Happy birthday, Flannery O’Connor!

March 25th, 2013

On March 25, 1925, Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia. She graduated from the George State College for Women in 1945 and the following year entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she first studied journalism but later became known for her fiction. Diagnosed in 1951 with lupus, she returned home to her family’s farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she raised birds—peafowl, ducks, ostrich, chickens—and wrote. By the time she died, on August 3, 1964 at the age of 39, she had completed more than two dozen short stories and two novels.

O’Connor’s fiction is often complex and difficult to grasp, but immensely rich and thoughtful. To introduce students to the author, Ralph C. Wood, author of Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, has some suggestions on the way to progress through O’Connor’s corpus. Wood explains:

It is almost impossible to read O’Connor without revulsion — so frequent are the deaths, so maniacal the characters, so uninviting the fictional world. There we encounter, for example, a club-footed delinquent who lies and steals because, he says, he’s good at it; a little rich boy who drowns himself in search of the salvation his parents hold in contempt; a baptizing backwoods prophet who has spent time in an insane asylum and who deafened his own nephew with a shotgun blast; a failed white liberal writer who contracts a lifelong disease while seeking to celebrate a secular communion with black dairy workers; a mass-murdering misfit who guns down a complacent grandmother while complaining that Jesus has “thown” everything off balance; and a self-satisfied farm wife who thanks Jesus daily for making her both white and prosperous — until she is slugged in the head with a psychology textbook thrown by a Wellesley student.

Yet the offense is precisely the point of Flannery O’Connor’s work. Her fiction creates scandal just as the Gospel often becomes a snare and a stumbling block. . . .

When asked why her fiction, like that of so many other Southern writers, is filled with freaks, O’Connor wryly replied that Southerners “are still able to recognize one.” To discern deviations and distortions, O’Connor explained, one must first have a clear vision of the Norm. The rural and “Christ-haunted” South, as she called it, has retained such a vision because the popular imagination has remained essentially Biblical. When the folk religion is shaped by the Biblical narrative — of creation and fall, of Israel’s election and Christ’s incarnation, of the crucifixion and the resurrection, of the church as God’s own people and the Second Coming as history’s consummation — then even the barely literate possess the ultimate criterion for measuring themselves and everything else.

The best place to begin encountering O’Connor’s radically Christian work is not with her most famous story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Many people are left sleepless after reading it. I would recommend a later short story entitled “Revelation,” since it is perhaps the most redemptive of her works. One might then progress to other stories that don’t conclude with violent death, perhaps “The Enduring Chill” and “Parker’s Back.” Along the way, one would do well to take up O’Connor’s magnificent letters in The Habit of Being. Her lively correspondence with all sorts and conditions of letter-writers constitutes, by my reckoning, an unparalleled epistolary witness. Readers get to listen in as O’Connor makes stunning discernments of people and events, often in jocular and self-mocking ways. But we also follow her sardonic though faithful embrace of the suffering that led to her death from lupus in 1964, at age 39. . . .

The key to comprehending Flannery O’Connor’s life and work is to remember that, in her lexicon, divine grace is never synonymous with human graciousness. On the contrary, it is often abrupt and rude and disrespectful of ordinary proprieties, for the skin of human resistance is exceedingly thick. When asked why her characters meet such violent self-awakenings, O’Connor replied that it’s because their heads are so hard. Grace must wound before it can heal, she declared, and her fiction is filled with both woundings and healings.


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