illustrated portrait of American author Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor

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Kenneth Frieling

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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 the physically grotesque reflect the spiritually distorted. (p. 112)

Just as her readers must recognize the grotesque as something other than horrific sensationalism, O'Connor's characters must recognize through violent revelation the grotesque as ugly, as unnatural distortion, and thus achieve the possibility of grace. (p. 113)

This recognition of the grotesque is accomplished through a violent displacement unleashing epiphanies with elemental religious force. The very violence of this epiphany and its accompanying potential of grace demands a vehicle which is brief, which is emphatically personal, which illuminates rather than explicates. Thus Flannery O'Connor most successfully presents mystery through manners within the structure of the short story.

This violence of revelation is artistically presented by O'Connor in her first collection of stories A Good Man Is Hard to Find through four interrealted techniques or "experiences," here artificially distinguished in order to discuss their function: (1) the recognition of an emblem's full significance, (2) the realization of a cliché's true implications, (3) the emerging epiphanic gesture indicating the recognition of humanity and the acceptance of grace, and (4) the violently catalytic effect of the presence of a prophet figure, typically an anti-prophet. Thus, the primary force of the title story, as mentioned above, emerges from the recognition of the emblematic significance of the name "Misfit" and the son's shirt, of the realization of the "good man" cliché's actual meaning, and of the gestures of the grandmother's touch and the Misfit's shot of recognition—all fused by the catalytic presence of the anti-prophet, the Misfit.

These artistic techniques—which are not merely extraneous stylistic tricks but the mode of revealing characters' interreacting experiences—are the basis for Flannery O'Connor's transcendence of the facile tags "religious writer" and "regionalist" in their pejorative sense, and further elucidate her success with the briefly illustrated (rather than novelistically resolved or explained) tableaux of the short story form. Nevertheless, the stories of A Good Man do comprise a related whole. This larger unity is not only one of a common thematic vision but also one of technique, as each story presents variation of the interrelationships of the four basic experiences which violently jolt the character into a realization of the possibility of grace. (p. 114)

The very sudden violence of the epiphanies—the strain of the interaction of the characters functioning...

(This entire section contains 790 words.)

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as prophets; the revelation of the significance of an emblem; the cliché's explosion of meaning; and, the final gesture either of freedom from life (Bevel, General Sash), or the recognition of fellow humanity (the grandmother, Mr. Head, Ruby), or the revelation of the presence of God (Joy Hopewell, Mrs. Cope, the girl in "Temple")—necessitates a brief, terse form of presentation. Flannery O'Connor's ability to illustrate the presence of the Mystery of grace through the violent fusion of image and gesture into a concentrated revelatory illumination explains her success with the short story form as well as her success in presenting her religious vision, the "sense of Mystery," to a contemporary audience which would probably be offended or bored by a more expanded explanation or apology, more typical of the novel. Her characters' epiphanies must be illuminated as the extremely personal individual experiences they are; the tendency toward the more general in the novel form would possibly destroy this sense. (pp. 119-20)

Kenneth Frieling, "Flannery O'Connor's Vision: The Violence of Revelation," in The Fifties; Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French (copyright © 1970 by Warren French), Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1970, pp. 111-20.

Robert Milder

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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 writer, who, skeptical of any absolute moral order, felt called upon to create one in his fiction. Secure in his faith "that the universe is meaningful," the Catholic writer was free to observe and reflect his world unburdened by the moral responsibilities of the unbeliever.

