“All of my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.” — Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor is considered the greatest American short-story writer of the 20th century. She won three O’Henry Awards while she was alive, and she was honored posthumously with the 1972 National Book Award after her death in 1964. Authors such as Alice Walker, Alice Munro and Cormac McCarthy, and musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and Bono, have acknowledged her influence on their own work. How is it that a devout Catholic woman who was a daily communicant and a strong defender of the Catholic faith would have such impact on American culture and literature with stories that often feature grotesque characters encountering the harsh reality of truth and the mystery of divine grace?
While I was in the process of making a documentary film about O’Connor a few years ago, several areas of concern arose regarding O’Connor’s literary and spiritual legacy. Despite her contributions to American literature, those of us working on the film discovered that most high schools and colleges are no longer teaching her works. This is true in her home state of Georgia and in many other schools nationwide. Some instructors explained that O’Connor is perceived unfairly as racist and that they don’t feel comfortable including her stories in their English classes. (This was previously addressed by Pulitzer Prize winning author and fellow Georgia native Alice Walker, who wrote in her essay “A South Without Myths” that O’Connor’s stories were not racist. Wrote Walker: “But essential O’Connor is not about race at all, which is why it is so refreshing, coming, as it does, out of such a racial culture. If it can be said to be ‘about’ anything, then it is ‘about’ prophets and prophecy, ‘about’ revelation, and ‘about’ the impact of supernatural grace on human beings who don’t have a chance of spiritual growth without it.”) Other educators reported that our culture is less religious now and that many students don’t have a sense of basic Christian theology; therefore, it is too time-consuming to provide a religious framework for the students to understand O’Connor’s stories, which are focused on difficult characters experiencing powerful spiritual epiphanies.
O’Connor often is described as a “Southern Gothic” writer. However, she preferred to describe herself as a “Christian Realist.” Her themes are universal and timeless, which is why it is surprising to learn that she is often absent from today’s academic curriculum. O’Connor’s short stories and personal letters address issues such as racism, immigration, Christian morality, salvation, the sacraments and spiritual awakening. Although most of her stories do not explicitly expound on Catholic theology or feature Catholic characters, her Catholic worldview is obvious. Additionally, in numerous personal letters, O’Connor defended the Catholic Church’s teachings on the Eucharist and purgatory, the ban on artificial contraception, and the sacrament of marriage.
Mary Flannery O’Connor was born March 25, 1925, in Savannah, Georgia, to Irish-Catholic parents, Edward and Regina (Cline) O’Connor. Although an only child, she was surrounded by a large family that included numerous aunts, uncles and cousins who had high intellectual and moral standards. Savannah had a larger Irish-Catholic population compared to other Southern cities, but anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish sentiment were still prevalent. O’Connor’s parents raised Flannery in the Irish-Catholic neighborhood of Lafayette Square, located near the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
Flannery’s mother hailed from a prominent “Old Catholic” family from Milledgeville, in central Georgia, which was the former state capital. The Cline family resided in the former antebellum governor’s mansion. There, Flannery’s family attended the local Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which they built in 1874. The first Mass celebrated in Milledgeville was in the apartment of O’Connor’s great-grandfather Hugh Treanor in 1845. O’Connor’s official biographer, William Sessions, asserts that the Cline family had been friendly with General William Tecumseh Sherman of the Union Army and that they voted Republican due to their more sympathetic attitude toward African-Americans. The Cline family funded early schools for African-Americans in Savannah. Flannery’s grandfather Peter Cline was elected mayor of Milledgeville in 1889, and upon his death a local African-American pastor wrote a eulogy for him as a testament to his strong connection with the local African-American community.
O’Connor’s family would briefly relocate to Atlanta due to her father’s job when she was a high school freshman, but most of O’Connor’s high school and college years were spent in Milledgeville. When she was a teenager, O’Connor’s father died from lupus, a disease that later she would be diagnosed with at age 25.
‘Let Christian Principles Permeate’
O’Connor attended the prestigious University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop for graduate school where her skills as a powerful and talented writer would land her a contract with a publishing firm. Her prayer journal from graduate school reveals a writer striving to excel in her craft and to improve her relationship with God. She prayed, “please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate. I dread, Oh Lord, losing my faith.” During this time, she would form important relationships with leading literary figures of her day. Just when she was achieving prominence as a young writer in New York City, O’Connor’s diagnosis of lupus eventually compelled her to move back home with her mother on the family farm, called Andalusia, in Milledgeville.
Her years at Andalusia would be her most productive as a writer despite suffering from the debilitating symptoms of lupus, as well as living under the same roof as her often overbearing mother. And she often found life in the parochial Georgia town to be stifling. The town, and O’Connor’s keen observation skills, would prove to be fertile ground in the creation of characters who face startling moments of truth in which their illusions of pride and self-righteousness are often destroyed in moments of violence. Wrote O’Connor, “I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.”
Contemporary literary scholars have occasionally tried to portray O’Connor in more liberal ways. But like the Catholic faith itself, O’Connor cannot be easily described as “conservative” or “liberal.” O’Connor’s letters and daily prayer life demonstrate adherence to traditional Catholic morals and theological tenets.
A few years ago, a journalist tried to assert that because O’Connor was a close friend with a woman who was a lesbian, O’Connor must have been a lesbian herself. O’Connor’s letters describe homosexuality as an “impurity,” and although she maintained respectful and sincere friendships with women who were lesbians, she did not condone or engage in that lifestyle. Sessions relayed the story of O’Connor being invited to a “commitment ceremony” of two lesbian friends in New York City in the 1950s. O’Connor politely declined and explained to them that she believed that marriage was a sacrament between a man and a woman.
Throughout her adult life, O’Connor attended daily Mass and went to confession frequently. But being a devout Catholic didn’t mean that she was oblivious to the social changes occurring in American culture in the 1950s and 1960s. Sessions explained that O’Connor’s short story “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” in which a woman is trying to ignore the fact that she is pregnant, was in response to the flippant way she heard secular New Yorkers discuss abortion when she was a young writer there. Highly moved by Hannah Arendt’s essays on the Holocaust and Arendt’s concept of “banality of evil,” O’Connor expressed concern for a culture where the devaluing of human life was acceptable. In the story “The Displaced Person,” O’Connor reflects the Catholic commitment to social justice and concern for refugees. In the stories “The River” and “The Lame Shall Enter First,” O’Connor critiques secular humanists who seek solutions to human problems that ignore God and disregard the innate yearning that all individuals have for a relationship with the divine.
Flannery O’Connor stated that her Catholic sacramental view of life is what shaped her writing. She believed that God works in often disruptive and mysterious ways to bring his prodigal children back to him in unexpected moments of grace. By appreciating and reading how O’Connor described her stories, Catholics can better understand why it is essential that we restore her to our educational tradition and literary canon.
Bridget Kurt writes from Georgia. She is director of the documentary “Uncommon Grace: The Life of Flannery O’Connor.”