Flannery O'Connor's South

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Robert Coles is a practicing child psychiatrist; he is also the author of more than six hundred articles and thirty-odd books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning series Children of Crisis: five volumes of “cross-cultural, naturalistic observation”—thick volumes of novelistic depth and power, inspired by James Agee’s and William Carlos Williams’ attention to the everyday lives of “ordinary people.”

From novelists and poets, Coles has learned to abhor generalities and convenient abstractions: he insists on the sticky, resistant, incongruous particulars. His ventures into literary criticism (including a book on William Carlos Williams; essays on Agee, Elizabeth Bowen, and George Eliot, called Irony in the Mind’s Life; and the best study to date of Walker Percy, Walker Percy: An American Search) are valuable not only for what they say about their respective subjects but as examples of a method: Coles ignores the arbitrary boundaries, jealously guarded by academic departments, with which people shape knowledge.

Flannery O’Connor’s South begins refreshingly, as most of Coles’s books do, with an unpretentious account of its origins: Coles tells the reader where and when the book began to germinate. He does not aspire to “scientific” detachment: he is at pains to show how this book is rooted geographically, and at a certain time, and in interaction with certain people—in particular, with Ruth Ann Jackson, a black woman, “a lay minister of the Gospel,” a nurse’s aide who introduced Coles and his wife to Flannery O’Connor, for whom she was caring in an Atlanta hospital in the early 1960’s.

Ruth Ann Jackson was the grandmother of one of the black students who pioneered Atlanta’s desegregation in 1961—a struggle in which the Coleses were intimately involved during their years in the South. Was she also a “talkative, imaginative, assertive person, all too intensely preoccupied with God, Christ, the Devil, churches, ministers, the Bible and those words that appear in it? Oh yes, as she would say it—without reluctance, and certainly, with passion.” She shared a great deal, Coles wants readers to see (this woman who many could label “Southern grotesque”), with Flannery O’Connor—shared “a certain range of ideas and rituals, verbal constructions, metaphysical notions,” and...

(The entire section is 975 words.)