Flannery OConnor 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
Eliot admired Flannery OConnors 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: OConnor repeatedly
acknowledged her debt to the great modem masters, especially Henry
James and Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner and Nathaniel Hawthorne, even
James Joyce. OConnor 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 OConnors 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 950s 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 OConnor 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 OConnor and request that she
explain the meaning of one of her stories, she would
tartly reply: if I could tell you the meaning, I
wouldnt have written the story
OConnor 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?
the fatal onset of lupus brought 0Connor 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 OConnor 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. OConnor 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 OConnor saw herself tested and tempted by
the naivety and simplicity of her mothers piety, lest she
herself look down upon with scorn. It is not the
blinkered parents who are the villains in OConnors fiction, therefore,
but rather the brilliant sons and daughters who hold them
OConnor 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, OConnor knew
the value of rootedness in both time and place.
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 OConnors 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.
OConnor 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: OConnor 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 Churchs own sacraments as authoritative
conveyers of divine grace, then it is not only possible,
but necessary to discern Gods sacramental presence everywhere in the
created order, both natural or human.
OConnor 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
What influence did French Catholic writers have on
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 OConnor
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 OConnor, 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, OConnor 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: OConnor 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.
can be shockingly violent. What explanations of her intent need
to be taken into consideration while reading her work?
Evelyn Waugh first read a collection of OConnors 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 OConnors 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 OConnors 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 OConnor 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
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
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 OConnor
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.
have I devoted an entire chapter of my book Flannery
OConnor and the Christ- Haunted South to the excellent preachers
who appear in her fiction.
Dr. Ralph Woods
Woods is professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University.