According to one of her cousins, Mary Flannery O’Connor was ‘a very peculiar child’. When she was six, she drew countless pictures of chickens. To discourage classmates from sharing her lunch, she would sometimes take castor oil sandwiches to school. Her own recollection of herself is characteristically acerbic: ‘a pigeon-toed only child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you complex’. Her father, Edward O’Connor, was an estate agent, and she grew up in a four-storey house in Savannah, Georgia, but she seems to have chafed against the gentility of her surroundings. ‘I was born disenchanted,’ she later said. Aged ten, she wrote a book called My Relatives. According to her mother, Regina, ‘no one was spared.’ Three years later, as a result of her father’s ill-health, the family moved to Milledgeville, a town of six thousand. Milledgeville’s only distinguishing feature was its lunatic asylum, the largest in the world at the time. After graduating from high school in 1942, O’Connor enrolled at the Georgia State College for Women, where she read social sciences, then went to the University of Iowa on a scholarship to study journalism. While still in her twenties, she started to show symptoms of what was eventually diagnosed as lupus, the autoimmune disease that killed her father. Apart from a few nights, she spent the rest of her life in Milledgeville, where she raised peacocks, attended mass, drove a ‘hearse-like’ black Chevrolet and wrote fiction in a University of Georgia sweater with a bulldog on the front, ‘to create an unfavourable impression’.
O’Connor’s ideas about her writing were unambiguous. In a letter to John Lynch, a reviewer and an academic at Notre Dame, in 1955, she 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.’ She described herself as a ‘hillbilly Thomist’: like Aquinas, she believed that all creation is good. Evil represented the absence of good, or the wrong use of it, she said, and without grace, ‘we use it wrong most of the time.’ O’Connor’s best-known characters – Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, Francis Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away – are embodiments of that predicament or struggle. They wander in a wilderness of the spirit. They are in a constant and desperate search for grace. Here is Tarwater, towards the end of the novel:
He remained motionless except for his hands. They clenched and unclenched. What he saw was what he had expected to see, an empty clearing. The old man’s body was no longer there. His dust would be mingling with the dust of the place, would not be washed by the seeping rains into the field. The wind by now had taken his ashes, dropped them and scattered them and lifted them up again and carried each mote a different way around the curve of the world. The clearing was burned free of all that had ever oppressed him. No cross was there to say that this was ground that the Lord still held. What he looked out upon was the sign of a broken covenant. The place was forsaken and his own.
In his introduction to a book of critical essays on O’Connor, Harold Bloom argues that there is a gulf between O’Connor the lay theologian and O’Connor the storyteller. In his opinion, the theologian does the storyteller a disservice. He would rather she had restrained what he calls her ‘spiritual tendentiousness’; her work is ‘more equivocal than she intended’. John Hawkes took a similar stance in an influential essay for the Sewanee Review in 1962, in which he claimed that O’Connor employed ‘the devil’s voice’ for her ‘vision of our godless actuality’. Responding to Hawkes, O’Connor admitted that ‘the devil teaches most of the lessons that lead to self-knowledge.’ In the years since, critics have abandoned a Catholic interpretation of her work in favour of a psychological and secular approach. If this amounts to a betrayal of O’Connor’s ‘anagogical vision’, perhaps that’s no bad thing: her blend of crackling violence and surreal wit often seems closer to David Lynch than Aquinas.
The theological approach receives a predictably complete expression in Christine Flanagan’s edition of The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon. The two women were introduced by Robert Lowell, who had met O’Connor at Yaddo in 1948. Gordon had impeccable literary credentials. As a young writer, she had been mentored by Ford Madox Ford, who had her read an early draft of her first novel, Penhally, out loud to him. She was edited by Maxwell Perkins, and had published eight novels and one short story collection. O’Connor was familiar with Gordon’s work; she told her that the short story ‘Old Red’ had been ‘the making of me as a writer’. Gordon was thirty years older, but both women had grown up in the Deep South – O’Connor in Georgia, Gordon in Kentucky and Tennessee – and both were practising Catholics. While they lived in an age ‘far removed from Christ’, as the philosopher Jacques Maritain had put it, they agreed that Christian dogma remained the perfect ‘instrument for penetrating reality’.
