A review of Flannery O'Connor: A Life, by Jean W. Cash;
Flannery O'Connor: Spiritual Writings, edited by Robert Ellsberg;
and Return to Good and Evil: Flannery O'Connor's Response to Nihilism, by Henry T. Edmondson III
Everywhere I go," the novelist Flannery O'Connor said, "I'm asked if I think universities stifle writers." Frankly, she'd reply, "they don't stifle enough of them." O'Connor was speaking of fiction writers, but Lord knows she could just as easily have been speaking of literary critics and, alas, her first biographer. Jean W. Cash means well in Flannery O'Connor: A Life, but she is simply not up to the task.
Cash has done her homework, and she begins by announcing that she's devoted more than 10 years to these 374 pages. She has pored over all the O'Connor collections around the country, as well as numerous collections of papers of O'Connor's friends and acquaintances. She has interviewed everyone she could think of, down to high school acquaintances and childhood playmates.
Unfortunately, Cash misjudges what inquiring minds want to know. We do not need, for instance, a thorough summary of a conventional thank-you note written by the 12-year-old O'Connor to a relative she visited, and we especially do not need to read in the main text that "the Woodruff Library at Emory has the thank-you notes from both Mary Flannery and her mother to the relative." Worse still are digressions that report at length the unimportant comments of people whose paths happened to cross O'Connor's. When in the midst of such trivia a genuinely interesting fact or remark appears, Cash usually fails to notice, much less grapple with it.
Then there is the prose produced by this professor of English at James Madison University. She brings to mind Evelyn Waugh's unkind comment on another biographer: "To see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee." The poor writing stems from Cash's poor thinking. In her earnestness, she becomes effusive when trying to praise O'Connor, is good for a typo every dozen pages (including a missing word in what is perhaps O'Connor's most famous passage), and is quickly out of her depth when she does discuss the substance of O'Connor's work. All too infrequently, a passage of O'Connor's tart prose appears, fairly leaping off the leaden page.
Admittedly, by the wretched standards of academe today, Cash rates above average in several areas. She is respectful of O'Connor's Catholic faith. Only rarely does she show much political correctness on the subject of race, and while she does try to make some hay out of her subject's gender, she doesn't push this theme very hard. On the larger questions of O'Connor's life—did she, for instance, despise her mother?—Cash's judgment is usually crude but correct.
Cash does deserve gratitude for one good deed. Feminists hoping to claim the tough-talking Georgian storyteller for the team like to suggest she was at least a latent lesbian. Cash picks up the issue with appropriate disdain ("this rather prurient curiosity has emerged as an outgrowth of our sexually obsessed era"), takes it behind the barn, and beats it like an old mule. Here Cash's thoroughness pays off, and one hopes this nonsense will die out.
Devotées of O'Connor who've read her letters and essays or dabbled in the secondary literature will gain little from this biography, and for newcomers it should be at best the fifth book on the reading list. It is amusing, however, to discover that show biz's Tommy Lee Jones and Conan O'Brien both wrote senior honors theses at Harvard on her stories; perhaps this came in handy when O'Brien went on to write for The Simpsons. Though Cash stints on photographs in her book, she does include a picture of the Catholic cathedral in Savannah, a grand gothic pile that dominated the square on which the author lived for her first dozen years. No doubt this image of the Church—imposing and immovable from without, vast and intricate within—wedged itself deeply into the imagination of a girl who was to battle for her faith with all the ardor of Joan of Arc marching to the cathedral at Reims.
Cash's omissions loom large. She writes almost nothing on O'Connor's painting, not even discussing a stunning self-portrait. In her concluding speculations on what O'Connor would have accomplished had her life not been cut short by debilitating disease, Cash never mentions the striking comment O'Connor made to a friend not long before she died: "I've reached the point where I can't do again what I know I can do well, and the larger things I need to do now, I doubt my capacity for doing." That Cash expends little effort to reflect on O'Connor's oeuvre may be a tacit confession of her own limitations in matters literary, philosophical, and theological.
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Supremely, Cash fails in the daunting task of unraveling the real mystery: How did a sheltered Catholic girl from an unexceptional family, raised in the mid-20th-century South with an unexceptional education, come to write stories that could shock men like Waugh and T.S. Eliot, as well as pen essays and letters that rank among the most significant work any American Catholic thinker has produced?
In many ways O'Connor's life was even less interesting than the average author's. Born in Savannah in 1925 to a devout mother and father, she and her family briefly moved to Atlanta in 1938 before translating themselves to Milledgeville, Georgia, where her mother's family was socially prominent. Her father, struck with lupus, died in 1941.
