As many letters in The Habit of Being show, Flannery O’Connor was plagued long before her death with Deep Readers from little colleges offering outlandish ‘interpitations’ of her fiction and to some extent her life. If the tendency of British academics has been to demand that short stories must be ‘short Tories’, successful or not according to how strictly they are plotted to deliver a short sharp shock – an early, violent and nastily surprising end – the corresponding vice among their American counterparts has been to require that every short story be a fruitcake of Freudian symbols. O’Connor’s stories fulfil neither prescription, though nothing has ever stopped a fully-automated Freudian from applying his insights to anything of human origin. The Fifties and Sixties, when O’Connor was publishing, coincided with the height of the symbol-seeking frenzy. An acquaintance told O’Connor that he hadn’t liked her second novel, The violent bear it away, whereupon she replied that she wasn’t a bit surprised to hear it ‘since you see everything in terms of sex symbols … My Lord, Billy, recover your simplicity. You ain’t in Manhattan.’ She thought that poets were luckier than prose-writers if only because they weren’t generally read and therefore not generally misunderstood. All the same, some of the misunderstanding met with by O’Connor, a Roman Catholic of serenest orthodoxy all the 39 years of her life, had to do with the way the moral message she found in life was bound up in the meshings of Catholic doctrine.
The ‘meaning’ of her fiction is concentrated in the moment at which the Eternal penetrates Time: it is the flashpoint in virtually everything she ever wrote, although it is a much cruder affair than a classic Joycean epiphany, which it only superficially resembles. The reader, Catholic or not, who is prepared to take this moment seriously – that is, neither piously nor contemptuously – is the one she believed would get the best out of what she wrote. On matters of doctrine and the sacraments her letters are of considerable help, but you don’t have to know much about these things to get a powerful lot of pleasure and disquiet from reading her.
She was a Catholic writer who never directly wrote fiction about Catholics, nor did she use much Catholic ‘decor’: ‘The setting in which most fiction takes place is exactly a setting in which nothing is so little felt to be true as the reality of faith in Christ.’ What she found irresistible was the Protestant devil and the Protestant Jesus in Protestant rural Georgia, especially when manifested outside a decaying church tradition. Again and again, her fiction tells us that anybody that can get anybody else to put a dime in his collection-box can start him a church. There ain’t no copyright on Jesus. This sort of wild, ingrown, unguided religious impulse either dwindles into secularism and respectability or else goes unmediated and astray into grotesque and highly individual encounters with Jesus and the devil. To her, this home-made religion seemed ‘painful and touching and grimly comic’, and she did not mock it: ‘If this were merely comic to me, it would be no good, but I accept the same fundamental doctrines of sin and redemption and judgment that they do.’ The various dramatic forms this improvised Protestantism takes are ‘obvious enough for me to catch’, she said, adding with a sort of pride: ‘I can’t write about anything subtle.’ In this connection it is worth noting how matter-of-fact her own daily religious life was. She admiringly quoted Braque on painting, ‘I like the rule that corrects the emotion,’ and this rule is precisely what Catholicism provided her with. It wasn’t the gush of emotion people needed: it was prayers and God’s love. ‘I distrust pious phrases, particularly when they issue from my mouth ... In contrast to the pious language of the faithful, the liturgy is beautifully flat.’
In her fiction O’Connor worked out her understanding of good and evil, God and the devil, in terms of relations between the generations, the races, the ‘nice people’ and the ‘common ones’, between reason and mystery, which were equal and opposite forces in her economy, between the godless, bitter intellectuals and the uprooted, bedevilled prophets of God, with free will and original sin continually bashing away at all the poor human creatures who seldom truly know ‘who they are’. O’Connor knew the delusions of gentility and gleefully assisted the devil in setting up the proud ones for their chastisement. Typical of the chastened in her fiction is the middle-aged widow with the impudent bookish child. Such a decent woman, with over half a lifetime’s accumulation of bigotry and banality and hypocrisy to draw on, is thankful that she is not as (certain) others are. She must, therefore, be brought lower than these others so as to receive self-knowledge. There are many variations on this theme in O’Connor’s work.
