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A Good Writer is Hard to Find | Ronald Webber
The great American author Flannery O'Connor once remarked, "When
people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist,
I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot
afford to be less than an artist." "I have found... from reading
my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory
held largely by the devil. I have also found that what I write is read
by an audience which puts little stock either in grace or the devil."
"If these stories are in fact the work of a young lady," Evelyn
Waugh responded when the publisher sent him advance proofs of the volume,
"they are indeed remarkable." The young lady in question was
Flannery O'Connor and the short stories were in a collection called A
Good Man is Hard to Find. The year was 1955.
Waugh's caution about the authorship of the stories is understandable.
The stories were fierce, violent, and darkly comic in a Southern Gothic
tradition extending from Poe to Faulkner hardly the expected work
of a young lady. Moreover, the accomplished technique suggested that the
stories came from the hand of a mature practitioner rather than a new
About the fundamental merit of the work, though, Waugh had no doubt. The
stories had been sent to him in the hope of gaining an advertising blurb
from an honored, widely-known Catholic writer. One can imagine that he
found in them stories from the other side of the Atlantic and in
a uniquely American mode a reflection of his own moral views and
literary aims. Here indeed was another remarkable Catholic writer.
Like Waugh, O'Connor made no secret of her religious faith and its central
place in her writing. "I write the way I do because and only because
I am a Catholic," she declared. "I feel that if I were not a
Catholic I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason
to feel horrified or even to enjoy anything." As she well knew, the
remark flies in the face of conventional aesthetic wisdom. Religious commitment
so the view goes limits a writer's freedom to portray life
as it is, the world as it turns. O'Connor held that the reverse was true.
"When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot
be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic,
I cannot afford to be less than an artist."
On the surface her work is far removed from the recognizable Catholic
world. Catholic characters and settings are almost entirely absent, as
is the familiar language of Catholic spirituality. O'Connor's fictional
world is drawn from Southern backwoods fundamentalism a world of
self-proclaimed prophets, tent revivals, and rocks scrawled with the bald
truth that "Jesus saves." Yet behind the stories, propelling
the characters in artfully-made plots often ending in violent death, is
a deeply serious and sophisticated Catholicism.
O'Connor was born into a Catholic family in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925,
graduated from Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College) in
Milledgeville, and went on to the graduate writing program at the University
of Iowa. While still in Iowa she published her first short story and,
on the basis of a portion of the manuscript, received a publisher's prize
for her first novel, Wise Blood, and admission to the artistic
community at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York.
She was working on the novel and staying with the family of the poet Robert
Fitzgerald and his wife Sally in rural Connecticut when she was stricken
with lupus, the disease that had taken her father's life at an early age.
Thereafter she returned to the South, living with her mother on a family
farm outside Milledgeville until her death in 1964 at age 39.
In her abbreviated writing life O'Connor published
two novels, The Violent Bear It Away in addition to Wise Blood,
and two collections of stories, the second, Everything That Rises Must
Converge (the title drawn from Teilhard de Chardin, a writer O'Connor
admired), appearing shortly after her death. The Complete Stories of Flannery
O'Connor, published in 1971, won the National Book Award for fiction and
has remained in print ever since. The recently published Best American
Short Stories of the Century, co-edited by John Updike, includes her
powerful story "Greenleaf."
O'Connor's critical success as a writer, both early and late in her career,
belies the difficulty her work posed poses still for many
readers. The violence of her stories and novels can seem harsh and unfeeling,
overwhelming her moral vision as well as her comic effects. O'Connor's
explanation for the off-putting "grotesque" elements in her
fiction was characteristically forthright: "The novelist with Christian
concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him,
and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience
which is used to seeing them as natural .... When you can assume that
your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and
use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it
does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock to
the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large
and startling figures."
The same point was offered in a different way when she remarked that "I
have found... from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction
is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil. I have
also found that what I write is read by an audience which puts little
stock either in grace or the devil."
Given the dramatic necessities of fiction, the action of grace in O'Connor's
work is usually collapsed into a brief encounter rather than parcelled
out as prolonged experience. Similarly, the instrument of grace is more
often than not outfitted as one of the devil's disciples rather than an
angelic presence. In the title story of the collection A Good Man Is
Hard to Find, for example, grace comes to a pride-stuffed grandmother
in the person of an escaped killer known as the Misfit. After each member
of the grandmother's family is systematically shot, the Misfit fires three
bullets into the old woman's chest. A grim ending, needless to say
but in the story, O'Connor insisted, the reader "should be on the
lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother's soul,
and not for the dead bodies."
In other of her works grace arrives with a Bible-selling seducer, a displaced
person from Poland, a college girl from Wellesley, a club-footed juvenile
delinquent, a seemingly blind street preacher and his ribald daughter.
And the bodies pile up: shot, hung, beaten, gored by a bull, overrun by
a tractor. But it remains that the heart of the matter for O'Connor is
never the violent end but what precedes it the response to grace
that opens the way to Divine life, or blocks it forever.
It is the action of grace, not the inner nature of the experience
what, if anything, a character feels or comprehends that we witness
in O'Connor's fiction. A notable exception is "The Artificial Nigger,"
a story O'Connor called "my favorite and probably the best thing
I'll ever write." Here the content of grace is revealed in the astonishing
insight of a prideful old man, Mr. Head, who has cruelly denied knowing
his grandson Nelson, then been forgiven by the boy. "He stood appalled,
judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy
covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself
a great sinner before but he saw now his true depravity had been hidden
from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for
sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart
the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He
saw that some sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since
God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to
Understood as the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil,
O'Connor's fiction can seem written to a rigid formula and a formula
to which Catholic readers would seem to have special access. In fact,
the stories and novels are vastly richer and more complex than any formula
can suggest and disturbing for readers regardless of religious
belief. "Catholic life as seen by a Catholic," O'Connor noted,
"doesn't always make comfortable reading for Catholics." She
added, "We Catholics are very much given to the Instant Answer. Fiction
doesn't have any. It leaves us, like Job, with a renewed sense of mystery."
At the same time that her fiction renews the sense of spiritual mystery,
it relishes in full measure the human comedy in its backwoods Southern
variety. For the antics and especially the talk of that world, O'Connor
had an exact eye and perfect pitch. The extended opening scene in a doctor's
office in "Revelation" thought by many to be her finest
story is a telling example.
Until the long-awaited biography of O'Connor appears, the most revealing
account of her private and professional life comes from her letters, collected
in a 600 page volume called The Habit of Being, the title drawn
by the editor, Sally Fitzgerald, from O'Connor's admiration for Jacques
Maritain's Art and Scholasticism. The letters show in ample detail
not only the habit of art and unwavering religious faith but O'Connor's
zest for the immediate world about her.
In one letter she reports that her mother was "vastly insulted"
by Evelyn Waugh wondering if her daughter's stories were really the work
of a young lady, putting "the emphasis on if and lady."
"Does he suppose you're not a lady?" her mother asked. And added,
"Who is this Evalin Wow?"
[This article originally appeared in the July-August 1999 edition of Catholic
Ronald Weber is professor
emeritus of American studies at the University of Notre Dame.
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