Had Miss O'Connor described her art as Christian rather than Catholic, the congruence between its theory and practice might have been almost complete. But she did not. The longest section in Mystery and Manners consists of four essays dealing with the Catholic writer and his audience, in each of which Miss O'Connor makes a strong case, implicitly or explicitly, for the Catholic nature of her fiction. She chooses "Catholic," she tells us, because "the word Christian is no longer reliable. It has come to mean anyone with a golden heart." And for Miss O'Connor a golden heart was not merely "a positive interference in the writing of fiction," but a symptom of everything that was wrong with modern religion—most notably, of the "tenderness" of the liberal reformer which she considered mawkish, "theoretical," and corrupt. By insisting upon "Catholic," Miss O'Connor sought to emphasize the literalness with which she took the traditional doctrines of the Church and to separate herself from "those politer elements for whom the supernatural is an embarrassment and for whom religion has become a department of sociology or culture or personality development." The paradox is that in repudiating what she regarded as the predominantly ethical mainstream of American Christianity, Flannery O'Connor was returning not to the Catholic tradition but to the evangelical Protestantism of the Reformation and the seventeenth century, a Protestantism whose lineal, if shrunken, descendants were the backwoods prophets of the modern South (pp. 802-04)

[When] a staunch Catholic writes of backwoods prophets, it would presumably be with a consciousness of the perils of private inspiration and, preferable as this may be to secularism or religious complacency, a strong sense that it is only a second best—the best lying within the tradition of the Church. This is the position Miss O'Connor develops in "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South," her most explicit treatment of the subject in Mystery and Manners. Elsewhere, however, Miss O'Connor has remarked of old Mason Tarwater, her prophet par excellence, that she is "right behind him 100 per cent," justifying this by distinguishing between the visible and the invisible church and making of her arch-Protestant what she calls "a natural Catholic": "When you leave a man alone with his Bible and the Holy Ghost inspires him, he's going to be a Catholic one way or another, even though he knows nothing about the visible church." The idea of an invisible church of devout believers, Catholic in spirit though not in form, is well within the pale of Catholic orthodoxy, provided such believers "are in good faith, and are simply and loyally seeking the truth without self-righteous obstinacy." Yet if old Tarwater is to be included among the census of Catholics, natural or otherwise, we are left with a Catholicism of an extremely latitudinarian sort, a Catholicism without Church or sacraments or priesthood, predicated solely upon the Bible and the individual's immediate confrontation with God—a Catholicism remarkably like Evangelical Protestantism.

Though Flannery O'Connor should not be identified with old Tarwater, whatever her sympathies for him, her particular brand of Catholicism would not have been averse to the old man. Like Protestantism, it elevated the Bible over those "legal and logical" aspects of Christianity which, according to Miss O'Connor, have been prominent in the Catholic tradition since the Counter-Reformation. More importantly, however, it reflected what one critic has called "a temperamental affinity with Jansenism," that tradition within the Catholic Church most akin to Calvinism in its ascetic spirit and its vision of Jesus "as a severe and inscrutable redeemer."… Miss O'Connor's vision of Christ [is of] "a stern and majestic Pantacrator, not … a smiling Jesus with a bleeding heart." (pp. 804-06)

[Two] of the "heresies" which aroused most opposition among the orthodox and caused the Jansenists to be labeled as Protestants in their own time are "heresies" which inform Miss O'Connor's vision and constitute the theological center of her work. The first is an insistence upon the absolute and irremediable corruption of the natural man, and consequently upon the necessity of divine grace for every good work; the second is an exaltation of private religious experience at the expense of the sacraments and the institutional Church…. [Both] are essential to the Protestantism of Flannery O'Connor's fiction…. (p. 806)

For the Protestant [specifically, the "Calvinist" or "Puritan"], the gulf between saint and sinner was absolute and unbridgeable; there was no middle way.

In this context Miss O'Connor's fiction belongs unmistakably to the Protestant tradition, for there is virtually nothing in her work to suggest an ethical alternative between her fanatical prophets and misfits at the one extreme and her motley assortment of worldlings, cynics, and "good country people" at the other. The rationalists Rayber (The Violent Bear it Away) and Sheppard ("The Lame Shall Enter First") represent the best hope for a middle way, if only because as social scientists they are closest to the modern liberal spirit. Yet it is precisely figures like Rayber, whom she regarded as "the typical modern man," that Miss O'Connor caricatures most savagely. If there is an unpardonable sin in Flannery O'Connor's fictional world, it is the pride of secular intelligence, the arrogant and self-deluded belief that man can be his own savior…. With their faith in the power of reason to understand and transform human life, Rayber and his analog, Sheppard, are embodiments of the melioristic spirit of sociology, and the failure and humiliation they both encounter are compelling evidence of the futility of secular works. (p. 807)

