savannah, Georgia, and her similarly circumscribed girlhood in Milledgeville, that she was born to an "Old Catholic" family with social pretensions on her mother Regina's side: a lifelong tug-of-war seems to have been enacted between the (quietly, slyly) rebellious Flannery and the stubborn, self-righteous, and unflagging Regina, whose efforts to mold her daughter into "the perfect Southern little girl" were doomed to failure. Instructive, too, to learn that the precociously gifted O'Connor thought of herself as "ancient" while still a child; the great trauma of her girlhood was her father Edward's death, from lupus, when O'Connor was fifteen, an event perceived by the stricken girl as a sign of God's grace equivalent to "a bullet in the side." "I can with one eye squinting take it all as a blessing."
By temperament and training puritanical, if not virulently antisexual, O'Connor was drawn to the writings of the eminent French Catholic novelist François Mauriac, whose books addressed "the irreconcilability of sexual passion with the world of pure spirit"; in her early twenties, as a graduate writing student in the Iowa Writers' Workshop, O'Connor was so timid about sexual matters that she worried that an obscure "seduction" passage in one of her workshop stories was "liable to corrupt anybody that read it and me too." (Her solution was to seek advice from an Iowa City priest who told her, commendably, that she "didn't need to write for fifteen-year-old girls"—though there is no evidence in O'Connor's fiction that she ever did write about anything remotely sexual, let alone salacious or obscene. The closest is the implied pederast rape scene at the end of The Violent Bear It Away.)
Religious belief seems to be irrevocably fused, in O'Connor's imagination, with extreme sexual repression characteristic of the 1950s—like one of her fanatic adolescent preachers, O'Connor was given to denouncing the "fornication" of New York City. She impressed Elizabeth Hardwick, in 1949, when they'd met at Yaddo, as being
like some quiet, puritanical convent girl from the harsh provinces of Canada.... A plain sort of young, unmarried girl, a little bit sickly. And she had a very small-town Southern accent...whiney. She whined. She was amusing. She was so gifted, immensely gifted.
Gooch includes a somewhat caddish account by a Harcourt, Brace textbook salesman named Erik Langkjaer who in 1953 forged a romantic sort of friendship with O'Connor that seems to have involved mostly long, intimate drives into the Georgia countryside:
"I may not have been in love [Langkjaer recounts in an interview], but I was very much aware that she was a woman, and so I felt that I'd like to kiss her.... She may have been surprised that I suggested the kiss, but she was certainly prepared to accept it."
Yet, for [Langkjaer], the kiss felt odd. Remarkably inexperienced for a woman of her age [near thirty], Flannery's passivity alarmed him. "As our lips touched I had a feeling that her mouth lacked resilience, as if she had no real muscle tension in her mouth, a result being that my own lips touched her teeth rather than lips, and this gave me an unhappy feeling of a sort of memento mori, and so the kissing stopped...."
As O'Connor's earlier infatuation with the young, attractive, charismatic poet Robert Lowell, whom she'd encountered in a manic state at the Yaddo writers' colony in 1948, remained unrequited, so her relationship with Langkjaer must have been disappointing to her, if not devastating, when, not long after this clumsy encounter, Langkjaer fell in love with a Danish woman whom he eventually married. O'Connor's reaction to Langkjaer's abrupt departure from her life—the writer's inspired revenge on her erstwhile "material"—can be gauged by the brilliantly acidulous short story "Good Country People," clearly modeled after O'Connor's thwarted romance, in which a crudely manipulative Bible salesman kisses the one-legged philosophy Ph.D. Joy/Hulga prior to running off with her wooden leg:
...He put his hand on her back again and drew her against him without a word and kissed her heavily.
The kiss, which had more pressure than feeling behind it, produced that extra surge of adrenalin in the girl that enables one to carry a packed trunk out of a burning house, but in her, the power went at once to the brain. Even before he released her, her mind, clear and detached and ironic anyway, was regarding him from a great distance, with amusement but with pity. She had never been kissed before and she was pleased to discover that it was an unexceptional experience and all a matter of the mind's control.
As Nietzsche tersely observed: "A joke is an epitaph on the death of a feeling." So sorrow in love might be transformed, through the corrosive alchemy of art, into something that, if a sour sort of compensation, can lay claim at least to a kind of quasi permanence.
More touching than O'Connor's relationship with Langkjaer, and far more crucial to her emotional life, was her close friendship of many years with an ardent admirer of her fiction named Betty Hester who'd been "dishonorably discharged" from the military for something called "sexual indiscretion"; Gooch is gentlemanly and tactful in suggesting that O'Connor herself may have been attracted to Hester, as to another intimate friend of this period, the "irrepressible" Maryat Lee, in ways other than merely Platonic. To the Atlanta novelist and critic Greg Johnson, to whom Betty Hester wrote more than several decades after O'Connor's death, Hester said, "As you must sense, I did love her very, very much—and, God knows, do."
