Reading Flannery O’Connor

Reading Flannery O’Connor

Witschi, Nicholas

Flannery O’Connor The Obedient Imagination, by Sarah Gordon. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2000. xviii, 270 pp. $29.95 cloth; Flannery O’Connor- In Celebration of Genius, edited by Sarah Gordon. Athens, Georgia: Hill Street Press, 2000. xii, 123 pp. $18.95 cloth.

READERS OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR FREQUENTLY find themselves faced with an intriguing difficulty. For one, O’Connor’s novels and stories offer a compelling canon of richly allusive, carefully crafted explications of sin, gracelessness, faith, and salvation in the modern South. However, beyond the difficulties inherent in making meaning out of these works stands the legacy of the writer herself, a legacy that has exerted a tremendous force on the reception and appreciation of the writing. That is, in the almost six decades since O’Connor first began publishing, readers have had to contend with an authorial persona whose fierceness of vision and strength of personality have continually mediated, even determined, the available approaches to her fiction. For example, there are the extant letters, in one of which O’Connor asserts quite unambiguously: “I write from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy” (Obedient Imagination p. 246). That O’Connor’s Catholicism stands as a necessary filter through which to read the work seems undeniable, yet this precondition of reading, coupled with the narrative voice for which O’Connor is justly famous, also presents a distinct problem to readers. The award-winning novelist and playwright David Madden, for one, recalls:

I have had a long, troubled, but ultimately rewarding relationship with the fiction of Flannery O’Connor. As a humanist, I have always been repelled by what I feel to be Flannery O’Connor’s mean-spiritedness. As both an agnostic and now as a recently converted Protestant Christian, I am offended by my sense of her version of Catholic superiority. As a writer and a teacher, I have always been struck by what I’ve considered the crudeness of her use of the techniques of fiction, especially the omniscient point of view. Having read her novels and most of her stories (several times over), I am compelled, finally, to testify to the uniqueness of her vision and her raw storytelling power. (In Celebration. of Genius p. 79)

Similarly, as Sarah Gordon ponders “the difficulty O’Connor presents to secular and Christian readers alike,” she too couches the issue as a question of “how to reconcile that stark narration with Christian love and forgiveness” (Obedient Imagination p. 45).

Two excellent new books, one written by and the other edited by Gordon, a long-time O’Connor scholar and the much-respected editor of the Flannery O’Connor Bulletin, testify to the extent to which the relationship between Flannery O’Connor and reading represents in some measure a negotiation over authority. Can an author truly and fully set the terms by which her work is read? By what critical paradigms are certain readings authorized and others closed off? How have readers used O’Connor’s works as the bases for their own positions, on matters ranging from religion to familial relations to the role of the contemporary artist? Sarah Gordon, who teaches English at Georgia College & State University, O’Connor’s Milledgeville alma mater, begins Flanney O’Connor The Obedient Imagination by demonstrating O’Connor’s early struggles with questions very much like those enumerated above. As a young woman of the South, steeped in the twin ideologies of Roman Catholicism and Southern womanhood (which Gordon identifies as the “pretty is as pretty does” warnings often leveled at girls) and educated in the critical virtues of Modernism and the Fugitives, O’Connor developed her bold style and fierce narrative voice largely as a means of claiming for herself a measure of cultural authority. As Gordon reads O’Connor’s early apprentice work, assumptions about how women should comport themselves mix with ideas about textuality learned from New Criticism. In both instances, authority rests with the impersonal and paternalistic voice, the gaze is male, and the figure of the woman is reduced to a materiality that poses a threat to genuine spiritual salvation. In one respect, Gordon’s thesis appears with perfect clarity in the index to the book, where an entry on “Catholicism: the grounding of O’Connor’s fiction in” contains a cross-reference to “See also woman writer: attitudes toward the body” (p. 267). In this conjunction of topics, Gordon finds ample points of study in O’Connor’s fiction, working through all of her major fiction and essays in a subtly chronological reading that nevertheless conveys the sense of an entire career taken at a single glance. For Gordon, O’Connor ultimately reveals herself in both fiction and letters to be a typical Southern woman of the mid-century whose literary training absorbed the tenets of New Criticism and the canonical Modernists’ disdain for and fear of the blatantly female. While sensitive to the fact that O’Connor was a product of her day and age, Gordon does not excuse O’Connor on these grounds. Rather, she uses this observation to indicate the ongoing complexity of the fiction, of which an understanding (or at least a rapprochement) can best be arrived at with continuous, sustained attention (Gordon’s introduction begins: “In the thirty years that I have been reading and teaching the fiction of Flannery O’Connor. . .” [p. xiii]).

