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Autor: Dr. Ralph Woods | Fuente: Sacerdos: Resources for Priests Year XII (58), July-August 2005
America’s Best Short-Story Writer Flannery O’Connor
Interview with Dr. Ralph Woods
Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, on March 25, 1925,later moving to Iowa to study writing, then on to New York and Connecticut, then back to Georgia. She produced two novels, The Violent Bear It Away and Wise Blood. But it is her two collections of short stories which represent the very best of her writing.
Her letters, book reviews, speeches and Interviews have also been published, with seven films to date based on her works. A devout Catholic, she died near Milledgeville, Georgia, on August 3, 1964

T.S. Eliot admired Flannery O’Connor’s work, and she has been called the best short-story writer in America, if not in the English language. Who were her chief influences?

Woods: O’Connor repeatedly acknowledged her debt to the great modem masters, especially Henry James and Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner and Nathaniel Hawthorne, even James Joyce. O’Connor was also influenced by comic writers of lesser stature — especially Nathanael West in Miss Lonelyhearts. She was drawn to the slap- dash, knee-slapping humor of Mark Twain, and confessed that, as a child, she was virtually obsessed with the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, whose stress on the bizarre and the macabre surely shaped her prodivity for the grotesque.

But O’Connor’s chief literary mentor was Caroline Gordon, a Catholic convert and sometime wife of Allen Tate. Together with Tate, Gordon was a strong exponent of the New Criticism that reigned throughout the 950’s with its emphasis on the “autotelic” work of art. The story must have its end woven intrinsically into its fabric, not being driven by any extrinsic thesis or aim, no matter how admirable. This explains why O’Connor saw herself simply as a writer, not as a Catholic writer. A good story must constitute a tightly-knit organic whole, where meaning and form are inseparably intertwined. When students would write O’Connor and request that she explain the “meaning of one of her stories, she would tartly reply: if I could tell you the meaning, I wouldn’t have written the story’

O’Connor deeply loved the American South and wrote movingly of how it affects those raised there. How did living in the South affect her personally? What reservations did she entertain about the North?

Woods: When the fatal onset of lupus brought 0’Connor permanently back o Georgia in 1950 at age 25, she feared that this return would mark the death of her creative life. She had very much wanted to live and work away from home, among fellow writers in one of the intellectual enclaves of the North. Though she wanted to write about the South, she wanted to live at a critical distance from it. Hence her sojourns — after her graduate school days at the University of Iowa — first in New York City, then at the writers’ retreat in Yaddo, and finally with Sally and Robert Fitzgerald in the Connecticut countryside not far from Yale.

Yet O’Connor gradually came to see that this enforced return home was the best thing that ever happened to her. Her work flourished during those last 14 years of her life. Despite the radical differences between her and her mother, Regina C. O’Connor — the daughter being a devout intellectual Catholic, her mother something of a “mass” Catholic — they reached a splendid rapprochement. Her mother attended to the complex practical affairs of their familial life, while Flannery spent her mornings writing and her afternoons recovering, as she wittily said. Indeed, mother and daughter became indispensable to each other, as O’Connor saw herself tested and tempted by the naivety and simplicity of her mother’s piety, lest she herself look down upon with scorn. It is not the blinkered parents who are the villains in O’Connor’s fiction, therefore, but rather the brilliant sons and daughters who hold them in contempt.

O’Connor also believed that the South provided her a sharp sense of identity that Northern life did not The Northerners had little to say, she believed, because their identity was largely of their own making. Having been raised in and then forced back to the South, O’Connor knew the value of rootedness in both time and place.

The South is not only Christ-haunted but also Civil War-laden. The thick historical and religious fabric of Southern life served as both a spur and a rein on O’Connor’s imagination. Her circumambient world here was so full of interesting characters and situations that she did not have to invent them out of whole cloth.

O’Connor saw nature as fundamentally “sacramental,” and the mind as capable of knowing truth with certainty, being influenced by St. Thomas Aquinas and the theological phenomenologist Romano Guardini. How did this affecter writing?

Woods: O’Connor wittily labeled herself “a hillbilly Thomist,” declaring that she read St Thomas for 20 minutes every evening before bed. Like St Thomas, she was deeply devoted to the Eucharist. Indeed, his own eucharistic hymn, the Tantum ergo, plays a central role as does the rite of Benediction — in her most deeply sacramental story, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost Once we have known Jesus as the ultimate sacrament of God, and when we have received the Church’s own sacraments as authoritative conveyers of divine grace, then it is not only possible, but necessary to discern God’s sacramental presence everywhere in the created order, both natural or human.

