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UPDATED: My Friend, Mary Flannery

Mary Flannery O'Connor first communion
Mary Flannery O’Connor
First Holy Communion

Is it weird to be friends with someone who died years before you ever heard of them? Not if you believe in the Communion of the Saints, I guess. At any rate, since I first read any of her work, way back in my college days, I’ve thought of Flannery O’Connor as a friend I never got a chance to meet. Since then, I’ve come to know her better and I’m just sure that in Heaven we will be best buddies. I can imagine us laughing at each other’s jokes (dry wit, our specialty) and completing each others’ sentences — you know, when we aren’t discussing theology or doing imitations of our country cousins.

I don’t suppose it really is too weird to look forward to great conversations after death, especially with those we never got a chance to meet in this life. Our local public radio station at Christmastime — or the politically-correct “holiday season” — likes to ask local luminaries who they would invite to their “dream dinner party.” The rules of the game are that you can pick anyone, living or dead, to invite, and you are supposed to think about which combination of guests would create the most interesting conversations. (Inevitably, when I listen to these show I think “yuck, why invite that guy? I could come up with a much better guest list.”)

Socrates, you know, when he had been sentenced to death by his fellow Athenians, as punishment for making the local bigwigs and know-it-alls look like a bunch of chumps and thereby setting a bad example for young people, wagged his finger at the jury and said, “I know you guys think you’ve done something really mean to me by condemning me to death, but I don’t see it that way. No one knows exactly what death is like but it is either the Big Sleep that never ends (and who doesn’t love a nice, long dreamless sleep?) or it’s a chance to have endless conversations with all the wise and interesting people who have died before you.” That was Socrates’ idea of heaven — one long, interesting conversation among wise people.

Flannery O'Connor student cartoon
Flannery O’Connor cartoon
“Oh, well, I can always be
a Ph.D.”

Although I hope to meet my friend, Mary Flannery, in Heaven and share some good times (the best!), I’ve had fun getting to know her through her writing and her friends’ accounts of her. Here are some books I can recommend.

Her Works

Collected Works
(The Library of America), selected and edited by Flannery’s good friend and literary executrix, Sally Fitzgerald. 

This is the book to get if you want to get up to speed on Flannery O’Connor quickly. It includes all her short stories, both her novels, and a goodly selection of her essays and personal correspondence. If you are unfamiliar with her work, start with the short stories — I recommend “Revelation” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” as quintessential O’Connor stories, but don’t stop there. This is one of those books that I’d want to have if I were stranded on a desert isle.
Flannery O'Connor
Flannery in college (?)

The Habit of Being
, letters edited and with an introduction by Sally Fitzgerald. 

If you know anything about Flannery O’Connor, you probably know that she suffered from lupus, a disease which eventually killed her at age thirty-nine; it also forced her to give up her independent life and move back to Georgia to live with her mother, with whom she shared a tense, if devoted, relationship. Since she couldn’t get out much, she became a prolific correspondent, with friends, strangers, and admirers alike. These letters give a wonderful sense of her personality, which was witty, generous, and self-deprecating.

Biographies of Flannery O’Connor

Between these two books, you’ll have almost everything Flannery O’Connor ever wrote that has appeared in print, with the exception of some book reviews she used to write for her diocesan newspaper. But you’ll want to know more, which means you’ll want to read biographies of her. Be warned, most biographies reveal more about the biographer than the biographee. Here are some that I have read and not absolutely hated.

Flannery O'Connor looking glamourous
My favorite “Glamoury” O’Connor

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor
, by Brad Gooch. 

Gooch obviously is a great admirer of my friend Flannery, but he doesn’t quite get her — which was probably also true of the men who actually knew her. Gooch is very interested in such men (there were only a couple, and O’Connor’s relationships with them never really developed into romances), so his discussion of the two or three young men who were close to Flannery adds something that you won’t get from her own letters (at least not the ones that Sally Fitzgerald saw fit to publish). Gooch has a tendency to see O’Connor’s stories as fictional elaborations of incidents in her real life, which at times seemed to me a bit of a stretch. Flannery would have HATED the suggestion that she wrote her own life into the stories. Read my full review here on Library Thing.

She hated posing for photos.
This is actually four biographies rolled into one: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. I’ll let Elie explain why he combines all these:

“Taken together, their stories are told as episodes in a recent chapter of American religious history, in which four Catholics of rare sophistication overcame the narowness of the Church and the suspicions of the culture to achieve a distinctly American Catholic outlook. [In other words, the AmChurch perspective.]

