Today we can mark exactly fifty years since the death of Flannery O’Connor. She was half a year short of forty, yet it is defensible to say that by the time she died she had accomplished all that she needed to accomplish in the artistic mode she’d chosen. This is not at all to say she couldn’t have or wouldn’t have written more superb stories and longer fiction but that she likely wouldn’t have written too many more works of the same kind; that having produced all that was new and startling and I would go so far as to say historic in her work, had she lived, she would have seen her way to and, indeed, demanded of herself, a new path, a newer diction, a loosening of form. There is evidence for this notion in her later letters and in her final stories but I’ll cite only one, written about a week before she died: “Caroline*gave me a lot of advice about the story [‘Parker’s Back’] but most of it I’m ignoring. She thinks every story must be built according to the pattern of the Roman arch…” This was not the tone with which OÇonnor talked about her friend Caroline Gordon’s advice earlier in her own career, when she too believed, in a more country-fied and idiosyncratic way,that every story had to be built according to a classical pattern.
Yet as formal as her stories were, her novels were wildly unmodern, almost medieval. She wrote that she was in Hawthorne’s camp when he said he did not write novels, he wrote romances. This means, I suspect, that she was not interested in the formal demands of the novel of realism as it had developed in France, Russia and finally England and the United States 50 to 100 years before her own time. The short story was like a suit of clothes and she knew the type she liked to write, or could write: the novel was a house and she was no architect. She was a visionary, in the broadest sense of that word. And if you read her letters I believe you will come to see that, in her art, she was hungry for transformation; this hunger would have mixed powerfully (as it had in her early artistic development) with her very odd but almost unerring artistic intuitions — intuitions that even at the age of 25 she had trusted beyond any reproving words from eminent authorities. So I think she would have changed in some way, or suffered for not doing so. Surprising when you ponder it, that her body of work in no way feels incomplete — unlike that of Stephen Crane or F. Scott Fitzgerald or other American writers who died so young and younger.
I should acknowledge that against my speculation stands the wittily unyielding figure of O’Connor herself. In all other respects, and some would insist even in the pertinent aesthetic respects I’m trying to differentiate, O’Connor was a hard-barking conservative. Not in the vicious ways that the word has come in recent decades to connote, but in the deeply committed intellectual sense, believing that the manners and conventions of a society evolved slowly with the ages and that, while one could certainly criticize them, and gleefully make fun of them, one shouldn’t try to mess with them. She also believed in truth: and as a Catholic she believed in one truth that stood above and oriented all others. Change and rebellion were her enemies — from the age of 26 her body had been in chaotic rebellion against her; she didn’t appreciate either disease or revolution on other fronts. All these contributory factors in her conservatism had a few ill effects: they put her quite squarely on the wrong side of the civil rights movement, for instance, and they brought a biliousness to her political observations, which were few but left no doubt she was no fighter for temporal justice. (To her activist liberal friend Maryat Lee she wrote, “…I lean, you know, in the other direction, towards the reactionaries, who got a better grip on the English language.”) Politics aside, I’d venture that in one sense she didn’t want her rapidly disappearing society to change dramatically because she had studied it so hard, and knew it so well, and took such deep (and at times cackling) pleasure in seeing it strut and lift its tail feathers, that she couldn’t bear to part with it.
All year — starting late last year — I’ve wanted to write a long piece about her work and its influence, on me, on American writers of my generation**, and on the shape of American literature in the largest sense. I wanted to visit Milledgeville and the farm called Andalusia where she lived most of her adult life, and where she died, a place that Allan Gurganas told me, around the period when it was opening to the public for the first time, was distinctly the most moving literary site he had ever visited. Someday I think I will write this piece, but for now I haven’t had the strength of will or the clarity of mind. This is what writing — trying to write — a novel will do to you. It’s like having a spouse who beats you up and then leaves you alone for long periods of time — somehow even when the spouse is gone you remain totally loyal to the creature and can’t bring yourself to take up with a kinder more yielding lover.***
Now, however, this date has come around, the third day in August, and I feel a powerful and grievous need to do her at least a little bit of honor. This is the writer who more than any other — far more than any other — helped form me, form me not merely as an artist but as a human being, as someone alive in the world developing the tools necessary to perceive its cumbersome progress. In 1979, when The Habit of Being, O’Connor’s letters as selected and edited by Sally Fitzgerald, came out, I was an undergraduate, yearning to become a writer. I was twenty-two and I should have been graduating that year but due to a series of impediments it would take me two years longer. Indeed at the time I was out of school, trying to write, reading everything I could find that I thought might guide me. I read John Gardner On Moral Fiction; I recall disagreeing with it but I do not recall a word of what he said. Flannery O’Connor’s thoughts on the same matter I have never forgotten. Explaining to her friend, whom we know only as “A”, why she’d remarked that “the devil was a better writer than [Francoise] Sagan”, she handled the entire issue with a few Zorro-ish sword strokes:
The subject of the moral basis of fiction is one of the most complicated and I don’t doubt that I contradict myself on it, for I have no foolproof aesthetic theory. However, I think we are talking about different things or mean different things here by moral basis. I continue to think that art doesn’t require rectitude of the appetite but this is not to say that it does not have (fiction anyway) a moral basis. I identify this with James’ felt life and not with any particular moral system and I believe that the fiction writer’s moral sense must coincide with his dramatic sense. I don’t like Nelson Algren because his moral sense sticks out, is not one with his dramatic sense…. As I remember Celine, I felt that he did feel life at a moral depth – or rather that his work made me feel life at a moral depth; what he feels I can’t care about…. When I said that the devil was a better writer than Mlle. Saigon [Sagan], I meant to indicate that the devil’s moral sense coincides at all points with his dramatic sense.