Theologically, what Miss O'Connor is insisting on through Sheppard and Rayber is the Protestant doctrine of the absolute corruption of all good works not founded upon divine grace. It is an uncompromising vision and, to the humanist, an appalling one. Because Rayber can offer him no middle way, young Tarwater is left to choose between the devil on the one hand and a half-crazed backwoods prophet on the other…. It is not merely that Tarwater's Christianity is uncongenial to the modern mind, it is unthinkable—a ludicrous anachronism in an age of behavioral psychologists and death-of-God theologians. Miss O'Connor herself was acutely aware of the problem, remarking, "When you write about backwoods prophets, it is very difficult to get across to the modern reader that you take these people seriously, that you are not making fun of them, but that their concerns are your own and, in your judgment, central to human life."

If Miss O'Connor's words seem explicit enough, they have not prevented readers from trying to mitigate what is essentially unmitigable in her vision: the absolute dichotomy between nature and grace…. Rayber's failure is not a failure of personality; it is the inevitable failure of the rationalist, the man of works, the unbeliever, who cannot offer love for the simple reason that (in Miss O'Connor's words) he is detached "from the source of love, the person of Jesus Christ." Grotesque as he seems, it is the old man who embodies the principle of divine love…. As readers we may be discomforted by the violence of old Tarwater's Christianity and search for an implied alternative, a gentler love which Rayber might have given but didn't. But this, Miss O'Connor would claim, is our own failure, not the story's: as modern men we have "the mistaken notion that a concern with grace is a concern with exalted human behavior." In Miss O'Connor's world the only alternative to violence is emptiness; and between Rayber and old Tarwater, Sheppard and the club-footed Rufus Johnson, Flannery O'Connor's own choice is unequivocal: the violent bear away the kingdom of heaven; the lame shall enter first. (pp. 808-09)

Perhaps Miss O'Connor's upbringing in the rural South made her more receptive to an evangelical, Bible-centered Christianity, in effect "Protestantizing" her Catholicism. Or perhaps a sense of the literary possibilities in the South—a Tarwater or a Hazel Motes—exercised a subtle but formative influence upon the shape of Miss O'Connor's vision, molding it to the exigencies of her art; so that being a writer (to paraphrase Blake), she came to belong to the Protestant party without knowing it. The result in either case was a dramatic ambivalence toward southern Fundamentalism: an awareness of the idiosyncracies of extreme Protestantism, yet an almost involuntary admiration for the intensity of its faith.

Miss O'Connor addressed herself to Fundamentalism in "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South," an extended apologia for her concern with Protestant culture and a eulogy on the religious heritage of the South. Chiding the Catholic for his condescension toward the Bible Belt, Miss O'Connor professed to see nothing unnatural in a Catholic's sympathy with southern Protestantism: the strenuousness of the Protestant reminded the Catholic of "the terrible loss to us in the Church of human faith and passion," while the waywardness of his "extreme individualism" revealed a need for tradition and authority which only the Church could fill. Though this seems a balanced estimate of both religions, the tenor of Miss O'Connor's essay is strangely laudatory of southern Protestantism. (pp. 809-10)

[What] made the Church unsatisfying to Miss O'Connor as an artist made it equally unsatisfying to her as a Christian. Far from lacking a culture, the Church in Miss O'Connor's view had too much of one—too much of a social culture, the very wealth and complexity of its communal life mitigating the force of its doctrines and insulating the believer from those spiritual discoveries often made by those in the invisible church. More than anything else, what Miss O'Connor sought in a culture was a universal sense of the immanence of the divine. And here she felt that the southern Protestant, with his dependence upon the Bible and the austerity of his religious life, possessed a more vitally Christian culture than did the Catholic and lived more immediately in the presence of God. (p. 811)