In general, the pretensions of such characters are harmless, for they haven’t the power of wealth and cannot seriously oppress anyone. The marks of their pride are trivial. The Negroes and the ‘white trash’ are perfectly free of any sense of inferiority, anyway. ‘Nice people’ can look down on ‘trash and niggers’ all they like, but there’s no satisfaction in it because nobody down there is actually looking up. It’s partly this refusal to accept social stratification that makes Southern society, which looks stratified from the outside, actually different from European class-systems. Of course, family members in O’Connor’s South can – and certainly do – oppress one another emotionally. For savagery some of her family scenes are worthy of Christina Stead.
It’s when pride’s progression to the inevitable fall adheres most strictly to Roman Catholic equations concerning purgatory, punishment and the price of knowledge that O’Connor comes into the arbitrary violence that is the severest limitation of her work. Violence can result from purely aesthetic considerations, as it does in ‘Greenleaf’, an almost perfectly-designed story made, as fiction always must be for O’Connor, out of believable materials. Its logic requires that Mrs May end up symbolically raped and then killed (it is all one continuous act) by a loose bull on her farm – not even a registered ‘gentleman’ bull, either, but a scrub belonging to her tenant’s sons. It is not the hardness of Christian realism that prescribes the widow’s undeserved death but the logic of fiction, and there one must leave it, as one also leaves ‘Good Country People’, with a satisfied sense of form but unconvinced (in the case of the latter story) that the submerged Vulcan theme has added anything very much.
If O’Connor’s stories seem hard she would say: yes, they are hard ‘because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism’. On the other hand, she also says: ‘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 to enjoy anything ... being a Catholic has saved me a couple of thousand years in learning to write.’ Completely committed to her craft (‘the idea of making it right is what should be applied to all making’), she would not see the artist exalted above any other kind of worker. Her own fiction is developed consistently in terms of character, partly because her sensibility (in contrast to her convictions) was a dramatic one, and partly because she believed that God has chosen to operate through human nature. If she was to write about God in the world she must write pre-eminently about human beings. Consequently her fiction is always vivid with physical gesture, with minutely accurate dialogue and masterly comic timing. She reckoned she could have written a first-rate movie-script for W.C. Fields and one shares her confidence. It is remarkable the degree to which her writing is active, full of farcical effects that happily overwhelm her constitutional didacticism. Her final judgment on any work of fiction had to do with whether or not it was alive: a good work was alive all the way through.
Yet her fiction is anything but comedy of escape. The tension is between an attraction to the holy and a disbelief in it, and this she stretched to its limits. ‘I can’t allow any of my characters, in a novel anyway, to stop in some halfway position ... everything works toward its true end or away from it, everything is ultimately saved or lost.’ She was sure that the devil is present in creation. She and the novelist John Hawkes had a lot to say to each other about the devil in the course of their correspondence, although in The Habit of Being we get only O’Connor’s portion of this exchange. (The trouble with books like this one is that the reader feels as if he or she were waiting outside a phone-box, overhearing one half of a lengthy if uncommonly interesting conversation.) O’Connor considered Hawkes’s devil to be an unfallen literary spirit of great charm and virtue, but hardly anything like her own devil, who had a name (Lucifer), a history (the fall from heaven for the sin of pride) and a programme (the destruction of the divine plan). It’s the devil, she reckoned, who teaches most of the lessons that lead to self-knowledge. ‘I believe that the writer’s moral sense must coincide with his dramatic sense and this means that moral judgment has to be implicit in the act of vision.’ The devil’s moral sense, she said, coincides at all points with his dramatic sense. She always gave the devil his due, which she assumed was how one exercised Christian charity in fiction, and he returned the compliment in spades. It was O’Connor’s devil who gave her ‘the Christ-haunted South’, the texture and the idiom and the ear to record it with such precision. Thank God, we say, for the devil.
