The Angelic Artist in the Fiction of Flannery O'connor and Walker Percy

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FLANNERY O'Connor and Walker Percy have been briefly linked in a number of articles exploring their affinities as Catholic authors of the American South. But their relationship deserves further consideration in light of their common immersion in a vibrant postwar Catholic intellectual milieu, one which had its roots in Europe but strongly impacted the United States. O'Connor and Percy alike first came to their mature, intellectually informed faith and literary vision in the "Age of Anxiety" largely by drawing on the work of thinkers such as Jacques Maritain, Gabriel Marcel, and Romano Guardini. Maritain--the French philosopher who rearticulated the thought of Thomas Aquinas for the twentieth century--was perhaps the single most important common influence upon the two in terms of aesthetic theory, and he virtually embodied the influence of the midcentury Catholic Revival upon sympathetic American writers (such as Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford, and Thomas Merton) when he moved to Princeton and befriended Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon in the 1940s. That particular relationship would have far-reaching ramifications for O'Connor and Percy alike as literary artists. As long-established literary figures prior to their conversions, Tate and Gordon had ties not only to the Fugitive-Agrarians who largely shaped the Southern Renascence but also to the great Anglo-American modernists of the 1920s; as fervent Catholic converts after World War II, they interacted with O'Connor and Percy significantly. Gordon served as a close-reading editor for both the younger writers in the 1950s and 1960s, while Tate provided more distant guidance, usually through his published essays; both in their own fashion delivered to their proteges significant encouragement and aesthetic advice that was often couched in the Neo-Thomist terms favored by Maritain. It is in this milieu, I will argue, that we find the roots of O'Connor's and Percy's satirical portraits of the twentieth-century romantic artist--portraits that entirely fuel several of O'Connor's short stories and that are subtly interwoven into virtually all of Percy's novels.

First of all, a number of the mutual influences introduced above significantly impacted the "theories of fiction" developed by O'Connor and Percy alike. Percy drew on Maritain in his earliest essays on language, while O'Connor noted that although the Frenchman was "a philosopher and not an artist ... he does have great understanding of the nature of art, which he gets from St. Thomas" (The Habit of Being 216). From works such as Art and Scholasticism--which O'Connor called "the book I cut my aesthetic teeth on" (The Habit of Being 216) and which Jay Tolson and Patrick Samway alike have cited as central to Percy's thought by at least the early 1950s--both learned the value of a sacramental vision that demanded a rigorous, concrete Christian realism. In this seminal work of twentieth-century Catholic aesthetics Maritain defines the maker of what the modern mind calls the fine arts as concerned with intelligible arrangement but also as profoundly grounded in the concrete:

   ... this brilliance of the form, no matter how purely intelligible it may
   be in itself, is seized in the sensible and through the sensible, and not
   separately from it. The intuition of artistic beauty thus stands at the
   opposite extreme from the abstraction of scientific truth. For with the
   former it is through the very apprehension of the sense that the light of
   being penetrates the intelligence. (25; Maritain's emphasis)

Both O'Connor and Percy would finally agree with all the claims put forth in this brief but dense passage: that art is a form of knowledge; that it approaches the real--"being"--by a means entirely different from that of science; and that that means finally depends upon sense experience of the concrete rather than an abstract knowledge of general troths. Here we can see the theoretical grounding for O'Connor's repeated claims in her essays regarding the writer's responsibility to the world of matter, as well as Percy's claims that the novel is essentially cognitive but approaches the empirical from a direction altogether different than that of modern science. …