In his engaging, sympathetic, and yet intellectually scrupulous biography of O'Connor, Brad Gooch provides the ideal biographical commentary: his voice is never obtrusive, yet we feel his judgment throughout; his allegiance to his subject is never in doubt, yet we sense his critical detachment, especially in his tracing of the ways in which "Flannery"—as Gooch calls O'Connor—seems to have mapped out a strategy of survival for herself. The most poignant sections of Flannery are the later chapters when, trapped by her illness in her mother's house in the back-country Georgia she'd once hoped to flee, O'Connor bravely strove to redeem her situation through her art and through every outward gesture of her intractable faith—including even a visit to Lourdes in 1958. (Though many visit Lourdes with the implicit hope of experiencing a miracle, O'Connor cast herself as something of an "accidental pilgrim" who joked that she was "one of those people who could die for his religion sooner than take a bath for it"—meaning an immersion in "holy water.")
As her lupus steadily worsened, O'Connor remained an unfailingly devout Catholic waking each morning, "as soon as the first chicken cackles," with a ritual reading of prayers from a breviary before being driven into Milledgeville by Regina to attend 7:00 AM mass at Sacred Heart Church; her writing life was compressed into just a few hours, but these hours were precious to her, under the protection of her mother. On her very deathbed O'Connor was determined to work—"My my I do like to work.... I et up that one hour like it was filet mignon." O'Connor had a childlike dependence upon her formidable mother, who was the model, as Gooch suggests, for a striking number of older, garrulous, smugly self-centered and self-righteous Southern women in O'Connor's fiction, several of whom come to rudely abrupt, violent ends.3 She strictly adhered to religious ritual and custom, and had an unswerving faith in the literal—i.e., not merely "symbolic"—Eucharist, believed by Catholics at the moment of transubstantiation to be the actual blood and body of their savior Jesus Christ. To believe in this transformation of bread and wine is the test of a Catholic's faith, characterized by O'Connor as submission to the mystery at the core of our spiritual beings:
If the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward toward the limits of mystery....
Only in the final years of her life did O'Connor come to feel dissatisfaction with her "large and startling figures" as a mode of artistic expression, as Gooch poignantly draws a parallel between the physical exhaustion caused by her worsening lupus and her sense of the limitations of her art. In a letter to a Catholic nun, O'Connor asks for the woman's prayers:
I've been writing eighteen years and I've reached the point where I can't do again what I know I can do well, and the larger things that I need to do now, I doubt my capacity for doing.
Rarely did O'Connor complain, still less protest her fate: "I expect anything that happens." If she claims, with what sounds like commingled wonder and rage, "I have never been anywhere but sick," quickly she modifies her statement by adding, aphoristically:
In a sense sickness is a place more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it's a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow.... Success is almost as isolating and nothing points out vanity as well.
Like many invalids with a predilection for the "spiritual"—the "mystical"—O'Connor seems to have made a connection, as Gooch suggests a kind of "magical thinking," between her lupus and her writing:
I was five years writing [ Wise Blood ] and up to the last was sure it was a failure and didn't work. When it was almost finished I came down with [lupus] and began to take cortisone in large doses and cortisone makes you think night and day until I suppose the mind dies of exhaustion if you are not rescued.... The large doses of ACTH send you off in a rocket and are scarcely less disagreeable than the disease....
Writing of the fanatic preacher Hazel Motes, under the spell of her medication, O'Connor conceived the notion that
I would eventually become paralyzed and was going blind and...in the book I had spelled out my own course, or that in the illness I had spelled out the book.
In the fall of such physical dissolution, how comforting the promises of the Holy Roman Catholic Church:
As I understand it, the Church teaches that our resurrected bodies will be intact as to personality, that is, intact with all the contradictions beautiful to you, except the contradiction of sin...for when all you see will be God, all you will want will be God.
O'Connor managed a brave public persona, when addressing mostly Southern college audiences by way of "talks" about fiction writing, and in her interviews and essays; it was her habit to assume a defensive pride in what others might define as limitations—"I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary and guilty." She was unapologetic in her allegiance to her place of birth and her parochial upbringing: "I'm pleased to be a member of my particular family and to live in Baldwin County in the sovereign State of Georgia, and to see what I can see from here." (As Brad Gooch notes, at this time in the early 1950s Georgia was ranked highest in the nation "in the rate of lynchings and other murders.")
At times O'Connor seemed dismissive of the civil rights movement in the South—"I say a plague on everybody's house as far as the race business goes." Yet in 1963, before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she also said in a letter:
I feel very good about those changes in the South that have been long overdue—the whole racial picture. I think it is improving by the minute, particularly in Georgia, and I don't see how anybody could feel otherwise than good about that.