 “All of that is true and worth knowing. This book, though, will take a slightly different approach, setting out to tell their four stories as one, albeit one with four points of origin and points of view. It is, or is meant to be, the narrative of a pilgrimage, a journey in which art, life, and religious faith converge; it is a story of readers and writers — of four individuals who glimpsed a way of life in their reading and evoked it in their writing, so as to make their readers yearn to go and do likewise.”

Does that make sense to you? It didn’t make much sense to me and, when I bought this book, I just read the Flannery bits (and a few of the Walker Percy bits) and skipped Merton and Day altogether, because they weren’t what I was interested in. This method worked pretty well to produce a stand-alone bio of Flannery. These four different lives didn’t actually intersect in any significant way — i.e., although they were aware of one another and perhaps interested in each other in an academic way, they were not consciously working out any shared agenda, other than being well-known Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century. I may go back and read the Percy, Merton, and Day bits one of these days to see what Elie thought he could make of them, all put together.

Flannery O’Connor self-portrait w/pheasant

It’s been a couple of years since I read The Life You Save etc., but I recall that Elie had a tendency to rank his biographees on various hot-button social and political issues, a practice that I find tedious and tendentious. “Where did Flannery O’Connor stand in matters of race?” he asks. “The black characters in O’Connor’s fiction are invariably admirable … [y]et at the same time there is the word ‘nigger’ running through the correspondence.” You can tell that Elie did not grow up in the South, or he would know that what is now referred to as “the N word” was used universally in the South before the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s, and was not necessarily  derogatory. It was culturally neutral, if rather uncouth. (When I was a child in the South, about the time Flannery O’Connor was dying of lupus, I was taught that “colored” was the polite term.) Anyway, why can’t Elie just describe Flannery, rather than judging her? Let her life speak for itself.

The Abbess of Andalusia – Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey
, by Lorraine V. Murray.

I’ll admit I haven’t actually read much of this yet. I bought it a couple of years ago, toward the end of a long, intense bout of Flanneryism, and got distracted before I got too far into it (no fault of Murray’s book). After reading the Gooch and Elie bios, I wanted to read something that gave due, and sympathetic, attention to Flannery’s deep Catholic faith — this book is certainly that. Murray apparently tries to show that Flannery, although a very “human” person with her share of sharp edges, nonetheless was deeply spiritual, and was sanctified through her suffering. Murray does not make a plaster saint of her, but she does acknowledge that Flannery was became saintly.

If she is declared a saint, then let her be a saint sitting next to Regina [her mother] in the pew at Sacred Heart church, blanching at the St. Patrick’s Day decorations. Let her be a saint gazing with equal parts piety and irony at the pilgrims of Lourdes, dreading the moment of bathing in the grotto. Let her be a saint who laughs so loud that books fall from her hands. Let her be a saint from whose pen stampede the wild-eyed Hazel Motes, the lumbering Hulga, the dazed Mrs. Turpin. Let her be a saint in the same way that Thérèse was — in her own “human and terrible greatness.”

I’m looking forward to hanging out with Saint Flannery in the Big Conversation of Eternity.



The Terrible Speed of Mercy, by Jonathan Rogers

Since writing this post, I have downloaded a Kindle sample of a new “spiritual biography” of Flannery, called The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor
, by Jonathan Rogers. The sample includes the Introduction, and a page or two of the first chapter. Judging from the introduction, I’d say this looks promising — i.e., I think Rogers “gets” Flannery. I’m not sure exactly how he’s going to approach her life, though, because he acknowledges:

No amount of poking around in the external events and facts of her life is going to get at the heart of her. There’s no accounting for Flannery O’Connor in those terms. Thankfully we have her letters, which provide windows into an inner life where whole worlds orbited and collided.

The outward constraints that O’Connor accepted and ultimately cultivated made room for an interior world as spacious and various as the heavens themselves. Her natural curiosity was harnessed and directed by an astonishing intellectual and spiritual rigor. She read voraciously, from the ancients to contemporary Catholic theologians to periodicals to novels. She once referred to herself as a “hillbilly Thomist.” She was joking, but the phrase turns out to be helpful. The raw material of her fiction was the lowest common denominator of American culture, but the sensibility that shaped the hillbilly raw material into art shared more in common with Thomas Aquinas and the other great minds of the Catholic tradition than with any practitioner of American letters, high or low.

 I expect I’ll wind up buying this one. When I’ve read it, as well as Lorraine Murray’s The Abbess of Andalusia, I’ll write a review of them. Watch this space!

