© December 1966 Atlanta Magazine
A Multitude of thanks to Girl In A Cage for transcribing this article.
Long before her death at the age of thirty-eight, Flannery O'Connor had
outgrown her early fame as the enfant terrible of Southern letters and
had won her place in history as a writer who probed, in a distinctly
Southern idiom, the mysterious outer reaches of reality that are the
province of the prophet and the poet.
"Southern writers are stuck with the South, and it's a good thing to be
stuck with," she once said, and her two novels, Wise Blood and The
Violent Bear It Away, and her short stories are regional in focus. But she
had a horror of being known as a "Southern writer" with all that that
entailed --- the dialect stories, the moonlight and magnolia myth, and
the "hot house" school. "The woods are full of regional writers and it
is the horror of every serious Southern writer that he will become one."
Yet she knew that all good writing begins at home, that the best
American literature is regional, and that the smallest history can be read in
a universal light. "You know what's the matter them? They're not FRUM
anywhere," she said of that slick new breed of writers who have taken
over the paperback book stalls. Flannery was FRUM Georgia, and rather
fiercely so; she once observed wryly in print that the so-called anguish
of the Southern writer derived not from the fact that he was alienated
from the rest of the country but that he was not alienated enough. She
gloried in the eccentricities of the region, in the complications and
contradictions with which it abounds, and she found Georgia a "collection
of goods and evils which are intensely stimulating to the imagination."
She was born in Savannah, grew up in Milledgeville, attended the
Woman's College of Georgia, and, except for a stint at Iowa State and a brief
apprenticeship in New York, she did most of her writing at Andalusia,
the 150-year-old Milledgeville farmhouse where she lived with her mother
Regina. Once can see it now, just off the highway, a narrow, steeply
roofed white farmhouse beside a tall white water tank. Dairy cattle still
graze the broad pastures in the shadow of the blue hills.
At the age of six she appeared with her pet rooster on the Pathe News,
and she swore that was the pinnacle of her career, though in her
lifetime she was accorded almost every honor that can accrue to a short story
writer in this country --- three O. Henry Memorial Awards, two Kenyon
Review Fellowships, and two national grants.
"If my characters speak Southern, it's because I do," she said, but it
went a lot deeper than that. When The Misfit in "A Good Man Is Hard to
Find," after murdering a family of five on the highway, says, "Jesus
thrown everything off balance," he is doing more than using dialect ---
he is going to the very heart of the Christian mystery. Our history,
customs, vices, and virtues are inherent in our idiom, she said, and she
was a master of the idiom. Impious but devout, scathingly honest yet
compassionate, deadly serious but relentlessly comic, Flannery O'Conno was
uniquely fitted to portray the regional character, with its deep
ambiguities, Gothic violence, wry wit, and idiosyncrasies. If her characters
often emerged as displaced persons, it was because she felt that all
human beings are displaced persons standing in need of divine grace. If
they were also freaks, she took pride in being able to recognize a freak
in a day when the man in the grey flannel suit is celebrated as normal.
Her prophet freaks, she explained, were "figures of our essential
displacement, images of man forced out to meet the extremes of his own
nature." Her distortions and exaggeration were quite deliberate. To a
twentieth century audience, reeling from the tinsel myths of Madison Avenue,
she found it necessary to make her vision apparent by shock. "To the
hard of hearing you shout and for the blind you draw large and startling
figures," she said.
But she also understood that it is impossible to say anything about the
mystery of personality "unless you put that personality in the social
context that belongs to it." She balked at the term "frame of
reference," perhaps because so few of the critics really understood the nature of
hers. They thought it was the Southern landscape. She often said that
even poets shouldn't be poetic, but in the best sense --- the sense of
unerring accuracy and radiance of vision --- she is a poet when she
describes a sunset "as if someone were wounded behind the woods and the
trees were bathed in blood" and likens a white gold sun to "some strange
potentate from the East." But she is using the landscape for her own
purposes, to describe yet another region whose dimensions are illimitable.
Socially, her context was the Bible Belt, and she had a penetrating eye
for its grotesqueries --- the tent revivals, the child evangelists, the
sawdust salvations, and the highway admonitions to "repent or burn in
hell." She had no illusions about the South being Christ-centered, but
she did find it "Christ-haunted." Ghosts can be very fierce and
instructive and they cast strange shadows, she said, and she found in the
Southern temperament "a sense of the absolute, a sense of Moses' face as he
pulverized the idols, a sense of time, place and eternity joined."
A Catholic, she once said her faith in Christian dogma furnished her
with "a sense of continuity from the time of Christ" and assured her a
respect for mystery. It was this respect which safeguarded her from the
pitfalls of many regional writers who view the South only as a fertile
source of local color. In the sparest and most vivid prose she used the
region to suggest what transcended it. "The writer's gaze," she said,
"has to extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems until it touches
that realm of mystery that is the concern of prophets."
There is always a moment when grace is offered, as when, in "The
Artificial Nigger," the old man sees "that no sin was too monstrous for him
to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as he forgave, he
felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise." Yet seldom is grace
accepted. Its refusal is the ultimate human tragedy and it is repeated
again and again for, as Archbishop Paul Hallinan pointed out, though, she
treated her people with homeliness and humility, "she followed the
relentlessly until they faced the kingdom."
Flannery once said that to her fiction the South had contributed "its
idiom and its rich and strained social getup." But her region, her true
region, was timeless and eternal and many readers found it terrifying.
"That's not Georgia," they would say. But was Georgia and something
more, a whole universe more. She realized that the writer's region was
both inside and outside, and she had the courage and the tenacity and the
intensity of concentration to descend far enough into herself to tap
what she called the underground springs that gave life to her work. Quite
properly, she called this descent through the sure and the familiar
into the realms of mystery a descent into her region. After her untimely
death from the disease that had crippled her most of her life, those who
knew her best said that she had found beneath the darkness and the
terror of the surface the luminous region of grace.