For Miss O'Connor the artist, this common scriptural heritage provided an ideal backdrop for a fiction concerned with the drama of salvation. Ultimately, however, Miss O'Connor's fascination with southern Protestantism derived less from its literary possibilities than from her temperamental response to its stark, unmediated version of Christianity…. In other circumstances Miss O'Connor's need for spiritual immediacy might have found expression in some form of neo-Jansenism or Pentecostal Catholicism. In the rural South it manifested itself in a compelling attraction toward southern Fundamentalism, a religion in which "the struggle against Satan is individual, continuous, and desperate, and salvation is a personal problem, which comes not through ritual and sacrament, but in the gripping fervor of immediate confrontation with eternity."… For Miss O'Connor, as for the Protestant, the foundation of religious life lay not in the Church or the sacraments, but in the private and often terrifying experience of divine grace.

The effect of Flannery O'Connor's unmediated Christianity upon her fiction was an almost single-minded preoccupation with conversion experience—in her own words, with those moments "in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected." In dramatic terms, such moments arose during a moral crisis when a character was forced "to decide forever, betwixt two things" …—the two things generally consisting of God and Satan. What this type of art required of the novelist was a unique ability "to see different levels of reality in one image or situation," the eternal commitment as it revealed itself in the concrete choice—a way of seeing which Miss O'Connor, reviving the scholastic term, labeled the "anagogical vision." What it also required, however, was a belief that grace could be received directly through nature. In the Catholic tradition this idea is inherently suspect, for it threatens not only to bypass the sacraments but to dispense with the priesthood and the institutional Church…. For most Protestants,… and this would include the majority of English and American Puritans—grace was the culmination of a long process of "preparation" aimed at plowing up the stony ground of the heart in anticipation of the redeeming seed. Among the New England ministers of the seventeenth century the most articulate preparationists were Thomas Shepard and Thomas Hooker, who described the journey toward grace as a process of contrition and humiliation…. (pp. 811-13)

In bringing her characters to their own moments of potential grace, Miss O'Connor not only omits the orthodox Catholic means of sacrament and priest but leads them through a process of preparation remarkably similar to those defined by Shepard and Hooker, wrenching them from their self-satisfaction into a humiliating awareness of who and what they are—vain, selfish creatures blind to themselves, dead to others, and desperately in need of grace. It is so customary to speak of the "banality of evil" that the phrase itself has become banal, yet this is precisely what Miss O'Connor means by original sin: not the murderousness of a psychotic like the Misfit, but the complacency of Mrs. Turpin ("Revelation"), the bigotry of Mrs. Shortley ("The Displaced Person"), and the intellectual arrogance of Asbury Fox ("The Enduring Chill"). In a word, original sin is equivalent to "self," and before grace can be extended to a character that "self" must be annihilated.

For this reason, Flannery O'Connor's stories generally turn upon a moment of humiliation intended, like the Puritan's sermon, to prostrate the sinner and force upon him a sense of his helplessness. Sometimes, as in "Good Country People" and "Everything that Rises Must Converge," the moment of humiliation is just that: not an offer of grace but, through the discovery of spiritual emptiness, a realization of one's dire need for it. But often the moment of humiliation is a prelude to grace itself. In "The Artificial Nigger," to cite one example, Mr. Head's humiliation leads him through contrition and despair to his final regeneration through divine mercy. (pp. 813-14)

Although Mr. Head's moment of grace comes upon him unexpectedly, it has been amply prepared for through the spiritual process which began with his denial of Nelson. To the extent that this process takes place outside of the sacraments and culminates in an unmediated reception of divine mercy, it may be called Protestant rather than Catholic. But the resemblance is deeper and even more explicit, for in moving toward his moment of grace Mr. Head progresses through the four stages of evangelical conversion outlined by Thomas Shepard in a representative Puritan treatise on the subject: conviction of sin, compunction for sin, humiliation, and faith…. ["Conviction of sin"] was a vital, immediate, affective sense of one's own unworthiness, and this the Puritan minister sought to instill through the rhetoric of his sermon…. (p. 815)

