Grace And Danger: A Flannery O’Connor Retrospective

Fifty years on this month from her death, James MacKinnon explores the legacy of Southern Gothic writer, and peacock lover, Flannery O’Connor

“It’s better to burn out, than to fade away,” goes the Neil Young epithet that is often reserved for those who live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse. For Flannery O’Connor, who died at the age of thirty-nine from lupus, the same disease that killed her father, and who produced as much writing in twenty years as many do in a lifetime, she neither burned out nor quite faded away.

Though her work only received a moderate following during her lifetime, her posthumously published Collected Stories won the National Book Award for fiction in 1971, she became the first post-war American female author in the Library of America, and an annual short fiction award bestowed from University of Georgia Press now bears her name. At the time of her death Elizabeth Bishop wrote “I am sure her few books will live on and on in American literature. They are narrow, possibly, but they are clear, hard, vivid, and full of bits of description, phrases, and an odd insight that contains more real poetry than a dozen books of poems.” Over the years Bishop has been proved right, with the resonance and influence of O’Connor’s stories still measurably palpable in popular culture to this day.

As a female Catholic incapacitated by lupus, in the patriarchal, Protestant Bible-belt South, O’Connor wrote from her unique perspective in the margins of society to produce funny and wild parables of grotesque freaks and violent revelations that challenged the intellectual arrogance and lethargy of her time. Standing apart, but still a part of it, she held up an unflattering mirror so that America might better understand its own grotesque image. Many of her contemporaries covered similar ground, but none wrote quite as perceptively or as effectively as Flannery O’Connor.

Born Mary Flannery O’Connor to a middle-class household on 25th March 1925, O’Connor grew up on Lafayette Square in an Irish-Catholic minority neighbourhood surrounded by the larger Protestant population of Savannah, Georgia. A shy yet precocious only child, O’Connor described herself as “a pigeon-toed child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you complex.” By the age of six she had trained a pet chicken to walk backwards, which caught the attention of Pathé newsreel company. They filmed the infant O’Connor with the moonwalking poultry in a humorous short, Do You Reverse?, which was screened in many movie theatres across America in 1932. Ironically, despite her prodigious literary output, this was probably the largest audience O’Connor would attract in her lifetime.

Following the family’s relocation to Milledgeville, GA, O’Connor’s father succumbed to systemic lupus erythematosus in 1941 when she was fifteen. Wishing to stay close to her family, O’Connor stayed on in Milledgeville and enrolled on an accelerated three-year programme at Georgia State College for Women where she gained a reputation as a satirical cartoonist, a skill which would inform the grotesque characters in her later writing. After graduating in 1945 O’Connor entered the journalism graduate school at the State University of Iowa with the intention of pursuing a career as a political cartoonist, but soon found that journalism was not to her liking. Instead, she approached Paul Engles, the director of the now-prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which over the years has taught and been taught by the likes of John Berryman, W. D Snodgrass, Carolyn Kizer and Simon Armitage.

In contrast to some of her contemporaries, O’Connor had a distinct and personal idea of what it meant to be a “Southern writer”. For O’Connor, Southern writing was not just linked to a place and culture, but to a language, which she made clear in a panel discussion at a Southern arts festival in 1960. When established writer Katherine Anne Porter defined a Southern writer as simply being a Southerner who writes, O’Connor argued that what defined Southern writing was “the idiom”: “People in Princeton don’t talk like we do. And these sounds build up a life of their own in your senses.” O’Connor’s stories are alive with the sounds of Southern accents, from simple mannerisms like “Child, yes” to the white trash drawl of “Save you up enough you can get most anything. I got me some joo’ry.” Through her commitment to writing in the idiom, O’Connor was able to vividly render and carve out her own plot in the South.