In early 1951, Gordon read a draft of Wise Blood and wrote to O’Connor praising it as ‘unflaggingly dramatic’ and ‘considerable’, but also singling out scenes she thought O’Connor had ‘muffed’ and proposing substantial revisions. O’Connor sent the revised draft to her editor, Robert Giroux, defending the changes by saying they were ‘all suggested by Caroline’. But as Flanagan points out, O’Connor was no ‘fragile student’. In a letter to Lowell she tells him that Gordon reads all her stories and ‘writes me wherein they do not meet the mark’. While she could be dry or tongue-in-cheek, she wasn’t ungrateful, admitting Gordon had ‘taught me more than anybody’. It’s not difficult to see why. During the 13-year correspondence, Gordon discourses at length on the craft of writing. There are two ways of opening a story, she says: one is with a view or a panorama, as in Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby and Death in Venice. The other is ‘to begin with action, the more violent the better’, as O’Connor does in The Violent Bear It Away. She tells O’Connor that she sometimes wastes her material by failing to give it sufficient significance – ‘We need to see your pigs a little more clearly,’ she writes of one of O’Connor’s final stories, ‘Revelation’ – and criticises her for ‘hurrying over crucial moments too fast’. ‘Anything that’s important,’ she goes on, ‘usually belongs in a sentence by itself.’ She reprimands O’Connor for resorting to words such as ‘toting’ and ‘squinch’: an omniscient third-person narrator has no business with colloquialisms. She offers informal lessons on technique, quoting from Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction: ‘The recording intelligence records more dramatically when it does not know what it is recording.’ O’Connor agrees in principle, but can’t resist adding that she was more likely to be influenced by her mother’s dairyman’s wife than by any writer or academic. Gordon disapproves of O’Connor’s intensity and recommends what Yeats called the ‘numb line’. And she isn’t averse to passing on other people’s criticisms: in one letter she says that her husband, the poet Allen Tate, thinks O’Connor can sometimes be too ‘flat-footed’ in her effects.
Gordon’s advice is often ‘damn didactic’, but she was also lavish with her praise. ‘You’re doing something that hasn’t been done before, something so new, so original, that you have to cut your own way through the underbrush.’ O’Connor’s ‘Good Country People’ is as good as anything Maupassant ever wrote, Gordon claims: in fact it’s better, since it has something that his best stories lack: moral seriousness. In a letter from 1958, she acknowledges O’Connor’s talent in no uncertain terms. ‘I feel like a fool when I criticise your stories. I think you are a genius … It really seems presumptuous for me to offer you suggestions.’
At the start, Gordon is the mentor and O’Connor the acolyte: some of Gordon’s remarks have a hint of condescension, as if she believes O’Connor aspires to a position that she – Gordon – already occupies. There are also moments when she subsumes O’Connor’s work into her own life. Writing from the American Academy in Rome, she tells O’Connor that the first chapter of The Violent Bear It Away is ‘simply terrific’, then adds that it reminds her of ‘the little chapels one sees in the catacombs’. Several hundred breathless words on catacombs follow.
As the correspondence progresses, a sense of imbalance grows. It’s not only that we see O’Connor become famous but that we are reading half a century later, when Gordon has been largely forgotten. The effect of Flanagan’s tightly organised edition is to play Gordon off against O’Connor, and Gordon suffers by comparison. Her letters take up at least two-thirds of the book. She tells long, slightly wearying stories. And there are times when she tries too hard to impress. It’s here that the balance tips, and it becomes clear that Gordon is aware, on some level, that O’Connor is the better writer. Towards the end of the correspondence a self-consciousness creeps in. Responding to ‘Parker’s Back’, one of O’Connor’s last stories, Gordon’s self-deprecation borders on cringing: ‘You will understand, I know, that when old Dr G. says she would do it this way or that she is merely trying to give you, offhand, an example of the kind of thing she feels ought to be done.’ A week later, O’Connor wrote to her friend Betty Hester: ‘Caroline gave me a lot of advice about the story, but most of it I’m ignoring.’
O’Connor’s letters, by contrast, are almost pointedly succinct and laconic. ‘She wrote me six pages about grammar and another six about her Christmas vacation,’ she says of Gordon in 1963. ‘What that woman has is Vitality.’ Where Gordon writes in measured sentences and makes no attempt to conceal her sophistication, O’Connor dumbs down. ‘As the good sisters say,’ she writes to Gordon in 1953, ‘Gawd will reward you for your generosity. I hope quick.’ She deliberately uses bad grammar. She makes a point of misspelling the word ‘intellectual’. Even in her most personal letters, O’Connor’s ‘I’ can feel like an assumed persona, the voice of one of her characters: ‘I ain’t going nowhere else, but am going to stay home and tend to my proper bidnis.’ Perhaps her epistolary style was simply a form of self-defence. She wrote, as she says, ‘by smell’, and recoiled from over-analysing her fiction. In a letter written early on, Gordon admits that ‘it’s dangerous to become too conscious yourself of what you are doing’, but the drift of her remarks is always theoretical – she was an ardent practitioner of the New Criticism – and the reader senses O’Connor learning to sift through Gordon’s many pages for comments that might prove useful.
