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Tag: Flannery O’Connor

Grace and purification in Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation”

Everything that Rises Must Converge, Flannery O'Connor

UPDATE 2016: This has proven to be one of the most popular posts on the blog, which suggests that lots of people enjoy, but perhaps are puzzled by, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. I would be happy to explore more of her stories (I’ve got a couple of half-written posts that are hanging fire). If you have a particular O’Connor story that excites, interests, or puzzles you, leave a comment at the end of this post and let me know — or you can email me, if you don’t want to leave a public comment.

Original post:

A recent comment on an old post about Flannery O’Connor raises some questions that I thought I would  respond to in a separate post, rather than depositing them in the obscurity  of the comm box. Janet Baker left a long comment (you can read it in its entirety there), which says in part:

I’m currently working on the short story Revelation, looking at the text for what it says about Flannery’s Catholicism, rather than listening to her pronouncements in non-fiction, like her letters. If you read the story, you will note that it is Mrs. Turpin’s virtues that must be burned away before she enters heaven, and that people enter heaven in groups, racial and social. Perhaps you don’t read either St. Thomas Aquinas, or Teilhard de Chardin, nor have I extensively, but if you begin to read about it, you’ll see that St. Thomas promotes the virtues of which Mrs. Turpin is guilty–generous almsgiving, supporting the Church, helping others regardless of their worthines [sic] of help. It was Teilhard, whom Flannery really loved and read even when it wasn’t time for bed, as she did Thomas. Teilhard, on the other hand, supports the idea that we enter heaven in groups and all enter, all, after their individual identities had been burned away. That’s why he was a heretic and rejected by the Church, along with all his bogus evolutionary crap, although he influenced the Church deeply, and perhaps mortally.

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Flannery O’Connor and Charles Williams: Coming to the Big (and Small) Screen

Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes in Wise Blood

I just ran across the Facebook page for a television and film production company called Good Country Pictures. This small company is dedicated to bringing the works of Flannery O’Connor and Charles Williams to the screen, and currently is working on producing a TV series based on O’Connor’s short stories, and making a film of Williams’s novel, All Hallows Eve. Here’s how they describe their mission:

Good Country Pictures is dedicated to producing TV and film projects
that help their audience rediscover ‘mystery and manners.’ GCP presently
owns the TV and film option rights to most of the works of Flannery
O’Connor and Charles Williams. Already underway is a feature film of
O’Connor’s ‘The Violent Bear It Away’ and a TV series of her short
stories. A film treatment of Charles Williams’ ‘All Hallows’ Eve’
(1941) is also in progress.

I’ve recently written a bit about Flannery O’Connor (there’s lots more I’d like to say, when time allows); if you visit Good Country Pictures’ Facebook page, you’ll find links to various resources online that will help you learn more about both these writers. A number of Flannery O’Connor’s works have been adapted for television (not very successfully); they are also the favorite subject of amateur filmmakers — just take a look on YouTube and you’ll find plenty of videos made by students, indies, and other O’Connor enthusiasts. By far the best made and best known adaptation is John Huston’s feature film of Wise Blood, in which a very young Brad Dourif was brilliantly cast as Hazel Motes (the Criterion edition
is available on DVD).

Charles Williams novelist
Charles Williams,
Inkling & novelist

Those who don’t know the works of Charles Williams are missing a treat. Inklings fans will know that Williams was a member of that literary coterie, the only one of the group who did not teach at one of the great English universities. C. S. Lewis was a great admirer. Williams is best known for his metaphysical novels, which are weirdly surreal yet rooted in a profoundly Christian worldview. (Williams also wrote poetry and at least two works of theology.) There’s really no way to describe his books adequately; probably the best one to begin with is War in Heaven, which has to do with the Holy Grail, found in an English country church, and the struggle between good and evil forces to possess it. I’m not aware of any screen adaptations of Williams’s novels, but they would all be wonderful as films.

I’ll be interested in seeing what Good Country Pictures produces.

Flannery O’Connor and the Overwhelming Power of Grace

Billboard: Don't make me come down there. God.
In O’Connor’s stories, God sends billboards.