Miss O'Connor's insistence on the free acceptance of grace is one of the few remaining doctrinal points which link her to the Catholic tradition. It is a position which she reiterates in several of the essays in Mystery and Manners and one which, in theory at least, is central to her anagogical vision. In some of her stories grace does seem to revolve upon a character's free choice, as in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" where the grandmother, in reaching out toward the Misfit, "does the right thing, she makes the right gesture." But these stories are more the exception than the rule. In "The Enduring Chill," for example, Asbury Fox not only fails to do "the right thing," he tries his best to keep from doing it: "A feeble cry, a last impossible protest escaped him. But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend." Where the grandmother chooses grace, Asbury and Mrs. Turpin are chosen by it—"singled out," as Mrs. Turpin says, randomly and with no apparent regard for penitence or even for faith. Grace proceeds from the sovereign pleasure of an arbitrary, inscrutable God who saves whom He will, when He will, and whose offer of salvation can neither be declined nor withstood.

The issues of predestination and irresistible grace are particularly acute in Miss O'Connor's two novellas, The Violent Bear it Away and Wise Blood, whose heroes labor under an inescapable burden of prophecy…. [Miss O'Connor reconciles] freedom with religious calling through an appeal to mystery—a logic common enough in Protestant theology, where predestination coexists harmoniously with moral responsibility, but largely alien to Catholicism. On the questions of free will and spiritual election which have divided Catholics and Protestants since the Reformation, Miss O'Connor's fiction plants itself firmly on the Protestant side. (pp. 817-18)

[There] have been numerous attempts to mellow her Christianity, the Catholic critics seeking a more orthodox Catholicism, the secularists a liberal humanism. But the harsh, unrelenting core of Miss O'Connor's vision will not be tampered with. In its insistence on the corruption of all secular works and the divisiveness and irresistibility of grace, Miss O'Connor's Christianity is virtually indistinguishable from the Fundamentalist Protestantism of the South. Yet even more important for Miss O'Connor than what the Fundamentalist believed was how he believed it. Armed only with the Bible and his own invincible faith, the Fundamentalist went forward to a life of incessant battle against the temptations of the world. It was a strenuous but immensely exhilarating vision in which each moral decision became a contest between God and Satan and the smallest gesture assumed a profound anagogical significance. In Mystery and Manners one finds Miss O'Connor struggling to preserve this same vital and immediate apprehension of Christian truth, defining herself successively as a southerner among Americans, a Catholic among southerners, and a dissident among Catholics—always separating herself from communal identities which would mitigate her fierce sense of the immanence of the divine.

To her own mind, Miss O'Connor was a theologically orthodox Catholic, never more so than when she was rebuking her fellow Catholics for what she considered their provincialism and spiritual sloth. Sharing the Church's distrust of "the merely extreme, the merely personal, the merely grotesque," she caught and reflected the extravagance of southern Protestants in a scathingly comic art. Having caricatured her backwoods prophets, however, Miss O'Connor was inexorably drawn back to them by the sheer intensity of their belief. Returning home "bedraggled and hungry" after days in the woods, Mason Tarwater, she wrote, "would look as if he had been wrestling with a wildcat, as if his head were still full of the visions he had seen in its eyes, wheels of light and strange beasts with giant wings of fire and four heads turned to the four points of the universe." At these times old Tarwater seemed every inch a prophet to his nephew—and, more subtly though with equal fascination, to the artist who created him. Behind Flannery O'Connor's vision, and informing it at all points, lay the Protestant's desire to wrestle with wildcats and gaze unobstructedly at God. (pp. 818-19)

Robert Milder, "The Protestantism of Flannery O'Connor," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1975, by Robert Milder), Vol. XI, No. 4, Autumn, 1975, pp. 802-19.


