O'Connor, (Mary) Flannery (Vol. 13)
O'Connor, (Mary) Flannery 1925–1964
O'Connor was an American short story writer, novelist, and essayist. A Roman Catholic from the Bible Belt, she liberally laced her fiction with material from each of these religious backgrounds to create a unique, highly personal vision. Her vision is a chilling one, reflected in a world characterized by sudden, bizarre violence and peopled with grotesques whom she sees as mirrors for men fallen from grace. O'Connor is considered one of the important figures of the Southern Renascence. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Flannery O'Connor's themes are so traditional as to make her fiction seem unique within the context of the 50s. During a period in which regionalism was becoming suspect, O'Connor rooted her hilariously—often painfully—textured concrete reality in the regionalism of the Georgia sector of the Bible Belt. In a time whose literature still avoided absolutes in its various existential stances, she presents an anti-existential vision of a world offered the mystery of grace, the possibility of redemption through violent revelation. While always aware of being a practicing Catholic in the Protestant South, O'Connor is most fully aware of her challenge as an artist in a much broader area: "the business of fiction is to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind."
A facile explanation of her reputation would be to ignore her fusion of Catholic mystery and Southern manners and point rather to the extraordinary verve of her brilliant style by which she presents grotesque characters experiencing horror coalesced with dark comedy. (pp. 111-12)
Much attraction lies in O'Connor's ability to depict her characters' shallowness in one adroit comment …, to expose their love of possessions as thoroughly alienated from what is natural …, and to present the characters' self-parodies through an outrageous image….
Yet one cannot stop at this point, for her portraits of...
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[What Miss O'Connor wrote] about might be comprehended by the word "mystery." "There are two qualities that make fiction," she was fond of saying: "One is the sense of mystery and the other is the sense of manners. You get the manners from the texture of experience that surrounds you"; the sense of mystery is the writer's own. [Mystery] for Miss O'Connor, a Roman Catholic,… centered upon the three basic theological doctrines of the Church: the Fall, the Redemption, and the Judgment. The South provided her with a language and a social fabric, a "texture of experience," but it was never more than the scene for a pageant universally enacted, the pageant of salvation through divine grace.
As an artist in the Jamesian tradition, profoundly convinced that a story "must carry its meaning inside it," Miss O'Connor was sensitive to the charge that Christian dogma inhibited a writer by imposing homiletic conclusions upon his work…. Belief, in her view, was an instrument for "penetrating reality," not for molding it, and the Catholic novel was nothing more or less than "one in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by." "In the greatest fiction," she wrote, the artist's "moral sense" coincided with "his dramatic sense," with judgment so implicit in perception itself that the writer had no need to moralize. And here, she added, the Catholic writer enjoyed an inestimable advantage over the secular...
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Hazel's blinding [in Wise Blood] is neither gratuitous nor contrived, for his act is a consistent resolution of the Oedipal theme in the novel and of the pattern of vision imagery which O'Connor uses to reveal this theme. Because Flannery O'Connor often mocks intellectuals and their feeble constructs, one does not expect to find a psychological situation as potentially hackneyed as the Oedipal complex in her fiction, but the Oedipal situation works throughout Wise Blood to complicate Hazel Motes's religious problems. It should be emphasized that Wise Blood is not a psychological case study, a fictional dramatization of Freudian orthodoxies. Flannery O'Connor's primary interest, as she said, was "the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil." Part of that territory in Wise Blood is her hero's memory of Oedipal fixation. Because Hazel associates his lost religious faith with memories of Oedipal guilt and anxiety, his ultimate acceptance of religion is made difficult and meaningful. (p. 197)
As an adolescent Hazel tries to accept and avoid his mother and her religion at the same time. At twelve Hazel plans to be a preacher and follow his mother's belief and his grandfather's example, but Hazel is ambivalent about Jesus. Although he wants to avoid Jesus's omnipotent hold on his free will, Hazel also finds this devouring Jesus mixed up with an image of his all-seeing mother…. [His] mother becomes...