The family's female members, including her aptly named mother, Regina, were known as "strong women." Regina was protective but by all accounts did not spoil her only child. For her part, Flannery was something of a loner, a good student who was bookish, chewed snuff in class, and "had a habit of speaking to adults as though she was on the same level." She began writing stories at a young age and showed superior intelligence and a strong will, as well as a sharp sense of humor based on her fierce judgments of right and wrong.
Though not keen on romanticizing the South, she didn't rebel against it either. A large local asylum fascinated the woman who would go on to create many a deranged character. Her public high school was so "progressive" that chemistry students were asked what they cared to learn (answer: cosmetics), leaving O'Connor bitter the rest of her life that she was denied a classical formation. At 16, she matriculated at the town's Georgia State College for Women, where she enjoyed journalism and continued her reputation as a loner uninterested in playing the belle.
After graduation, O'Connor went to the State University of Iowa to study in its prestigious creative writing program; while there, the partially complete manuscript of her first novel, Wise Blood, earned her a cash prize from Rinehart, in exchange for Rinehart's gaining publication rights. Shy, she made few friends, in part because her talent scared most of her peers.
After Iowa, she spent time at Yaddo, an artists' colony where she worked to finish her novel and socialized with other guests, including Alfred Kazin, Edward Maisel, and Robert Lowell. Her distrust of "innerleckshuls" only deepened at Yaddo, as she observed that their self-indulgence in drugs, alcohol, and sex were matched with "arty" phoniness and a cowardly conformity to secular leftism. Still, Yaddo allowed her to bear down on her novel, and she gained her peers' respect. Kazin was impressed by her faith, "so rare in America that it makes her stand out in every possible way. To me she is one of the few writers of that post-war generation who will live for a very long time."
O'Connor left Yaddo after a controversy arose over the alleged Communist ties of its administrator, Elizabeth Ames. A mentally unbalanced Lowell, who led the guests' attack on Ames, probably overstated the case, but Cash shows the charges had some substance, and O'Connor never regretted her minor part in the affair. She later instructed her agent not to allow her work to appear in "Russian-occupied" nations for fear her Southern grotesques would aid "anti-American propaganda." Rooted in Christian orthodoxy, she had no trouble rejecting the anti-religion of socialism.
She lived briefly in New York before moving into the Connecticut home of the literary couple Robert and Sally Fitzgerald. Her gotham sojourn included her famous encounter with Mary McCarthy, who "departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual." O'Connor and Lowell arrived at a literary soirée at eight o'clock, and by 1:00 a.m. the Georgian "hadn't opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say." Finally conversation turned to "the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend." McCarthy condescendingly allowed that it was a lovely symbol. O'Connor immediately piped up, "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it."
At the Fitzgeralds, O'Connor fell gravely ill, contracting the same incurable lupus that killed her father. Only 26, she was forced to return to her mother's home in Milledgeville. Though her health would vary thereafter, her progressive debilitation forced her to remain on the farm till her death in 1964 at the age of 39. Initially she was not pleased to be back in a small Southern town and living with her forceful, unintellectual mother, but she came to appreciate the way the move helped her to penetrate further her Southern subject matter. She was also grateful that it removed distractions from her disciplined work. She accepted with astonishing resolve and good humor her "hermit" life, her dependence on a mother with whom she could have only limited rapport, and even her painful illness, which put her under a sentence of early death from the time her first book appeared.
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During her life she published only two novels, one collection of short stories, and a handful of essays. A second collection of stories was issued posthumously, and the Fitzgeralds assembled her essays and unpublished lectures into Mystery and Manners a few years later. In 1979, a large collection of O'Connor's letters was published, and in 1988 she became the first woman to appear in the Library of America.
The Library's one-volume Collected Works is the best place to begin making her acquaintance; it contains the two novels, the complete stories, most of the essays, and a generous sampling of letters. But be warned: T.S. Eliot told a correspondent he had come across a book of her stories "and was quite horrified by those I read. She has certainly an uncanny talent of a high order but my nerves are just not strong enough to take much of a disturbance." She sets the stories in her backwoods South and peoples them, as she readily confessed, with "freaks." The stories end in violence, often lethal, and readers without strong nerves are advised to take them in small doses. Puzzlement over their meaning can be lessened by reading the essays and letters. The latter brim with her humor and her steely-eyed insights into literature, religion, and the modern world; they delight even those with little stomach for her stories.
From her own vantage point, she was telling comic tales and once said she could read only a few of her stories in public because the others made her laugh too hard. Many readers, however, are either terrified or disgusted by her wild-eyed preachers, oily con men, and thuggish adults and juveniles. Her authorial intentions elude many critics entirely and fail to sway others, such as the estimable Joseph Epstein, who once acknowledged her keen craftsmanship but added that in the end her stories were unsatisfying.