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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 a temptation as well as a strict enforcer; the seductive Jesus … is Hazel's conflation of the two roles. Hazel's hope is to avoid sin, but he also avoids full belief in his mother's religion, for that would be an admission of her power and influence over him, as well as a reminder of his guilt. (pp. 199-200)

When Hazel arrives in the city, he has several strategies for establishing his independence from this dream of Oedipal experience and the religion which ties him to a guilty memory. Hazel does not articulate these strategies, but implicit in his actions are the following conditions and consequences. If Hazel can reject Christianity, he can break the hold his mother has upon his mind; if he can use other women as sexual objects, he can gain sexual autonomy. The test of these strategies, not surprisingly, is a series of maternal women who share some of the same traits and imagery…. Unable to prove himself completely, Hazel returns to preaching the Church Without Christ, a new way to reject his mother's influence on his life.

The religious ambivalence Hazel displayed as a boy is again evidenced in the city, for even while Hazel blasphemes in his preaching he is drawn to the blind preacher Asa Hawks, a man who bears some resemblance to Hazel's grandfather the preacher. In his relationship with Hawks, Hazel is attempting "to move forward and backward at the same time" …: forward to freedom through blasphemy, backward to his past and salvation. (p. 201)

The circumstances and meaning of his blinding and the ending need some clarification. Hazel's programs for sexual autonomy and religious independence have been frustrated, and his escape has been denied. Circumstances almost demand resignation, but the reader at this point should realize that resignation involves more than a return to a fanatical Christianity. Hazel's giving up his rebellion will mean accepting the inescapable dominance of his mother, will mean confessing his failure to liberate himself from her influence as well as Christ's. Because his movement to grace requires this kind of sacrifice of self, Hazel assumes heroic proportions in O'Connor's view. Once Hazel decides to accept his past despite his memories of guilt and fear, he needs some extreme act to signify his resolution and his complete abandonment of secular life. The fraudulent hero Hawks offers him an example. By blinding himself, Hazel expiates his guilt for blasphemy, for murder, and, if the parallel with Oedipus holds, for his incestuous fantasies. And through his self-sacrifice he proves his complete commitment to Christ. In full submission to the religion of his youth, Hazel mortifies himself as he did when he first fantasized about his mother and accepts his defeat as an independent man. (pp. 203-04)

Although some critics believe Enoch Emery's presence in Wise Blood disturbs its unity, I think Emery nicely, if somewhat obviously, sets off both the religious and sexual problems that plague Hazel Motes. Enoch's father has "traded" him to a Welfare woman, who sends him to the Rodemill Boy's Bible Academy. Enoch's solution to his distaste for religion and his "mother's" influence is much simpler than Hazel's: Enoch walks into her room and exposes himself. Enoch's life is not all success, though. As a lady's man he is as futile as, if less guilty than, Hazel, and Enoch also suffers under a religious compulsion he does not fully understand. Driven to desperation by his loneliness and compulsion, Enoch steals the mummy (the new Jesus) and, like Hazel, turns to violence. Again like Hazel, Enoch has a radical change of personality—he becomes Gonga the gorilla. His last scene has him, dressed as Gonga, looking over a vast expanse of space. When Hazel's car is pushed over the embankment, he too looks off into blank space, but O'Connor has him return from this moment of immobility to religious conversion. Enoch is left in his animalistic reversion. As secular man without religious tradition, Enoch moves on the dictates of his "wise blood," his intuition, but there is a wiser blood—that of Hazel's blinded eyes and that of the Christ crucified. Enoch's function is to demonstrate the secular man's answer to Hazel's problems, to set off that integrity Hazel achieves by accepting his psychological and religious past. (pp. 204-05)

Thomas LeClair, "Flannery O'Connor's 'Wise Blood': The Oedipal Theme," in The Mississippi Quarterly (copyright 1976 Mississippi State University), Spring, 1976, pp. 197-205.

Josephine Hendin

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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.

J. O. Tate

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[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 catalogue, "a shelf of false hands, imitation buck teeth, boxes of simulated dog dung to put on the rug, wooden plaques with cynical mottoes burnt on them …" (The Violent Bear It Away). O'Connor was never over-refined.