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[The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor offers] no striking literary theories, nor any statements inconsistent with what is already available in O'Connor's book of essays, Mystery and Manners. What [it reveals] is O'Connor's sensibility, shaped and hardened in the isolation of her life on her farm. (p. 34)
There has been no little sister in American letters to replace Flannery O'Connor…. [She] has emerged as one of the most gifted writers of recent decades. I am grateful to Sally Fitzgerald [editor] for bringing her back to speak to us again, as she spoke to her friends—as the Georgia hick, the witty writer, the Catholic, the southern lady—the woman of discipline whose many selves added up to genius. (p. 35)
Josephine Hendin, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), March 10, 1979.
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J. O. Tate
[The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor] is more than an epistolary autobiography of a great American writer. It is also a "good read," and then some. Like everything O'Connor wrote, no matter how serious, it is very funny. The book intertwines the developing stories of her career, her many friendships, the progress of her omnivorous education, and her ordeal by disseminated lupus erythematosus, which ended her life at the age of 39….
Flannery O'Connor was a master of paradox, as in her famous story "Good Country People."…
O'Connor's spreading wide of her narrow hands to unite the worlds of scholarly learning and ignorant truth is characteristic of her. So in her letters, O'Connor testifies over and over about such delectable items as Tube Rose Snuff commercials, religious aberrations, absurdities from the newspapers, etc., while at the same time commenting on her progress through Proust or her reading in theology. The catholicity of O'Connor's tastes and interests is staggering. (p. 364)
The power Flannery O'Connor displayed in her greatest works—the authority she achieved—was based on knowledge of the world, and a completely developed technique for conveying that knowledge…. Ichabod Crane and Brom Bones, the Confidence Man and his victims, and the Duke and the Dauphin would have felt right at home in the world limned by Flannery O'Connor. That world is a meretricious...
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In The Habit of Being, selected letters superbly edited by O'Connor's friend and benefactor Sally Fitzgerald, the reader learns a great deal about the particular genius that enabled O'Connor to connect the visible and the invisible, the material and the spiritual in an original, powerful, and comic way….
O'Connor's characters are backwoods prophets, itinerant farmers, and gossipy, simple people who talk in platitudes. It is the burden of her stories to prove, however, that their folksiness is often wise beyond words. In a typical O'Connor story, the logical positivist or existentialist and the Christ-haunted misfit confront one another in a life-and-death struggle, where logic and sophistication are no match for fundamentalist, even primitive, truth….
Anyone who admires O'Connor's fiction,… would expect almost anything she wrote to be extraordinary; but I was unprepared for the splendor of these letters, the wit, the brilliance, the precision of statement, the deep intelligence. I laughed out loud at the tales O'Connor told, on others and on herself, to one of her many correspondents—the great and famous (Caroline Gordon, Robert Lowell), young apprentice writers (Maryat Lee, John Hawkes), as well as occasional and unknown questioners.
There is hardly a letter, in fact, that doesn't entertain, inform, or challenge the reader in a concrete way….
The portriat of the...
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Part of the fascination exerted by this thick volume of letters [The Habit of Being] has to do with their evocation of the period which they embrace; much more derives from their revelation of the personality and literary practice of a writer remarkable for the single-mindedness with which she developed and protected a talent that she regarded, quite literally, as God-given. The letters—the first sent from Yaddo to her future agent in 1948, the last a nearly illegible scrawl written six days before her death in 1964—cover her professional career as a writer almost as thoroughly as any biographer might wish. Regrettably, none of the letters written from the years (crucial to her development both as a writer and as a reader) spent at the School for Writers at Iowa State University could be included. Missing also are the letters (presumably of greater personal than literary interest) which she wrote every day to her mother during her year's stay with Sally and Robert Fitzgerald in Connecticut in 1949–1950. The only other gap that has come to my attention and that one might wish to be filled are the letters to Walker Percy, with whom she corresponded for several years; only a brief note of congratulations to him is included.
No doubt it is churlish to want more when nearly six hundred pages of letters have been provided, but I found myself tantalized and frustrated by the fact that the volume contains only Flannery O'Connor's...
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