It is always perilous, critically, to try to set aside Flannery O’Connor’s religious convictions in order more comfortably to talk about her art. Frederick Crews wrote compellingly in 1990, after O’Connor had been canonized by an entirely secular readership interested in her identity as a woman, Southerner, outlier, primitive, victim, celibate, et cetera, that to read her without fully confronting her religious faith was not to read her much at all. And her letters, in fact, brought me back to, and kept me for many years in, the Catholic Church, in which I’d been raised.
Yet I was more transformed by another aspect of her orthodoxy. You could today, as an irritated atheist, read these same letters, stepping over all the broken branches of religious talk that have fallen onto the trails, and still perceive that her requirements of herself as an artist were of the very highest kind; you can further perceive (the Catholics are so good at this) a comprehensive and coherent philosophy of art that she has studied, internalized, and employed, one that absolutely required her to aspire only to art’s highest methods and intentions. And she hands this to you as if it’s an old-fashioned picnic basket filled with cold chicken, store bread and butter, and a gingham cloth for cover. It is extremely radical but feels as natural as a tree in the yard. Once, long ago, in answer to the accusation that I liked no women writers, I said to my first wife, well before we were married, that this charge plainly wasn’t true: I worshipped Flannery O’Connor, Joan Didion, and Mary McCarthy. “They’re not women writers,” she said. “Hell, Henry James is more of a woman writer than they are.” This remark amused me in part, I can see now, because it was an unintentional slap at women. At the time, I rather agreed with her. Now I do not. Flannery O’Connor — in her hardness, stoicism, stiletto wit, and stone-sculpted prose — was exactly a woman: clear as water, unsentimental, profoundly accepting of her misfortune and suffering and able to look within it to find a space where her full identity, her full ambition, her convictions and her art, could live and flourish. It’s difficult to envision a man who could have done it.
The greatest compliment ever bestowed on O’Connor’s work came from Thomas Merton, her contemporary – a Trappist monk, poet, and theologian. When he learned of her death from Robert Giroux, the editor he shared with her, he wrote back (and later published):
I don’t think of Hemingway, or Katherine Anne Porter, or Sartre, but rather of someone like Sophocles. What more can you say about a writer? I write her name with honor, for all the truth and all the craft with which she shows man’s fall and dishonor.
For years I didn’t understand this remark. As much as I loved O’Connor I felt a little guilty about this statement because I wanted to believe it even though it seemed quite clearly to be overshooting its mark. Now I know a little more; I’ve even re-read and taught Sophocles a few times. She is not comparable to Hemingway or Faulkner or Porter because she was not a product of her own time. She broke out of that boundary. The writer – it has been said many, many times – is like God. She creates characters; she endows them with a certain kind of freedom of will which, if you’ve never written fiction, you likely doubt is possible. Typically she shapes a narrative around what these characters do, how things turn out, and suggests what in a larger context this might mean. But O’Connor was different, as was Sophocles. Both were tragedians but unlike most other makers of tragedies, they oriented their vision toward a specifically divine redemption. It is informative to compare, as pertinent examples, the ending of Oedipus at Colonus, unique among the tragedies, with the end of O’Connor’s story “Revelation.” Very different and yet not: these are attempts to take literature absolutely as far into human existence and its meanings as it can go – to go further, in fact, in order to touch, fleetingly, a dramatically convincing vision of the gods, or God. They are overpowering moments in time, emerging perfectly and inevitably from the world the two artists have created.
So there she stands, dead at 39, now a monument and an increasingly forgotten one. But not by us. She was a miracle, really; and her voice, a purifying force, is in my head, always. What can I offer, what can I give back? I can say, Ave. There was Sophocles, there was Dante, there were Michelangelo and Bach. And around 1950 they sent us a funny kind of girl with a thick accent, out of an old courthouse town between Macon and Atlanta. She was with us a short time — just long enough to show us everything.
*This refers to Caroline Gordon, writer and wife of Allen Tate with whom Gordon wrote and edited The House of Fiction, an instructional anthology that reads now almost as obscurely as Thomas Aquinas and which is, essentially, a Summa in the religion of Writing Like Henry James. This and Understanding Fiction, Cleanth Brooks’ and Robert Penn Warren’s even more dense and Scholastic instructional anthology (also composed under the influence of James, whose fiction and criticism both underwent an energetic, almost religious revival in the 1940s) were the only two books about writing fiction I can recall O’Connor in her letters recommending. And she recommended them often. The technical vocabulary of both these texts reads now like a glossary of 18th century medical terms.
**A bit of a lost group, trend-wise, my generation, falling between what I should call the John Barth and the Raymond Carver generations. Lorrie Moore is almost exactly my age. Who was she influenced by? Donald Barthelme? Renata Adler? Jamaica Kincaid? From an acute angle, Ann Beattie, who was for a time quite influential, until Carver overshadowed her in that department, both practicising (her first) what was called minimalism. It would be hard to say. But you can see O’Connor there certainly. The only writer of fiction who has influenced our particular generation as strongly as O’Connor (and in not uncomplimentary ways) is Don DeLillo. DeLillo continues to be a large and powerful influence; O’Connor, I suspect, is nowadays deeply read only by a few.
*** O’Connor herself I don’t think was terribly keen on writing novels: she wrote two, both in a darkened version of the picaresque form if they have any form at all, and she remarked in one of her letters that taking time off from working on the second one, in order to write a short story, was like a vacation in the country.