According to Katherine Scott, one of O’Connor’s schoolteachers, ‘it was obvious that she was a genius. Warped, but a genius all the same.’ Critics have tended to seize on biographical details, portraying her as a crackpot visionary from the Bible Belt. Time magazine’s review of The Violent Bear It Away is by no means untypical in describing her as a ‘retiring bookish spinster who dabbles in the variants of sin and salvation like some self-tutored backwoods theologian’. Spinster. Dabbles. Critics recognised the directness and force of her prose, but unlike Gordon they queried her use of it. They claimed that the spiritual dimension was undermined by the violence. The voice, too, posed a problem: it was detached, idiomatic; its humour withering. They weren’t sure if they were supposed to laugh. The easiest option was to relegate her work to the margins, like a form of outsider art. Towards the end of her life, while addressing students at the Georgia State College for Women, O’Connor referred to the bewilderment and ambivalence her work attracted, imagining readers complaining: ‘I don’t get it, I don’t see it, I don’t want it.’
Despite the protests of her neighbour, Charlotte Conn Ferris, who said, ‘I don’t know where Mary Flannery met those people she wrote about, but it was certainly not in my house,’ O’Connor reflected the world she lived in, where religion was degraded, commerce seductive and all-encompassing and racism not only acceptable but rampant. She was regularly accused of exaggeration, and yet her writing is never gratuitous or crude. The grotesque isn’t exceptional, O’Connor seems to be saying; it is all around us. In his introduction to the French edition of Wise Blood, J.M.G. Le Clézio wrote that ‘if the world that Flannery O’Connor has created shocks us it is not so much because it is confused and brutal, but because it is true.’
In 1946, when O’Connor was 21, four African Americans were lynched by a gang of white men at Moore’s Ford, sixty miles north of Milledgeville. One of the four, Mae Murray Dorsey, was pregnant. After she was shot, a man cut the foetus from her body with a knife. The subsequent FBI investigation lasted six months and was met with obstruction and silence. Alibis were provided for all the perpetrators. O’Connor must have been aware of the case, though she never commented on it. The brutality and prejudice endemic in the Deep South at the time are present in O’Connor too, and she made no attempt to disguise it. Her offensive remarks to her friend Maryat Lee may have been facetious, or she may have been playing devil’s advocate, but she was unequivocally disdainful about the integrationists from the North. When James Baldwin toured the southern states in 1957, O’Connor had the opportunity to meet him. She chose not to. Her excuse was that she had to observe ‘the traditions of the society I feed on’. But perhaps it is also true that she felt tainted. Perhaps she felt that it would have been fraudulent or hypocritical to pretend she was not unaffected by the racism of her day. Is the violence in her fiction sadistic? Or does it come from her own sense of complicity? When Hiram, Bobby Lee and the Misfit murder a hapless family in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, she narrates the scene with gleeful wit:
‘Jesus,’ the old lady cried. ‘You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady. I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I’ll give you all the money I’ve got!’
‘Lady,’ the Misfit said, looking beyond her far into the woods, ‘there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip.’
She is just as guilty as the characters Hawkes calls ‘wonderfully merciless creations’. She is just as much of a sinner. Grace means that it is not your place to appraise others, still less condemn, since they may have a role or a purpose that is hidden from you. Because of this, O’Connor consistently withholds judgment. The writer’s role, she said, is not to understand experience, but to understand ‘that he doesn’t understand it’. In this sense her writing is an expression of grace at work.
It is also possible, as the critic Josephine Hendin argues, to view O’Connor’s gallery of characters as ‘projections of their author’s complex, conflicted self-image’. Systemic lupus erythematosus causes the immune system to attack healthy tissues throughout the body and O’Connor was gradually and cruelly transformed into one of her own grotesques. The effects of the disease included hair loss, joint pain, sores and lesions to her face, arms, neck and back, as well as chronic fatigue. Initially misdiagnosed, the eventual treatment – ACTH, or adrenocorticotropic hormone – only intensified her disfigurement, resulting in fibroid tumours, bone deterioration, muscle atrophy and a swelling of the fatty tissues. In one letter to a friend, she was characteristically scathing, describing herself as ‘practically bald-headed on top’ with a ‘watermelon face’. She died in 1964, aged 39.