Several of her later stories—"The Displaced Person," "Everything That Rises Must Converge," and "The Enduring Chill"—contain striking portraits of black, i.e., "Negro," characters presented with as much, or more, sympathy than their white neighbors; and in the fragment "Why Do the Heathen Rage?" a black servant named Roosevelt is the only person who responds sensitively, with tears, to the spectacle of his employer crippled by a stroke. Like William Faulkner—who famously said (in a "feverish" moment, according to Gooch) that, if need be, he would take up arms and fight on the side of his (white, racist) Mississippi neighbors against the threat of integration imposed by the federal government in the 1950s—O'Connor seems, as Gooch puts it, to have been something of a "cultural racist" in her private life but in her "incarnational" art, she was a writer who transcended the limitations of her time, her place, and her being.4
Is the art of caricature a lesser or secondary art, set beside what we might call the art of complexity or subtlety? Is "cartoon" art invariably inferior to "realist" art? The caricaturist has the advantage of being cruel, crude, reductive, and often very funny; as the "realist" struggles to establish the trompe l'oeil of verisimilitude, without which the art of realism has little power to persuade, the caricaturist wields a hammer, or an ax, or sprays the target with machine-gun fire, transmuting what might be rage—the savage indignation of Jonathan Swift, for instance—into devastating humor. Satire is the weapon of rectitude, a way of meting out punishment. Satire regrets nothing, and revels in unfairness in its depiction of what Flannery O'Connor called "large and startling figures."
It isn't surprising to learn that O'Connor began her career as a creative artist by drawing cartoons in mockery of human fatuousness and frailty or that her earliest efforts were satirical pieces; her first "book," written at the age of ten and assembled by her proud father Edward, was titled "My Relitives." O'Connor observed with typical acerbic insight: "I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation. In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both."
Not the shimmering multidimensionality of modernism but the two-dimensionality of cartoon art is at the heart of the work of O'Connor, whose unshakable absolutist faith provided her with a rationale with which to mock both her secular and bigoted Christian contemporaries in a succession of brilliantly orchestrated short stories that read like parables of human folly confronted by mortality: "She would of been a good woman"—the murderous Misfit says of an annoyingly chatty Southern woman at the conclusion of O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"—"if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
In "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," O'Connor remarks bemusedly:
When I first began to write, my own particular bête noire was that mythical entity, The School of Southern Degeneracy. Every time I heard about The School of Southern Degeneracy, I felt like Br'er Rabbit stuck on the Tarbaby.
In 2008, the Modern Language Association catalogued 1,340 entries under "Flannery O'Connor," including 195 doctoral dissertations and several book-length studies in addition to such meritorious earlier books as Conversations withFlannery O'Connor, edited by Rosemary M. Magee (University Press of Mississippi, 1987); The Art and Vision of Flannery O'Connor, by Robert H. Brinkmeyer Jr. (Louisiana State University Press, 1989); Flannery O'Connor: A Life, by Jean W. Cash (University of Tennessee Press, 2002); Flannery O'Connor: A Biography, by Melissa Simpson (Greenwood, 2005); and the closely argued and refreshingly unhagiographic Flannery O'Connor's South, by Robert Coles (University of Georgia Press, 1993). Gooch notes—surprisingly, given the greater ambition, achievement, and international acclaim of the work of William Faulkner—that the 1988 Library of America edition of O'Connor's work "widely outsold" Faulkner's volume published three years earlier. (See O'Connor's misplaced dread of the magisterial Faulkner in an essay of 1960: "The presence alone of Faulkner in our [Southern literary] midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.")
- O'Connor's favorite among her stories, "The Artificial Nigger," has become virtually unteachable as a consequence of its blunt pseudo-racist title. Ironically, O'Connor had intended the "artificial nigger"—a crude blackface lawn ornament observed in a Southern town by the back-country Mr. Head and his grandson Nelson—to be a simulacrum of Jesus Christ and the story to evoke a tender sort of redemption unexpected in O'Connor's oeuvre:
[Mr. Head and Nelson] stood gazing at the artificial Negro as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another's victory that brought them together in their common defeat. They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy.
- City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara (Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).
- Poor Regina O'Connor! We have only fleeting glimpses in Gooch's biography of this pretentious "hide-bound Southern lady (who) always wore hat and gloves in public" and who seems to have been the model for a number of O'Connor's acid-etched portraits of garrulous, overbearing, and peevish Southern matrons, several of whom come to rudely abrupt, violent ends. In A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, Elaine Showalter has provocatively suggested that Flannery O'Connor was "among the American women writers of the fifties who confronted matrophobia, or the fear of becoming one's mother. Hating one's mother was the prefeminist enlightenment" of the era.