O’Connor’s stories are neither as brief nor as lyrical as many of Isaac Babel’s are, but they have as much concentrated time in them, and both writers press their readers towards responses as complex as the stories themselves are. With Babel, an immeasurably greater writer, she shared humour, irony, an aesthetic of distortion, and a strict authorial detachment which prevented the didactic, the moralising, the sentimental from staining the art. The whiff of the ‘literary’ does not hang around either of them. The fascination with violence does. For O’Connor, the times themselves require a great thrust of violence: ‘more than ever now it seems that the kingdom of heaven has to be taken by violence, or not at all. You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you.’ Violence was to be welcomed as an opportunity whereby grace might enter a life and change it. ‘Grace,’ she said, ‘cuts with the sword Christ said he came to bring’ before it heals anything. ‘There is a moment of grace in most of the stories, or a moment where it is offered, and is usually rejected ... These moments are prepared for (by me anyway) by the intensity of the evil circumstances ... This moment of grace excites the devil to frenzy.’ An encounter with grace can disorientate a lay reader almost as much as it can change a character’s personality. Many years ago, when I first read ‘A good man is hard to find’, everything was going along fine until a couple of paragraphs before the end when the grandmother in the story abruptly becomes – as I now understand it – the vessel of grace and gets herself shot by the escaped convict, all more or less within the compass of a single rattlesnake-strike of a gesture. This certainly jolted the story onto a different plane, but what plane was it? O’Connor explained in a letter that the convict ‘of course, is a spoiled prophet’. Since, in O’Connor’s programme, what can’t be touched by violence can’t be redeemed, the way to salvation is through violence, which is the means to grace, being at once the trigger and the response. Viewed in such a perspective, the ending of ‘A good man is hard to find’ appears perfectly logical: a gesture of mindless love is reciprocated with a reflex gesture of murder. Touché.
O’Connor’s Christian perspective, as she acknowledged, presented her with her central problem as an artist: ‘If I set myself to write about a socially desirable Christianity, all the life would go out of what I do. And if I set myself to write about the essence of Christianity, I would have to quit writing fiction, or become another person.’ In the end, she said, you write what you can and that is what God gives you. What God gave Flannery O’Connor sure stuck in some craws. In her letters, she often referred to complaints received from ‘pious atheists’ as well as from ‘irate Catholics’. Van Wyck Brooks once remarked that it was a shame someone with so much talent should look upon life as a horror story, which is a surprising comment from a historian of literary New England. How did he manage to miss all the Hawthorne in O’Connor? How did he fail to see that these writers shared the conviction that evil is present in the world as a positive force?
In spite of the slightly defensive tone of Sally Fitzgerald’s introduction to The Habit of Being, behind which seems to lie a worry that readers might decide that every Flannery O’Connor story about a banal widow and her surly, smart-ass child must be a direct transcription from the author’s life, the fact is that O’Connor’s mother – who clearly had no idea what her only child was up to with her writing – apparently never wished to dissuade her from it or ever looked on the results as possibly unflattering to herself. What could upset Flannery O’Connor was her mother’s Philistinism. As late as 1959, impressed when a friend of her daughter’s sold a story to the Saturday Evening Post for a thousand dollars while Flannery generally sold her work to academic reviews for a fraction of that sum, Regina O’Connor asked: ‘Do you think that you are really using the talent God gave you when you don’t write something that a lot, a LOT, of people like?’ To a friend O’Connor reported her reaction: ‘This always leaves me shaking and speechless, raises my blood pressure 140 degrees.’ However, unless evidence to the contrary has been edited away, Regina and Flannery had a close, genuinely affectionate and thoroughly unsentimental relationship from start to finish. This matters, because for the last 13 years of her life Flannery O’Connor lived with her mother, having been forced by illness to return from the North, where she had intended to stay and write. Regina’s own taste in books ran to something that had Frank Buck in it and a lot of wild animals. Her father, who died of lupus when Flannery was 15, had been a real-estate man with some kind of interest in writing, though exactly what form it took is not made clear. ‘I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation ... In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both.’ Far from being irritable, she seems, in her letters, warm, funny, generous, refined, thrifty and hygienic. Perhaps she used up her irritation on Northern liberals, whom she appears to have loathed. When it came to Catholic mystics and the pieties of the Catholic press, she was often joyously irreverent, as she was also about English professors, nihilists and feminism. The letters in this book are addressed to a wide range of people, but friends rather than kin, and they bring us into the presence of someone acutely attentive, sociable but not thrusting, with a lovely self-mocking quality. For the courage, one has to read between the lines.