O’Connor seeks to sharpen our sense of the sacramental by discerning it at work in unlikely places. A wildly charging bull becomes, in “Greenleaf,” the deliverer of saving revelation to Mrs. May. A distant tree line opens up vistas of eternal judgment to Hazel Motes in Wise Blood. A setting sun figures as a gigantic host bathed in blood to the unnamed little girl who is the protagonist of “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.”

What influence did French Catholic writers have on O’Connor?

Woods: Jacques Maritain is by far the most important. From Art and Scholasticism, she learned the all-important lesson that art is what St Thomas called “reason in making,” and thus a virtue of the practical intellect. Maritain thus convinced O’Connor her chief moral responsibility was to create fiction of the very highest order, fiction that could not be suborned to any other purpose than its own. This was a liberating word to O’Connor, for it meant she could devote herself to her craft without being paralyzed by scruples or the fear that her own moral failings undermined the excellence of her art Yet she was never an aesthete. “You do not write the best you can for the sake of art,” she declared, “but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit.”

Writing prior to the post-Vatican II biblical movement, O’Connor stressed the importance of dramatic biblical “narrative” for catechesis over a manualistic approach. As a Catholic, was she ahead of her time, or was this simply a sign of the times?

Woods: O’Connor definitely anticipated the breakthroughs accomplished by Vatican II concerning the indispensability of Scripture for Christian faith and practice. Not only did she read the chief Catholic biblical scholars of the time, she also hailed the Bible-rooted faith of Southern Protestants as a model for Catholics to follow. Biblical narratives, when rightly proclaimed, serve both to inspire and to sustain the faith as bare propositions cannot.

O’Connor can be shockingly violent. What explanations of her intent need to be taken into consideration while reading her work?

Woods: When Evelyn Waugh first read a collection of O’Connor’s stories, he was hugely impressed, declaring they could not possibly have been written by a woman! He was referring, of course, to the unladylike violence that pervades her work. Yet O’Connor’s stories often end in grotesque deaths not in order to make us squirm with sentimental discomfort, but to shock us into acts of radical spiritual self-recognition — to see ourselves both as we terribly are and as we hopefully might become. This is precisely the effect the awful violence has on her own characters. It makes the blind see and the deaf hear. Hence O’Connor’s witty guide to the reading of her fiction: “Remember that, while a lot of people get killed in my stories, nobody gets hurt.

You describe yourself as a “Bapto-Catholic” Could you elaborate?

Woods: We Protestants are woefully weak in our understanding of the sacraments as actually conveying divine grace through the corporate community of the church, rather than merely symbolizing such grace as we ourselves individually appropriate it. Hence our need to learn from Catholics that baptism and Eucharist are two of the acts that objectively make us and sustain us as Christians.

As a Baptist, my other great debt to Catholics lies in the splendid tradition that the Roman Church has built up in its long millennial existence. By engaging its various host cultures, Catholicism has produced a vital legacy of moral, literary, philosophical and theological truth. Having come into existence only in the 17th century, we Baptists have not created such a rich tradition, though in John Bunyan we have engendered at least one world-class writer. By contrast, Catholicism has produced scores, and many of them are my heroes: Dante, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walker Percy J.R.R. Tolkien, and of course Flannery O’Connor herself.

This enormously fecund tradition helps prevent Catholics from espousing a rather pathetic do-it-yourself religion, each believer determining truth for himself. In addition to the magisterium, Catholics have a veritable panoply of saints who serve as exemplars of the Christian life. Moreover, Pope John Paul II issued a series of encyclicals that provide excellent guidance not only to Catholics but also to us Baptists as well, so that we do not have to make injudicious ad hoc responses to such complex matters as euthanasia and abortion and homosexuality.

Yet some of my priest-friends complain about the horde of “Mass” Catholics who receive the sacrament faithfully every Sunday and think that they have thus discharged their Christian duty. We seek to cultivate a vital personal piety: reading Scripture daily, saying prayers regularly, making witness to others, etc. There are many Catholics for whom these things are true, of course, even as there are many Baptists for whom they are not!

A second contribution concerns the centrality of the proclaimed Word. Preaching also lies at the heart of our evangelistic life, our desire to spread the Good News to the whole world. This explains, by the way, why Flannery O’Connor was so deeply drawn to Baptist and other Protestant preachers in her native Georgia, especially the half-literate ones who announce the Word of God in uncouth but brilliantly engaging terms.

Thus have I devoted an entire chapter of my book Flannery O’Connor and the Christ- Haunted South to the excellent preachers who appear in her fiction.

Dr. Ralph Woods
Dr. Ralph Woods is professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University.


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