Almost a decade ago, I launched this blog. The nameplate has changed slightly but my general high regard for Flannery O’Connor (from whom the blog name was admittedly plucked) hasn’t diminished. I don’t recall our first meeting (in the pages of a book), but my philosophy as a young writer was partly formed thanks to her insights.
Her book Mystery and Manners set in motion my lifelong interest. I borrowed the book from the library. We were casual acquaintances then. By the due-date, I realized I couldn’t relinquish the book! In those pre-Amazon days, I scrambled to find a hard copy to purchase but found none.
As a last resort, I located a photocopier and proceeded to copy over 200 pages, dime by dime. (The above photo shows that well-worn copy.) I omitted the first chapter (21 pages) which relates O’Connor’s tale “The King of the Birds.” It was an amusing story but not worth the extra buck.
When I launched the blog, the nameplate included a quote from O’Connor: The sharper the light of faith, the more glaring are apt to be the distortions the writer sees in the life around him. O’Connor was known for recognizing life’s oddities and weaving her observations through what literary minds termed her grotesque fiction. I appreciated her point of view because I see the world through eyes of faith and frequently it seems glaring and absurd.
O’Connor’s body of work has stood on its own through the years. It should be (as I observed in a recent post) viewed as Art for Art’s Sake, requiring no defense (certainly not from me). However, my interest was piqued by a recent opinion piece in The New Yorker posing the question “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” The author states O’Connor practiced a lifelong “habit of bigotry.”
It’s not my mission to press the point. During her short lifetime (1925-1964), O’Connor’s writing caused unease for literary gatekeepers. Her Southern upbringing and devout Catholic faith (not to mention her adoration of peafowl) set her apart from the inner circle of writers and publishers. Among other pieces, the title of her short story “The Artificial N**ger” no doubt raised its share of eyebrows.
Statues and monuments are falling daily. History is undergoing a purge. Likewise, authors and philosophers now dead and buried don’t get a pass from the prevailing purveyers bent on cultural purification. Moral arbiters in the graffiti-ridden public square take seriously the biblical admonition of Numbers 32:23: “… be sure your sin will find you out.” They are hard at work to root out every perceived evil from Aunt Jemima to Rice Krispies. Not surprisingly, O’Connor is on that chopping block.
But as O’Connor herself pointed out in an interview, readers (and the interviewer) are focused on the wrong horror. Story elements (violence, human failings) may disturb but it’s the deeper horrors worthy of reflection.
Indeed, the ugliness of sin she illustrated (with an eloquent economy of words) should be where our eyes recognize true horror. For me personally, O’Connor’s own words identify the meticulous balancing act she achieved: The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.
Let’s seek to find that same location.