What’s very striking is that, except for greater or lesser degrees of formality, depending upon whether or not she knew her correspondent personally, she was absolutely consistent in her tone. Any intelligent person was her peer. She delighted to play the hick, and in all but the most formal letters she mixed country talk with more conventional diction. There is no gush or girlish gossip – virtually no gossip at all, in fact. And no letters written before her 23rd year. What she put into correspondence was an abundance of pungent commentary about herself, her kin, the hired hands on her mother’s dairy farm and the families they had. Letters are frequently enlivened with little dialogues, little scenes, anecdotes and long-running serial dramas: will Miss Flannery require an operation on her hip? Can Shot ever pass his driving test? (He’s a perfectly competent driver, O’Connor told someone, but he couldn’t get his licence because every time it came to the written examination it looked as if he didn’t know what a vehicle was.)
Flannery O’Connor certainly never seems to have suffered from that ‘cultivated timidity’ that has always been the curse of well-bred women. From the outset she had an unusual degree of personal authority and a clear sense of what she was doing. ‘Premature arrogance’ – her own description of her youthful self – is probably spot-on. Only illness could impede her will to write fiction and nothing ever seems to have deflected her from the purity of her intentions. Certainly no publisher ever did. She had several feminist friends but no interest in feminism. She inadvertently wrote one fine feminist story, or a story that easily sustains a feminist reading, ‘A Stroke of Good Fortune’, although subsequently she appears to have wished to abort it. O’Connor herself apparently never felt disadvantaged by being female. She claimed, however, that Catholic women have always had more equality than others, citing as evidence the quantities of female saints. One would like to probe that assertion, along with a number of others to be found among these letters – notably, her defence of the Church in relation to right-wing politics. (Mussolini was ‘only a gangster’ but Communism is a false religion.) When it came to relations between the races, she was a quiet integrationist. This, too, is entirely consistent with the policy of the Church, which in the South had a much better record on integration than the Protestants had, but never pushed its views. O’Connor was prepared to meet James Baldwin in New York City but not in Georgia, where it would upset people (presumably white ones), something she could see no point in: ‘I observe the traditions of the society I feed on – it’s only fair.’ Sometimes she referred to the South as ‘a land of sin and guilt’, but this was an irony directed against Yankees. When Harlem burned she was jubilant.
Flannery O’Connor was herself destroyed by the violence of inherited disease. Nothing as dramatic as syphilis (how ‘degenerately Southern’ that would have been). It was merely something rare: disseminated lupus erythematosis, or Red Wolf, as it was almost affectionately designated among its sufferers. ‘The wolf is inside tearing things up,’ she wrote to a friend a few weeks before she died in August 1964. What American fiction lost that August is richly hinted at, not only by the fine last stories in which her developing insight was beginning to outstrip even her formal mastery, but also by something she had written four years earlier to Andrew Lytle, the editor of Sewanee Review: ‘I have got to the point where I keep thinking more and more about the presentation of love and charity, or better call it grace, as love suggests tenderness, whereas grace can be violent and would have to be to compete with the kind of evil I can make concrete. At the same time, I keep seeing Elias in that cave, waiting to hear the voice of the Lord in the thunder and lightning and wind, and only hearing it finally in the gentle breeze, and I feel I’ll have to be able to do that sooner or later, or anyway keep trying.’
Whether she ever would have passed beyond her doctrinal commitment to violence and sat with Elias in the cave no one can say. But what fiction has gained and is likely to want to keep for a good while is a small body of work that has made me, at least, recall some lines about art by Marianne Moore:
it must be ‘lit with piercing glances into the life of things’;
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it.
I can’t think of a better description of the work of Flannery O’Connor.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.