O'Connor and her self-portrait with peacock
O'Connor with peacocks at Andalusia
Strange Bird: A Review of Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor
Brad Gooch Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2009)
Flannery O'Connor Collected Works, contents selected and chronology by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: The Library of America, 1988).
Born in Savannah, Georgia on March 25, 1925 Mary Flannery O'Connor was the only child of a devoted and extended Catholic family. Her mother, Regina Cline, was part of the wealthy and noted Cline family of Savannah, whose second cousin, Mrs. Raphael (Katie) Seemes, rented them a small Georgian row house next to her own mansion and garden. Several of Regina's relatives had also established homes in the former state capital, Milledgeville, to the northwest, and during summers the O'Connors visted the town, staying in the home where Regina had grown up, once the interim governor's mansion. They also regularly visited the nearby farm, Andulusia, owned by her uncle.
In his new biography of Flannery O'Connor, Brad Gooch dutifully notes the families' comings and goings, based on brief mentions in the local newspapers. But, except for their scuttling between houses little of interest occurs in O'Connor's youth except at age five, when she was filmed by Pathè with her pet chicken who was rumored to walk backwards: at first, things did not go well, but "Finally, as the afternoon wore on, the bird began to back up. O'Connor, a natural mimic, jumped next to her and began to walk backward as well. The [camera] operator stuck his head under his tent. A few seconds later, the hen hit a bush and abruptly sat down. Exasperated, 'the Pathé man' gathered his equipment and made a quick exit...." The only major literary contribution of her youth was a satirical portrait of her extended family. And, although, Gooch goes out of his way to normalize her Catholic-school girlhood, one cannot help but perceive her a bit like the red-faced child in O'Connor's story "A Circle in the Fire," her face buried in a book from which, from time to time, she would peer out at the world about. At age twelve, she was overly wise and determined to not grow any older. And, in some respects, Gooch and others hint that, at least sexually, she remained that age throughout her life.
In a state of mind somewhere between a child's daydream and one of
the scriptural visions she heard preached about the church, she imagined
bouts with a guardian angel she pictures as half nun, half bird.
As O'Connor wrote to her friend, Betty Hester, years later, "From 8 to 12 years it was my habit to seclude myself in a locked room every so often and with a fierce (and evil) face, whirl around in a circle with my fists knotted, socking the angel with which the Sisters assured us we were all equipped.... You couldn't hurt an angel but I would have been happy to know I had dirtied his feathers...."
Sitting in his office early in the fall of 1945, Paul Engle...heard a gentle
knock at the door. After he shouted an invitation to enter, a shy, young
woman appeared and walked over to his desk without, at first, saying
a word. He could not even tell, as she stood before him, whether she was
looking in his direction, or out the window at the curling Iowa River
below. ...[Engle] introduced himself and offered her a seat, as she tightly
held on to what he later claimed was "one of the most beat-up handbags
I've ever seen."
Midwestern ear that he asked her repeat her question. Embarrassed by
an inability a second time, to understand, Engle handed her a pad to
write what she had said. So in schoolgirl script, she put down three short
lines: "My name is Flannery O'Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come
to the Writers' Workshop?"
A couple of days later, after Engle read a few stories she had sent him, O'Connor was accepted into the program, and an important new chapter in American literary history was begun.
Gooch aptly compares O'Connor's return to the South to that of Asbury Fox's return home in O'Connor's story "The Enduring Chill." Fox's "illness," although he believes it to be a deadly one, is later discovered, ironically, to be undulant fever, a fever which will destroy his life without truly killing him. O'Connor's illness was of a far more serious nature, and even though she was told it was only arthritis, she described her feelings to a friend that belied her fears:
I am languishing on my bed of semi affliction, this time with
AWRTHRITUS or, to give it all it has, the acute rheumatoid
arthritis, what leaves you always willing to sit down, lie down,
lie flatter, etc....I will be in Milledgeville Ga. a birdsanctuary for
a few months, waiting to see how much of an invalid I am
going to be...but I don't believe in time no more so its all one
It was during the painful hospital stays in Atlanta and back in Milledgeville of this period, however, that O'Connor finally came to comprehend the major character of Wise Blood, Hazel Motes', in her own illness, as she described it, spelling out the book. In June of that year, after having been rejected by Rinehart, Harcourt Brace accepted the book, with Giroux sending a list of suggested additions and corrections. Through Robert Fitzgerald's intercession, the book was also read and edited by Southern novelist Caroline Gordon, who became another of the author's literary friends and a reader of all O'Connor's later work. Gordon's editorial influence upon O'Connor's work was evidently quite significant and appreciated by the writer, yet, as an editor, I would certainly have questioned editorial changes such as that Gooch describes wherein the color of Emery Enoch's tie was changed from "greenpeaish" (a perfect O'Connorism) to "the color of green peas," a far more standard metaphor.