I had a friend who used to say, “Sometimes God gives you a sign, sometimes BILLBOARDS!” Flannery O’Connor is famous for saying that her characters were so colorful (critics like to call them “grotesque”) because you have to draw large pictures for the blind and shout at the deaf: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” I’ll admit that, fascinated as I was with her work when I first began to read it, I was often puzzled as to what was going on. I remember waking up in the dark hours of the night, years after first reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” with a sudden understanding of what the Misfit meant when he said, “She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

For anyone similarly puzzled, my advice is to read “Revelation,” which probably makes clearer than any of her other stories just what Flannery is up to. (See my analysis of the climactic scene here.) If I’d read that one before I read “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” maybe my sleep wouldn’t have been disturbed at 3 a.m. years later. Then again, maybe not. Perhaps I had to learn something about the nature of Grace before I could get over being blind and deaf to what O’Connor was going on about. The great thing about her stories is that they fascinate even those who haven’t a clue about God or His grace or how it operates in the soul. Such readers will remember her strange characters and puzzle over their behavior, perhaps until one night God bonks them on the head and shouts, “Wake up, dummy!”

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Sunday Snippets: Flannery O’Connor and Catholic Social Teaching.

Wow, Sunday again already? I’ve been busy this week getting my new blog, the Catholic Reading Project, up and running. (Well, that and trying to find an assisted living place for my father.) So my contributions to this blog have been rather meager: a post on a reading method that will help you make sense of all different kinds of written works, and one on some books by and about Flannery O’Connor that I recommend. I’ve got plenty of posts in the development stage, though, and will publish them as soon as I get time. Meanwhile, if you are at all interested in Catholic Social Teaching (and, by golly, you should be!), take a look at the new blog and consider joining us!

And, oh yeah, by request, I’ve added a little more info to my online profile, in case you’re interested. If you’d like to know what some other Catholic bloggers have been doing this week, don’t forget to take a look at Sunday Snippets — A Catholic Carnival.

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!

Catholic fiction on the Internet: CatholicFiction.net

This morning I discovered a website called CatholicFiction.net, which offers, “news, views, and reviews” on fiction by Catholic writers. The site is sponsored and maintained by Idylls Press, a Catholic publishing concern with an interest in promoting a “new Catholic literary renaissance.” The Catholic Fiction site looks like a good place for anyone interested in finding books written from a Catholic perspective (they cover “fiction in every genre, both classic and contemporary .. [as well as] literary biography and criticism) or reading reviews that give a Catholic “take” on fictional works that may or may not have been written by Catholic authors. They also have a Catholic Fiction Reading List, where you may find authors you may not have read before, or may not have realized were Catholic.

Mary Flannery O'Connor
One of my all-time favorite
writers, Flannery O’Connor

What makes a “Catholic writer” is a more complicated question than you might think. A number of years ago, I bought a book from Ignatius Press called The Catholic Writer, containing a variety of papers from an academic literary conference sponsored by the Wethersfield Institute. After I got it home, I flipped through to look for a discussion of one of my favorite Catholic writers, Flannery O’Connor — but there was none! In the introduction to the volume, the editor explained that they only included writers who wrote on Catholic subjects — i.e., stories about Catholics doing Catholic stuff (presumably attending Mass, praying the rosary, burying statues of St Joseph upside down in their front yards to help sell a house). I thought this was an insane definition of the term “Catholic writer,” particularly as it necessarily excluded writers like O’Connor, whose stories are positively incandescent with the light of her Catholic faith.

Fortunately, the Catholic Fiction web site does not embrace this narrow definition — in fact, they cite Flannery O’Connor’s definition that Catholic writing is “a Catholic mind looking at anything.” (This is precisely the idea I had in mind when I called this blog “A Catholic Reader.”) You can read more about their criteria for what constitutes “Catholic fiction” here. They also have a section devoted to “the conversation about Catholic fiction,” with links to articles that discuss this topic — “what it is (or isn’t), its history, its current state, its usefulness as a literary category.”

Flannery O’Connor
by John Murphy

It looks interesting. When I’ve had a chance to peruse it more thoroughly, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, cruise around, check out the Catholic Fiction site, and check back in here to let me know what you think.

UPDATE Sept 2012: The Catholic Literature website has been updated, and is now called CatholicNovel.com. They’ve got a cleaner, better-organized website, which should make browsing easier. Also, the sponsoring publisher, Idylls Press, is about to debut a new website, too. Give ’em a look, and maybe buy some of their merchandise sporting illustrations of famous authors by John Murphy.