Moral lessons from historical figures: Plutarch’s Lives

Plutarch's Live, Modern Library Edition

While I’ve got Rome on my mind, I’ve begun dipping into some of the biographies of ancient Romans (and Greeks) written by Plutarch, who is credited with being the author of the literary genre we know as “biography.” The most famous of these are Plutarch’s “parallel lives,” in which he pairs off a Greek and a Roman figure who share some significant biographical features (e.g., Demosthenes and Cicero were each renowned orators), describes the life of each, and then compares the points on which each should or should not be admired (Demosthenes was more mercenary than Cicero, but Cicero engaged in unseemly boasting about his own abilities and accomplishments).
The Fall of the Roman Republic: Six Lives (Penguin Classics)I’ve got two different editions of Plutarch on hand to choose from: one is the Penguin Classics’ Fall of the Roman Republic, a selection of Plutarch’s Roman biographies that highlights figures who played a key role in the collapse of the Roman Republic (Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Cicero). This edition presents a modern translation by Rex Warner, with an introduction by Robin Seager. The other book is Volume II of the Modern Library edition of Plutarch’s Lives, some of which are paired and compared, while others are “solo.” This volume contains the (17th century) Dryden translation of the Lives, along with a 19th century Preface by Arthur Hugh Clough and an editorial introduction by American biographer, James Atlas.
Plutarch Fall of the Roman Republic, Penguin

Character matters …

Before I began reading any of the biographies themselves, I read the editorial introductions and the preface by Clough, and I noticed something that struck me as rather curious, namely the fact that modern scholars, although they acknowledge the importance of Plutarch’s work, seem to regard his method and purpose as quaint and even illegitimate. Plutarch himself made it plain that, in writing these biographies, his intention was to examine the character of the men whose lives he was writing rather than analyzing their historical importance (“My design is not to write Histories but Lives”):

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their character and inclinations than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in any other parts of the body, so I must be  allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men …

This purpose is characterized by James Atlas, with a note of indulgent condescension, as “moralizing,” as if it were rather peculiar, in considering the lives of historically important figures, to be interested chiefly in the moral quality of their character. Perhaps he is willing to allow Plutarch his moralizing because Atlas himself acknowledged in an interview shortly after the publication of his biography of Saul Bellow:

We want to know how people lived, we want instruction in what critics used to call “manners and morals.” Biography is our school, our church, our family, our community. It does the work the novel used to do: it educates us.

Robin Seager goes beyond questioning Plutarch’s “moralizing tendencies” — he blames Plutarch for failing to credit historical figures for their cleverness in political scheming. Take, for instance, his editorial note on Plutarch’s life of Gaius Marius; the historical record clearly shows Marius to have been a ruthless self-promoter with little regard for the rule of law and a nasty taste for bloody vengeance against his political rivals, but Seager seems to think that Plutarch takes too dim a view of these facts and fails to show “appreciation of the political skill with which Marius fostered and exploited equestrian and popular discontent in order to oust Metellus from the Numidian command.”

… unless you’re Macchiavellian

Livy and Sallust
Livy and Sallust, two unabashedly
“moralizing” Roman historians.

This view, to me, smacks of a modern, Machiavellian expectation that political figures should be judged for the crude efficacy, rather than the morality, of their actions, which is completely at odds with the view of classical writers. The historian Livy would have had few quibbles with Plutarch’s “moralizing,” as he himself said, in the preface to his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita, that his purpose in writing was to provide examples of men and actions to imitate or to avoid — that is, he intended his history to provide moral instruction, and he thought his presentation would make it plain enough which actions had been destructive and which admirable. He says:

The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these – the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.

In other words, in Livy’s view, a high moral standard produced social benefits, and declining morals brought about social ruin. He wrote, for the generation following the collapse of the Republic, to help people of his own day avoid repeating the disasters of the past and, in fact, his History reads like a series of moral vignettes. It has always struck me as quite inexplicable that Machiavelli, who was well-read in classical history and even wrote a famous commentary on Livy (his Discourses on Livy), seems not to have been influenced at all by the classical tendency to equate personal morality with the public good; in fact, in The Prince, he quite explicitly denies this equation, urging the prince to do what is expedient rather than what is ethical.

Perhaps, though, Robin Seager, in complaining that Plutarch fails to appreciate Marius’s political savvy, is not so much reflecting a Machiavellian preference for expediency over ethics as he is revealing his own preoccupation as a biographer — Seager has published two well-received political biographies of Roman figures whose lives were also treated by Plutarch: Pompey and Tiberius Caesar. At any rate, it certainly seems that modern biographers do not share Plutarch’s interest in “moralizing.” I, however, am looking forward to seeing what moral lessons Plutarch draws out in his Lives.

©2010 Lisa A. Nicholas

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