On May 15, 1952 Wise Blood was, at last, published.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's
eye but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Or wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote
out of thine eye; and behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own
eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out
of thy brother's eye. (Matthew 7:3-5)
With this warning against hypocrisy, O'Connor sets the tone for her tale of a man, destined to become a preacher, yet who rejects the religion of his father and grandfather. Clearly effected by his military experiences, the death of his father (who does not arise from his coffin as he has promised) and by the cultural and social-political changes in his state and small hometown (he is convinced that the train porter is a Parnum "nigger" from his now empty hometown of Eastrod, pretending to be born and raised in Chicago), Motes is determined to promulgate a new faith, "The Church without Christ."
The forces at work in O'Connor's first fiction are fierce oppositions, ironies that point to possible redemption rather than awarding those who believe themselves saved. It will be a pattern she will repeat in the remainder of her writings, a vision that, as she admitted back in Iowa, arises from a Third Century point of view of Christianity.
Giroux said, "I started to laugh. But Flannery was sitting utterly deadpan.
I thought, 'Uh, oh. This is serious to her.' Flannery never smiled, or raised
her eyebrow, or gave me any clue."
The "small, managing indomitable mother," as Giroux later described Regina to Elizabeth Bishop, is both an important source for many of O'Connor's forbearing and unbearable mothers, but was also someone who O'Connor, just as in her youth she had fought against the nuns and her guardian angel, saw as a force with whom she had to daily reckon.
Despite her illness, by June 1953 O'Connor was ready to return to the Fitzgeralds, also making a day trip with Caroline Gordon to New York City. This time, the slightly older children were full of mischief, made even worse by a Yugoslav "shepherdess" brought to the US to help with the children and pets. Accordingly, life in the Fitzgerald home was more chaotic than before, and O'Connor surely found it difficult to write. Of the greatest importance, however, was a piece of information that would change her perception of everything. Gooch effectively describes the scene:
On the way back, on a lovely summer's afternoon, she [Sally] glanced over
at her passenger...[having] made up her mind, following much inner struggle,
that Flannery should know of her illness. At that instant, Flannery
happened to mention her arthritis. "Flannery, you don't have arthritis,"
Sally said quickly. "You have lupus." Reacting to the sudden revelation,
Flannery slowly moved her arm from the car door down into her lap, her hand
visibly trembling. Sally felt her own knee shaking against the clutch, too, as
she continued driving.....
moments. "But I can't thank you enough for telling me....I thought I had
lupus, and I thought I was going crazy. I'd a lot rather be sick than crazy.
....But don't ever tell Regina you told me, because if you do she will never
tell you anything else. I might want to know something else sometime."
What with the continued difficulties with the Slavic nanny, Sally being pregnant with a fifth child and turning ill, and Flannery's own contraction of a virus, O'Connor arranged for Sally's care and returned to Georgia. The lupus had been reactivated by the viral infection, further sealing O'Connor's future.
Even in her first work, Wise Blood, one perceived that O'Connor's writing, at times, could be comically violent, but now, facing her own mortality, O'Connor's dark humor entered what one might speculate is a new phase. Particularly in the title story, Flannery proffers a work in which all characters might be said to be fiends. As in so many of her fables, the major struggle in A Good Man Is Hard to Find is between the self-righteous societal figures, particularly represented by The Grandmother, and those outside of societal values, exemplified by The Misfit and his gang. But there is a second and more subtle battle played out in this tale between The Grandmother and the family, her son Bailey, his wife and their two children, John Wesley and June Star. Had O'Connor written this tale a couple of years later, after she had seen Tennessee Williams' 1955 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Caroline Gordon in New York, one might suspect that the two children of this tale were based on what Maggie the Cat describes as her sister-in-law's "no-neck monsters." For the children here are true terrors, selfish, overweight brats whose major activities include dismissing the world around them and reading comic books. In his diffident hatred of his family, however, Bailey is no different, dismissive of any imagined past his mother might conjure up and determined just survive their trip to Florida. O'Connor doesn't even name the mother, who is described as "a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had points on the top like rabbit's ears." The Grandmother, another figure clearly inspired by Regina, is a busybody, do-gooder, who has an answer for everything and believes her values, particularly those inspired by the past, are superior to the modern world in which she had discovered herself. It is her determination to revisit a Southern Plantation she had seen earlier in her life that takes the family down the dirt road to their doom. Even her sudden revelation, as the car is propelled off the road in an accident, that the mansion she had witnessed as a child was in Tennessee, not in Georgia, does not alter for a moment her faith in her own righteousness, a belief she is convinced can be imposed upon people if spoken insistently and strongly enough. As The Misfit they discover upon this ill-fated journey takes the family away to shoot them, one by one, The Grandmother repeats over and over how she can see The Misfit is "A Good Man" at heart, who only needs to rediscover God through prayer. Unable to recognize true evil, she insists up until the moment of her death that he can be redeemed. The utterly cynical statements of The Misfit and Bobby Lee at tale's end, reveal to the reader how absurd she has been in her empty faith and her shallow prescriptions for life.
