The appearance of Flannery O’Connor’s collected works (edited by Sally Fitzgerald) in the prestigious Library of America is an event not only for Catholic literature in this country but quite simply for American literature.
The volume contains O’Connor’s two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away; her two story collections, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge; the 1947 collection of stories that earned Flannery her M.A. at the Iowa Writers School; and “occasional prose,” which includes some wise ruminating on being Catholic and a novelist in this country. And there are letters (21 of them never before published).
Born in Savannah in 1925, Flannery O’Connor lived most of her life in Georgia, where she died in 1964. She was a cradle Catholic and, when she was a graduate student in Iowa, began to attend daily Mass. She never married, though there were young men and she fell in love at least twice. Her life was cut short by lupus, which considerably curtailed her activity during her last years, but the one activity that went on to the end was writing.
The power of her novels and stories is difficult to define. That her characters are most often freaks and grotesques and the stories rich in comedy is part of it, but it is her point of view that sets her off. The South is haunted by Christ, she said, and the same is true of her characters. Their driven religiosity is a constant in the stories. What is her attitude toward it? Anything but the prevalent reaction to the travails of Jimmy Swaggart. She could have written about him. In many ways she did.
This collection contains reflections on writing that may surprise. Her story material was by and large Southern Protestant, but Flannery O’Connor was Catholic to her fingertips. She regarded writing as a vocation. The mystery of life is that fallen man has been redeemed by Christ but has to respond freely to grace. It is this deeper meaning, what she called the anagogic meaning, that real literature must have. A sense of the mystery hidden within the everydayness. It was that mystery, concretely embodied, that she puts before her reader.
Of the non-fiction in the collection, her preface to A Memoir of Mary Ann, written by the nuns of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Free Cancer Home in Atlanta, is overwhelmingly powerful. The nuns approached Flannery to write the story of a three-year-old girl who had come to them to die and lived twelve years. Mary Ann, with a hideous cancer of the face, had changed the lives of all who knew her. O’Connor’s reaction to this request and her frankness about the manuscript the nuns finally wrote themselves convey much about this wise and good woman. But it is the connection she draws between Nathaniel Hawthorne and the little girl with cancer that puts her characteristic spin on the matter.
Hawthorne once wrote a short story about a fastidious man who visited a Liverpool poorhouse where an awful looking little retarded kid attached itself to the man, followed him around and finally, standing before him, looked up, wanting and expecting to be picked up and held. Against his every instinct, the man does so. This is described in the story as “a heroic act” that “effected more than he dreamed of toward his final salvation when he took up the loathsome child and caressed it as tenderly as if he had been its father.”
The fastidious man, the notebooks published after his death by his wife reveal, was Hawthorne himself. After picking up the unappealing little wretch and hugging it, Hawthorne observed that “I should never have forgiven myself if I had repelled its advances.” Hawthorne’s daughter Rose felt that those were the greatest words her father had ever written. She became a Catholic, opened a home for destitute terminal cancer patients, and eventually founded the Dominican order to which the nuns in Atlanta who had written Flannery O’Connor belonged. “Their work,” the Georgia author wrote, “is the tree sprung from Hawthorne’s small act of Christlikeness and Mary Ann is its flower.”
Human beings are deciding their eternal condition by the fleeting acts they perform. Flannery O’Connor’s task as a writer was to convey that vision at a time when it is not widely held. Her vocation was to write and to write largely about grotesques, characters whose manners better suggest the mystery. Her reflections on her craft, on the role of her faith in her fiction, are full of surprises and delights. Expect no edifying pieties from this lady. She is as severe on Catholic readers as she is on others.
Flannery O’Connor’s work is that of a woman who knew she was dying. This concentrated her mind, lent a seriousness to her sense of vocations enlivened her wit and humor, and led, this book enables one to say, not only to wisdom but to holiness.