When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock, to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.
Moving out of 2014, the fiftieth anniversary of Flannery O’Connor’s untimely passing, and into 2015, the eightieth anniversary of her birth, it’s fitting to begin these 52 weeks of writers with a look at the sharp-tongued master of Southern Gothic and doctor of sacramental vision. Her place in the American canon is secure. O’Connor is arguably first among American women who wrote fiction, first among American Catholic writers, first among short story writers, and second only to William Faulkner in Southern letters.
Her literary landscape is filled with Bible salesmen stealing prosthetic legs, misfits murdering grandmas, hermaphroditic freak show performers inspiring piety, racially offensive statues teaching proud and ignorant racists something about redemptive suffering, fools picking fights with gorillas, and nihilistic revivalists blinding themselves. Somehow all these violent and grotesque stories were born of a woman convinced that grace had invaded our world. With every wicked turn, there is a profound sense of the sacred that pervades O’Connor’s work.
Granted, O’Connor’s devout practice of Catholicism has not always won favor for her works. There was a considerable controversy in predominantly Catholic South Louisiana back in 2000 when Bishop Edward O’Donnell banned her works in response to parents upset with her use of the “N-word.” Perhaps we shouldn’t hold out much hope for the irate ignorant leaving room for historical context or literary intent.
But even more recently, an extremely well-educated writer in Crisis magazine offered a caution against the works of Flannery O’Connor because she opted for revealing grace subtly in the grotesque rather than celebrate triumphant grace and beauty [Ed.: really, he did.]. Perhaps we should expect all the captives held in the sway of violence and despair to just show up in our most ornate cathedrals when we are assured choirs of angels will sing their souls into glory. But just as Jesus dwelled with sinners, O’Connor shines lights in moments of incredible darkness.
O’Connor’s name has been invoked a lot recently in the debates about the current state of religion in literature. Paul Elie, the author of a book about O’Connor and three of her Catholic literary contemporaries, cannot find worthy successors in this generation. Writers of faith stop short of actually presenting belief as believable, leaving ultimate questions unanswered.
Gregory Wolfe has challenged Elie’s analysis. Wolfe is the founder of Image Journal, a serious and well respected effort at bridging faith and imagination entering its 26th year of championing the writers Elie is disregarding. Wolfe, admirer of O’Connor that he is, doesn’t find room for someone like O’Connor to have the same effect in our postmodern society. He wrote, “Today the faith found in literature is more whispered than shouted. Perhaps a new Flannery O'Connor will rise, but meanwhile we might try listening more closely to the still, small voice that is all around us.”
While I agree with this response to Elie’s somewhat forced dilemma, I’m not sure we need another Flannery O’Connor shouting today. She’s been dead for fifty years, but I still hear her shouting, and I know I’m not alone. In the last few years, O’Connor has been celebrated with the release of her college cartoon work and her youthful prayer journals. Critics, not all of whom are Catholic literary types nostalgic for a mythic golden age, have rejoiced in a few more sparks of inspiration from a flame that was extinguished too soon. What wit! What a practical theological imagination! What might have been!
I’ll admit I’m a bit biased about Flannery O’Connor. Before I met my wife, I was involved in a very complicated Facebook-official relationship with Flannery. It was a joke that hid a severe truth. Even in the eighties and nineties, there are parts of my childhood reminiscent of O’Connor’s Christ-haunted South. More than her fiction, her letters and lectures, collected in The Habit of Being and Mysteries and Manners respectively, became near-devotional reading for me, shaping the way I see the world.
I’ll be introducing my high school upper classmen to Hazel Motes and his church without Christ later this spring. If I know these kids, and I think I do, they will be just as spellbound by O’Connor as I was when I first encountered her. The times may not be right for another Flannery, but the great writers are timeless.
--Toby D'Anna is an LSU alumnus teaching high school English in Arlington, Texas. He blogs at ontothesearch.blogspot.com.