"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been
somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
The parents of the young boy in "The River" are as ineffective as Bailey and his wife. But these figures are perhaps even more detestable in their endless partying, followed by mornings of drunken sleep. Their young son seems expendable, a child who has little to do in his life "but eat," and they are happy to surrender him to the hired Black woman who intends on taking him to an old-fashioned Southern Baptism.
She stood taut, listening, and could just catch in the distance a
few wild shrieks of joy as if the prophets were dancing in the
fiery furnace, in the circle the angel had cleared for them.
A opposition between mother and daughter is also at the center of O'Connor's great story, "Good Country People." Mrs. Hopewell does indeed "hope well," facing all of life's difficulties with her favorite clichés, "Nothing is perfect" and "That is life!" Her major sorrow, however, is her overeducated daughter, Joy, a woman with an artificial leg, who has renamed herself Hulga, in part just to irritate her well-meaning mother.
Unlike Wise Blood, which had received mostly negative reviews, A Good Man Is Hard to Find received a great deal of praise in the Herald Tribune Book Review, the New York Times and the Times Book Review (written by Caroline Gordon). The New Yorker, on the other hand, called the work brutal and the Times Literary Supplement described the works as "intense, erratic and strange." Yet it was clear that O'Connor had begun to find an audience and appreciative readers.
"I can't write you fast enough and tell you that it doesn't make the slightest
bit of difference in my opinion of you, which is the same as it was, and that
is: based solidly on complete respect." As to Betty's point about scandal,
Flannery argued, "I'm obscure enough. Nobody knows or cares who I see.
If it created any tension in you that If don't understand, then use your own
judgment, but understand that from my point of view, you are always wanted."
Flannery did suggest that they not tell Regina as "she wouldn't understand."
Given the nature of their friendship, she parsed the matter theologically,
"Where you are wrong is in saying that you are a history of horror. The meaning
of Redemption is precisely that we do not have to be our history."
In 1956, through the auspices of the new president of Georgia State College for Women, Robert E. Lee, Flannery met Lee's sister, Maryat Lee, a larger-than-life six-feet tall woman, educated at National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., who finished her MA at Union Theological Seminary under the direction Paul Tillich, and who worked for a while for anthropologist Margaret Mead. Maryat had also written a street play in Harlem, Dope!, covered by Life magazine and selected the 1952-53 edition of Best Short Plays. Like Rosalind Russell's version of Auntie Mame, Maryat showed up in Milledgeville "outfitted in pants, boots, a black overcoat, and an imposing Russian lamb's wool hat," bearing brown bags with cans of beer, illegal in that part of the state. Both she and O'Connor feared for their meeting, Maryat worried, since she had not read of even previously heard of O'Connor, that she would be encountering "a local lady writer." The encounter at Andalusia did begin well, with Reginna disapproving of Maryat's worn, pink sneakers and remarking that she had to keep doors locked because of "the niggahs." As Maryat the politically liberal Maryat was about to respond, however, O'Connor came thudding upon her crutches into the room and swept Maryat away into the back yard, where she explained her illness and the necessity of remaining with her mother as well as sharing with the newcomer her dream of turning the henhouse into an office.
In some respects, the new novel was a retelling of Wise Blood. Tarwater, a boy, a few years younger that Hazel Motes, is raised by his preacher grandfather in rural Georgia to become a prophet of the church. In this case, however, the boy has been stolen from his family home, just as, previously, the old man tried to steal away the boy's uncle, Rayber, whose short time under the preacher's tutelage, has, he feels, tainted his entire life. He is now a rationalist, a schoolteacher who will have nothing to do with religious faith.