Still, her place in the nation's literature seems to be growing, even in unlikely places. Fresh evidence comes from Orbis Books, a Catholic publisher long found on the far left (it was the primary English source for the noisy but short-lived "liberation theology" movement). Its editor-in-chief has just published an O'Connor anthology in the house's "Spiritual Writings" series, alongside volumes devoted to the likes of Gandhi, Oscar Romero, and Thomas Merton.
Editor Robert Ellsberg, who reveals that O'Connor's letters were largely responsible for his conversion to Catholicism, does an excellent job of selecting and organizing passages from the essays, letters, and fiction. Fordham's Richard Giannone provides a good introduction, with far more penetration of her thought than Cash ever manages, though he becomes somewhat tendentious when describing her political and religious orientation. He places her among figures like former Notre Dame president Theodore Hesburgh, who "helped to reconfigure a hierarchical church, run by princes, into the 'People of God' proclaimed by Vatican II."
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O'Connor didn't live to see the end of the Second Vatican Council, but she almost certainly would have followed Jacques Maritain and Louis Bouyer, two leading Catholic thinkers she admired, into bitter disappointment soon after the Council. She was genuinely open-minded and unconcerned with day-to-day politics, but both theologically and politically she ends up on the conservative side of the ledger. Giannone notes in passing that she was "intransigent on doctrine," which is hardly characteristic of those who sneer at "a hierarchical church." As for the South's race problems, she was sympathetic to the plight of blacks but believed in gradual reform. Giannone notes her dislike of "liberal, rational, and enlightened persons" who have "had the moral and spiritual sense bred out of them," but he avoids mentioning Yaddo and her anti-Communism. Her views on education may be gleaned from a letter reporting a conversation with conservative gadfly Russell Kirk:
ME: I read old William Heard Kilpatrick died recently. John Dewey's dead too, isn't he?
KIRK: Yes, thank God. Gone to his reward. Ha ha.
ME: I hope there's children crawling all over him.
KIRK: Yes, I hope he's with the unbaptized enfants.
ME: No, they would be too innocent.
KIRK: Yes. Ha ha. With the baptized enfants.
She was also pleased that Kirk was about to launch a conservative journal (Modern Age), and she favorably reviewed his Conservative Mind. In her copy she marked the words, "Abstract sentimentality ends in real brutality." She may have had that passage in mind when she wrote in her finest essay,
If other ages felt less they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness…. [But when] tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and the fumes of the gas chamber.
Her friend and fellow Southern Catholic novelist Walker Percy made "tenderness leads to the gas chamber" the leitmotif of his last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome. Asked what O'Connor would think of the Church today, Percy replied she would be "horrified" by the disunity of the Church in America and "most of all" by the rebellion of nuns seduced by radical feminism.
O'Connor devoted her life to her art, and she devoted her art to a battle against relativism and the nihilism she saw had spawned it. She celebrated both reason and faith as part of an objective approach to reality and railed against the twin falsehoods of sentimentality and pornography. She decried the former wherever she found it—in subjectivist philosophy, in bestselling novels, and, as Giannone quotes, in the "sugary slice of inspirational pie" common in the popular piety of her day.
On the other hand, she deplored preaching in literature, preferring to emulate the cold detachment of such writers as Joseph Conrad and Henry James. This led to much confusion in her day, when Southerners and Catholics shook their heads over her gothic horrors, and in ours, when feminists try to claim her. O'Connor took the balanced view: She was wary of the urge to edify—"what is written to edify usually ends by amusing"—but recognized a good storyteller could not help but edify: "The novelist does more than just show us how a man feels…he also makes a judgment on the value of that feeling," albeit not an "overt" one.
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The secondary literature on O'Connor now dwarfs her own work. One could do much worse than to pick up Henry Edmondson's recent addition to the pile, Return to Good and Evil: Flannery O'Connor's Response to Nihilism. A professor at O'Connor's undergraduate alma mater, Edmondson has steeped himself not only in her published work but also in the college's holdings of her private papers and the books she marked up in her personal library. He aims to provide a guide to her work by explaining her insights into contemporary nihilism and her Thomistic response. His efforts are applauded by such southern wisemen as Peter Augustine Lawler and Marion Montgomery, himself the author of the valuable Why Flannery O'Connor Stayed Home (Sherwood Sugden, 1981).
In addition to synthesizing and summary chapters fore and aft, Edmondson devotes the center of his helpful book to careful readings of her first novel and five stories. I am not sure he's right in every detail, but he has made a heroic effort to understand O'Connor as she understood herself. And because of all this graced genius of Georgia understood, the travail is worth it.