I have in my study a silver vase holding four peacock plumes and several parrot feathers. The plumes were dropped decades ago by avian residents of Andalusia, a dairy farm near Milledgeville, Georgia. The feathers come from my own Patagonian conures. The farm was once the property of Regina O’Connor and her daughter, Flannery. Both were close friends of Mary Barbara Tate and her son, the critic J.O. Tate, who is also an old friend and colleague of mine.
One afternoon years ago, while I was a houseguest of theirs, the Tates drove me out to the farm. I no longer recall the circumstances in which I acquired those feathers. I suppose I must have picked them up from the grass around the barnyard. Back in Milledgeville, I wrapped them carefully in tissue paper, thrust them into my folding carry-on bag, and guarded them watchfully on the 2,000-mile flight over to Salt Lake City. Jim has a far closer connection to Miss O’Connor than I do, having viewed her laid out in her coffin on the day of her funeral in the summer of 1964 when he was sixteen years old. For my part, I must be content with my plumes and with all that I learned from her as a writer and—more importantly—as a Catholic.
My introduction to Flannery O’Connor and her work was effected by my sister, who has lived most of her adult life on small farms and is intimately familiar with the New England equivalent of O’Connor’s rural milieu and characters. I had already read one of her collections of stories when The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor was published in 1979, the year I moved from New York City to a small town in southwestern Wyoming. Much as I admired the stories (and, when I read them later, the two novels) it was through the letters that their author became the intimate artistic, intellectual, and personal presence in my life that she has remained ever since. It was these that made me a Catholic, in the sense that I learned from them how to think like a Catholic—or rather, how a Catholic thinks. So much so, in fact, that I have come over the years to consider Flannery O’Connor a species of catechist, despite her own protest that she was no theologian.
She protested, but the truth is that she brought the misapprehension on herself by the zealous enthusiasm with which she corrected the ignorance of, and misunderstandings concerning, the Catholic faith demonstrated by certain of her many and various correspondents. Most often, this happened through their faulty grasp of her aims and accomplishments as a fiction writer. Their difficulty in perceiving what she was about in her work had nothing to do with literary “subtlety,” a quality of which Miss O’Connor highly disapproved. “Subtlety is the curse of man,” she wrote; “It is not found in the deity.” When asked why she so often employed solar imagery—for instance, the sun dropping like “a blood-drenched host” behind the horizon—she replied, “Because it’s obvious.” And she explained her preference for writing about Protestant believers rather than Catholic ones this way: “Because they express their belief in diverse kinds of dramatic action which is obvious enough for me to catch. I can’t write about anything subtle.”
She expanded on the subject in a letter to the novelist John Hawkes: “Haze [Motes, the protagonist of her novel Wiseblood] is saved by virtue of having wise blood…Wise blood has to be these people’s means of grace—they have no sacraments. The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, which I as a Catholic find painful and comic and grimly touching. It’s full of unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous predicaments. They have nothing to correct their practical heresies and so they work them out dramatically.”
All of Miss O’Connor’s work stands against and refutes what she recognized as the popular notion that to see clearly one must believe in nothing, whether as an artist or a human being. She wrote, she said, as an orthodox Christian whose solid belief in all Catholic dogma increased her vision rather than limited it. “For the fiction writer, to believe nothing is to see nothing,” she explained; “I don’t write to bring anybody a message, which… is not the purpose of a novelist; but the message I find in the life I see is a moral message.”
O’Connor did find a moral basis in “poetry” (literature); it was, she held, “the accurate naming of the things of God. I mean about the same thing that Conrad meant when he said that his aim as an artist was to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe,” which for her was a reflection of the invisible universe. To succeed, she believed, “the fiction writer’s moral sense must coincide with his dramatic sense.” Speaking of her “silent reception by Catholics” she claimed nevertheless that “I write the way I do because and only because I am a Catholic. I feel that if I were not a Catholic, I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason, ever, to feel horrified or even enjoy anything.”
Flannery O’Connor was fond of saying that novelists typically write about “freaks or folks.” The reason for the predominance of freaks in her own work is explained by her decision to write chiefly about Southern Protestants. The reason why these people also belong overwhelmingly to the Southern rural poor is doubtless attributable in part—beyond the fact of her close familiarity with them—to the artistic possibilities that poor people, living simple and basic lives close to the bone of human experience, have always afforded artists, writers, and painters, in particular. But in O’Connor’s case there is a theological explanation as well: “Everybody, as far as I am concerned, is The Poor.”
Many readers have found her socially and intellectually limited cast of characters sordid and depressing and the stories themselves, as she noted, “brutal and sarcastic.” O’Connor admitted as much, but only to a point. “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe there are many tough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”
She writes somewhere in Mystery & Manners, a collection of her essays and lectures, something to the effect that for the deaf you shout, and for the blind you draw bold and startling pictures. Flannery O’Connor thought modern people deaf and blind to God, the holy, and holiness, and she took her own advice in her stories and novels to get through to them. But she also thought that to see Christ as being both God and man is “probably” no more difficult today than previously, even if there are more reasons to doubt the fact.
“For you,” she wrote to “A.,” her friend and constant correspondent throughout her adult life, “it may be a matter of not being able to accept what you call a suspension of laws and the flesh and the physical, but for my part I think that when I know what the laws of the flesh and the physical really are, then I will know what God is. We know them as we see them, not as God sees them. For me it is the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the resurrection which are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, destruction are the suspension of these laws.”
While Catholic literature is hardly wanting for writers who have effectively dramatized the truths of their faith in their work, I cannot think of a writer of fiction who has so plainly and directly revealed the structure of the Catholic mind and of the Catholic imagination as O’Connor did. I think it likely, indeed, that she may be canonized someday. Meanwhile, Flannery O’Connor remains for me what she has been for the past forty years: my own, very private saint.
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