For a non-believer like myself, O'Connor's fiction is not an easy read. Yet, strangely, I find it her most powerful work, in part because of the intricacy of the story, which follows the mindsets of its various characters, it's fantastic apocalyptic imagery, and comically surreal dialogue. Finally, one must remember what O'Connor herself insisted, her works were not psychological realist pictures of life in the South, but, as Hawthorne described his fictions, romances, a possibility for fiction that lay outside of a presentation of social forces. Allying herself with the "grotesque," O'Connor writes in "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction":
In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive
some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day,
or win which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary
life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary
kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps
which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly
not have left. Yet the characters in these novels are alive in spite of
these things. They have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence
to their social framework. They fictional qualities lean away from typical
social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected.
The reviews for The Violent Bear It Away were, predictably, given the dominant values of the realist fiction of the day, quite negative, describing the author as a "literary white witch," as belonging to "The School of Southern Degeneracy," and even invoking images of the "Hillybilly South," the Time review even going so far as to accuse the author for being negative because she suffers from lupus "that forces her to spend part of her life on crutches." O'Connor, so Gooch tells us, felt particularly violated by that review, "My lupus has no business in literary considerations."
Over the past few years, O'Connor had written a sizable number of new stories, but she now found herself, in 1962, at a kind "creative impasse," and, as Gooch describes it, she began to reappraise her life.
Yet work on a new novel, "Why Do the Heathen's Rage?" was at a standstill. As she wrote her friend John Hawkes, "I have been working all summer just like a squirril on a treadmill, trying to make something of Walter and his affairs and the heathens that rage, but I think this is maybe not my material (don't like that word)."
Many critics argue that O'Connor's greatest work was the collection published shortly after her death, Everything That Rises Must Converge. And several of these stories are, indeed, masterworks. Yet I find that O'Connor's major concerns are repeated here rather than further developed, making all of her writing of one brilliant piece.
She did not hear the shots but she felt the quake of the huge body as it
sank, pulling her forward on its head, so that it seemed, when Mr. Greenleaf
reached her, to be bent over whispering some last discovery into the animal's
In many respects, "Revelation" is a kind of interweaving of the two themes I have noted above. Once again we witness a battle between an intelligent offspring, this time represented in a young woman awaiting a doctor's appointment, and her well-meaning but cliché-spouting mother. Into this minefield steps what may be O'Connor's most opinionated character ever, Mrs. Turpin, who not only shares the well-dressed mother's jargon, but has created a complex social-stratification topped by wealthy individuals and bottomed by "white trash." As Mrs. Turpin insists throughout the tale, she would rather be a "nigger" than a trashy white woman.
There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first
time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and
battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping
like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe
of people who she recognized at once as those who, like herself
and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given
wit to use it right. ....They alone were on key. Yet she could see
by their shocked faces that even their virtues were being burned away.
In some senses, one could almost use that vision to describe the entire range of Blacks, freaks, lunatics, and "good people" who inhabit O'Connor's fiercely satirical fictions, all them redeemed in the blood of the lamb.
Los Angeles, August 3, 2009 (the 46th anniversary of O'Connor's death); September 1-7, 2009
The method I used to organize the above essay reflects the process of my reading. I read Gooch's O'Connor biography in sections, each time reading up until his announcement of the publication of a new O'Connor book, then pausing to the read the work itself. Accordingly, I metaphorically "lived through" the author's life and writing for a period of approximately two months. The writing, as is apparent from the dates, also took me about a month further in exploring the mind of Flannery O'Connor. Most of the facts of her life are directly repeated from the Gooch biography, but I have incorporated a few other details from her letters and Sally Fitzgerald's chronology published in The Library of America's Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works. The comments on her fictions are, for the most part, my own. In this one instance, I did not wade through the mass of essays and books written about the author for further elucidation and critical support; rather, I felt it important to react to these powerful works in a personal, unscholarly way. Accordingly, my own perceptions may not be particularly original and are certainly not exhaustive, but are merely meant to present immediate responses to her writing.
Finally, Sheila Cudahy, the third partner of Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, O'Connor's publisher before editor Robert Giroux would later join the firm, was also a writer, author of several books of poetry and fiction, and a translator of Natalia Ginsburg. In 1993 or 1994, Cudahy sent me a collection of her tales, Crow Time, which my Sun & Moon Press published in 1995.
Los Angeles, September 8, 2009
Essay copyright (c) 2009 by Douglas Messerli