Especially in her short stories, O’Connor took up the South as a subject and wrote it as she saw it: a stark, shifting landscape of growing towns and declining farms permeated by a profound sense of uncertainty and spiritual malaise. “I think it’s quite safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ haunted,” she said in a lecture on the grotesque. “And ghosts can be very fierce and instructive; they cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.” During this time the popular cultural conception of the South was rooted in traditional agrarian and religious values, particularly in the North where it was charged by a Cold War political need for an alternative to Northern industrial modernism that wasn’t radically Marxist. But by the late 1940s the patchwork that made up this South was radically changing: agrarian values were falling by the wayside as many flooded out of the countryside into the growing cities for work, and the social ascendency of white and black poor alike, made possible by G.I. Bill education and an emerging Civil Rights Movement, was blurring the traditional social strata. Writing against the rapidly outdating accepted narratives of the South, O’Connor populated her stories with a rogues gallery of misfits, conmen, disfigured wretches, holy fools and violent freaks no longer content to sit on the margins of society. In the typical O’Connor story these grotesque figures encroach on the lives of overbearing matriarchs, shiftless grown children that refuse to leave the nest and status-obsessed old-timers; people whose limited perceptions and arrogance always prefigure a comic uncrowning or a violent fall.

As her characters’ preconceptions and prejudices are excoriated away, what remains is the truth of who they are and a chance to reconcile themselves with the way the world really is. This is often brought about through shocking violence as characters are wantonly maimed, but for O’Connor the violence is necessary: “All human nature vigorously resists grace, because grace changes us and the change is painful.” Sometimes the violence is literal, as in ‘Greenleaf’ where the status-obsessed Mrs. May is gored by a neighbour’s bull and in her final moments seems “to be bent over whispering some last discovery into the animal’s ear.” At other times the violence is a metaphorical flinging of a character from off their high horse, as in ‘Good Country People’ where scam Bible salesman Manley Pointer seduces arrogant nihilist PhD Hulga Hopewell. After Pointer convinces Hulga to remove her wooden leg and reveals the Bibles in his briefcase are actually secret compartments for liquor and illicit playing cards she asks, dismayed “aren’t you just good country people?”, to which he responds “yeah […] but it ain’t held me back none.” He then cuts her down to size with the withering verbal blow “you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!” before making off with her wooden leg, leaving her stranded in a barn. Sometimes the chance at grace is taken, sometimes it isn’t.

Above all, though, O’Connor is wickedly funny. Her stories are executed with a black humour that has roots in the tradition of nineteenth-century Southern humorists like Augustus Baldwin Longstreet and George Washington Harris, but is closest to Jonathan Swift. In what could be called quite a literal following of the instruction “kill your darlings”, O’Connor’s characters are shot, throttled, abandoned, struck by books, gored by bulls, and run over by tractors with deadpan impunity. However, these grotesque characters are usually so unsympathetic to their very core and dispatched with such irreverent humour that you find yourself willingly complicit. A prime example is in arguably O’Connor’s most famous story, ‘A Good Man Is Hard To Find’ wherein a bickering family headed on holiday take a wrong turn and are ambushed by a recently-escaped serial killer called “The Misfit” and his accomplices. One by one, each family member is taken into the woods and shot while the conceited grandmother has a debate with The Misfit that breaks down all her defences. After The Misfit shoots her, he has a conversation with his accomplice:

“She was a talker, wasn’t she?’ Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.

‘She would have been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’

‘Some fun!’ Bobby Lee said.

‘Shut up, Bobby Lee,’ The Misfit said. ‘It’s no real pleasure in life.”

Just like in much of Swift’s work, moments like this sound callous when extracted, but in context are hilarious and follow a twisted yet sound logic. O’Connor’s stories are the literary equivalent of a slap across the face and just as she violently shocks her characters into revelations she also takes the reader off guard: “Those who believe that art proceeds from a healthy, and not from a diseased, faculty of the mind,” she wrote in Mystery and Manners, “will take what he shows them as a revelation, not of what we ought to be but of what we are at a given time and under given circumstances.” With essential truth charged by violence and sardonic wit, O’Connor prompts her readers to reassess their own preconceptions of the varying issues of social orders, race, religion, generational divides and personal identity which she raises in her stories.