The other side of the paradox, which springs at us from her books as from a box (and from the fictions as well as the letters) … is O'Connor's serious pursuit of art and learning. For her, this was finally and necessarily congruent with the theological underpinnings of her devout Roman Catholicism. Perhaps the most impressive strands in the letters are her accounts of her reading, sensitive literary advice to aspiring writers, and eloquent addresses on her faith composed for friends and correspondents. (pp. 364, 366)

Her best pieces defy second-guessing. Her greatness consists in the acuity of her eye, the accuracy of her ear, her perfect perceptions of the pitches of pride. Symbolist and satirist, she not only saw folly, but could judge it and deliver it whole, in the round, in a circumscribed perspective, the vanishing point of which rests at a profound depth. (p. 366)

J. O. Tate, "The Village Theist," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1979; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), March 16, 1979, pp. 364-68.

Michael True

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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 artist that emerges from The Habit of Being is startling in its precision, clarity, and depth. It is a collage of critical comment on contemporary writers she admired (J. F. Powers, Bernard Malamud), on her reading (the Church fathers, Hannah Arendt), and on religious practice. O'Connor understood her strengths and weaknesses as a writer better than anyone. She wrote stories "because I write well," she told one questioner. Speaking admiringly of Faulkner, she said, "Probably the real reasons I don't read him is because he makes me feel that with my one-cylinder syntax I should quit writing and raise chickens altogether."

Yet O'Connor was not as simplistic in analysis and reflection as these statements perhaps make her appear. Her satire was most pointed in discussing people who pretended that complex problems have easy solutions….

In addition to its many strengths as a cultural document, this book helps to establish O'Connor's place in the canon of American literature, to overcome the reservations harbored by some literary historians and critics because of her relatively small body of work. But her mastery of language and sureness of form are the marks of her craft, and her stories are more widely read and appreciated—and more necessary—than they were at the time of her death….

The Habit of Being is one of the great collections of letters in American literature, equal in range and quality to those of Hawthorne and Melville and comparable, in what they tell us about the craft of fiction and writing, to the notebooks and prefaces of Henry James and the journals of Henry David Thoreau. With her occasional essays and prefaces, they are among the wisest reflections we have on art, on life in these United States, and on religion. They are, one might say, a university in themselves.

Michael True, "The Luminous Letters of a Writer of Genius," in The Chronicle Review (copyright © 1979 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.), April 16, 1979, p. R6.

Robert Towers

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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 letters; although much can be inferred from her replies, it would be nice to know not only the contents but the exact tone of the letters addressed to her by such literary correspondents as the Fitzgeralds, John Hawkes, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Cecil Dawkins, Robert Giroux, Catharine Carver, and others. I would particularly like to see the often lengthy commentaries which Caroline Gordon enthusiastically wrote for each of Flannery O'Connor's stories and novels before they were finally revised and sent to the publisher. (p. 3)

Flannery O'Connor warns that "meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation" and deplores the habit of approaching a story "as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious," she indulges occasionally in some rather recondite interpretations of her own work. The publication of these letters, with all their explicit references to the fiction, is bound to produce a new and lively spate of interpretative activity in the academies and elsehwere.

Never mind. The stories are strong enough to survive any amount of exegetical excess—whether committed by the reader or the occasionally over-zealous author. As with the work of any profound artist, an element of the mysterious—of the unspoken, the unacknowledged—hangs like a shining mist over all that has been consciously intended and consciously achieved. (p. 5)

These droll, moving, intelligent letters are to be cherished not only for what they reveal of the life, mundane and spiritual, of an exceptionally afflicted young woman but also for what they have to say about a writer's intimate, almost daily, relationship with her vocation. While it would be excessive to place Flannery O'Connor's letters with those of Keats, D. H. Lawrence, or Virginia Woolf in their literary significance, they are certainly among the most valuable produced by any twentieth-century American writer…. (p. 6)

Robert Towers, "Flannery O'Connor's Gifts," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), May 3, 1979, pp. 3-6.


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