Flannery O’Connor: The Obedient Imagination is a terrific book to read. In her engagement with the work of previous critics and interpreters of O’Connor’s fiction, Gordon is fair and generous, never dismissive of those with whom she disagrees and respectful of those to whom she owes critical debts (although one does wonder a bit at the thoroughness of the research, given that relatively few entries in the bibliography date from the 1990s). Moreover, an equally valuable aspect of The Obedient Imagination is to be found in Gordon’s revisiting of her own ongoing struggle to come to terms with and overcome the legacy of New Criticism. In demonstrating how Flannery O’Connor was profoundly influenced by the particular philosophies of textuality and literary merit espoused by Allen Tate and T.S. Eliot, Gordon also explicitly addresses her own training in this mode of criticism. Make no mistake about it, this book is very much a critical study for the present. Through her analysis of O’Connor’s engagement with the tenets of New Criticism, though, Gordon allows us to see the extent to which the principles of Southern Formalism are still with us, still exerting a shaping influence on much literary critical practice. Gordon’s study thus provides a valuable service in recalling the Modernist and Fugitive debates on intrinsic literary value. Flannery O’Connor: The Obedient Imagination stands as proof of the power of a writer-Flannery O’Connor-and of one reader’s career-long encounter with both that writer’s works and the critics who have both then and now given shape to them.

Gordon’s other book, Flannery O’Connor. In Celebration of Genius, is a collection of testimonials on the influence and lasting power of O’Connor’s words. Put together to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of O’Connor’s birth (March 25, 2000) and to benefit the O’Connor Collection at Georgia College & State University’s Ina Dillard Russell Library, In Celebration of Genius contains commissioned pieces written by such notable readers as Robert Coles, Doris Betts, Maxine Kumin, Mark Jarman, Fred Chappell, and fifteen others. Ranging from poetry to prose and from fiction to essay, the pieces in this book offer personal recollections of O’Connor, discussions of what certain stories have meant in the writers’ lives, and as the example from David Madden cited above would indicate, confessions of the ongoing struggle and appreciation that O’Connor’s writings inspire. With the exception of one or two overly sanctimonious screeds (such as Madison Jones’s slippery– slope condemnation of the erosion of cultural morality since O’Connor’s day), the contributions to this book provide an excellent and immanently readable record of how some very talented people have read, and have had their lives affected by, O’Connor. Of particular note are the selections from Guerilla Girl Alma Thomas, Nancy Mairs, and Brett Lott: Thomas, the pseudonymous visual artist and activist, praises the manner in which O’Connor’s ideas about being an artist have come to mean so much to “generations of artists who have been `othered”‘ (p. 77); Mairs, in a letter addressed directly to O’Connor, states her own identification with O’Connor by talking about her own struggles to maintain a writing career in the face of a disabling disease (Mairs has multiple sclerosis); and Lott, striking a note implicit in most of the other selections, describes the path he has taken in learning the lessons of authorial humility he finds at the heart of O’Connor’s essays and lectures.

Toward the end of her introduction to In Celebration of Genius, Sarah Gordon observes: “As for this reader, O’Connor’s work reads me like that of few others. There is much in me of Hazel Motes, Joy/Hulga Hopewell, and other inhabitants of O’Connor’s absurd but strangely familiar world” (p. xii). Gordon’s assertion about being read by the fiction she has made it her career to study fittingly sums up the relationship between Flannery O’Connor and her readers: it is ongoing and reciprocal in the production of meaning, and it shows no signs of waning. This idea is further elaborated in what is perhaps the most haunting and most effective piece in this collection, a short story by Greg Johnson entitled “Last Encounter with the Enemy.” In this fantasy-nightmare, an arrogant but prescient kid travels to Milledgeville to confront an ailing O’Connor with knowledge of her future. An aspiring writer who knows he will one day look back at O’Connor as an influence, this kid baits O’Connor by telling her that he doubts the authority of the Catholic Church, that he understands the true meaning of O’Connor’s words, and that he knows about “Parker’s Back,” a story O’Connor had not yet published at the time of the encounter. O’Connor responds at first demurely and with grace but then physically assails her interviewer, whacking him on the side of the head with a crutch in a clear message to mind his manners and not underestimate her resilience and continuing strength. As an anxiety-of– influence parable, an homage in both form and content, Johnson’s tale demonstrates compellingly the relationship many writers, as well as readers, have with O’Connor: she presents a tantalizing, formidable, and often punishing presence, one not easily grasped or figured out. Yet we always go back for more, for the rewards are as wonderful as the work is difficult.

Copyright Mississippi Quarterly Summer 2001

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