With the majority of women in her stories being hard-nosed, crabby matriarchs or scowling, arrogant daughters, one might expect O’Connor to have been of a similar disposition, but the opposite was true. Those who met her talk of her wry humour and smile that could light up a room, and from Andalusia she maintained firm friendships with Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Fitzgerald through letters. Her extensive correspondence with best friend Betty Hester were collected and published as The Habit Of Being, and reveal much of her writing process and her observations on culture and theology. Despite her increasing lack of mobility, O’Connor also toured as many universities and colleges her condition would allow, delivering readings and lectures on literature, creative writing and Christian theology. In 1960 she published her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, but in 1964 her lupus flared up again violently, forcing her into Baldwin County hospital. There she finished a second collection of short stories in secret, hiding drafts under her pillow at night, and sent her publisher the manuscript of her final short story, ‘Judgement Day’, before falling into a coma and dying of kidney failure on 3rd August. Her second collection of short stories entitled Everything That Rises Must Converge was published posthumously the following year, with a single epitaph on the back from Thomas Merton: “When I read Flannery O’Connor, I do not think of Hemingway, or Katherine Anne Porter or Sartre, but rather of someone like Sophocles.”

When speaking on the possibility of a biography once, O’Connor ruled it out, simply stating “lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy”. Recalling the film with her pet chicken as a six year-old Mary Flannery, she said “I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been an anticlimax.” In truth, she was probably right. During her lifetime O’Connor’s work garnered some critical praise, but not an awful lot in the way of commercial sales. However, her reputation has steadily grown since and her influential representation of a stark South rendered with violence and humour has spread far.

Her short stories are often credited with helping revitalise the American short story in a similar way to Raymond Carver years later, who himself cited O’Connor as a formative influence. Harry Crews was likened to “Flannery O’Connor on steroids,” while Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree bears the mark of O’Connor’s freak-populated South and grim humour, albeit without the possibility of a saving grace due to McCarthy’s lapsed Catholicism. Alice Walker read O’Connor’s stories “endlessly” in college and claimed “she was for me the first great modern writer from the South, and was, in any case, the only one I had read who wrote such sly, demythifying sentences about white women.”

The vivid and brooding nature of her work also ensured that her presence in film stretched further than Do You Reverse?. Many of her stories were adapted for film and television, the most notable being the cantankerous John Huston’s 1979 film of Wise Blood, starring Brad Dourif, Ned Beatty and Harry Dean Stanton. More recently, O’Connor’s archetypes of the depraved, wilful outsider and a plot-central idiot found their way into 2011’s Killer Joe, executed with a mix of shocking violence and absurd humour that is pure O’Connor, whilst the dissection of spiritual malaise and the acute visual rendering of that very same Christ-haunted South in Nic Pizzolatto’s HBO series True Detective holds distinct resonances of O’Connor, fused with neo-noir and cosmic horror.

Further afield, her echo can be heard in the gothic americana of The Handsome Family (whose ‘Far From Any Road’ is itself the title music for True Detective) and Jim White, or in the haunted landscapes and freakish convictions of Michael Gira’s lyrics. Bruce Springsteen channeled O’Connor into the writing of his stark, acoustic masterpiece Nebraska, telling Walker Percy’s nephew in an interview that “there was some dark thing – a component of spirituality – that I sensed in her stories, and that set me off exploring characters of my own. She knew original sin – knew how to give it the flesh of a story.” In particular, O’Connor’s influence can be sensed in the novels and music of Nick Cave, who since The Birthday Party has shared her penchant for violent freaks, gallows humour and revelations got at a high price. Hell, Cave himself could have wandered out of O’Connor country.

Fifty years on the power and influence of her work remains undiminished. And though infirmity and an early death may have limited her potential output, it sure didn’t hold her back none.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today