Flannery O'Connor the Collected Works
Young, Robin Darling, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
The author of The Violent Bear It Away was a violent woman. Sitting quietly in front of a typewriter in faraway Milledgeville, Georgia, supplied with the eyesight of a bird of prey, Flannery O'Connor used her best instruments, insight and poetic expression, to force her characters right up to the edge of the artistic abyss. On the edge of the cliff, gesturing exaggeratedly to us, they are just one degree away from caricatures, often uttering words just this side of ridiculous, comic in their tragic devices and desires. They stalk their way through this visible world while the invisible one, the realm of grace, bears down on them with a mercy that often leaves them mortally wounded. O'Connor's stories and novels shocked her readers; her essays and letters show that this gave her no small pleasure. Mortal illnesses require strong medicine, and she was delighted to apply alcohol and the knife where her contemporaries' sickness was most malignant. Her intelligence told her that the sentimentally religious were often the sickest. If it weren't for the Church and its sacraments, she wrote, she would have become "the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw."
If categories are invoked, O'Connor is readily identifiable as a Southern and Catholic writer. To consign authors to the categories of the regional and religious is usually to diminish them by convenience; fortunately O'Connor's writing defies diminution, because she wrote of the cities of God and man with a consciousness filled by something larger than merely a religious view, or a worldview, or a tradition. Her voice sounded a particular note, her eye saw and her hands crafted tales that told particular stories of the country to which she truly belonged--in the words of a contemporary author, John Casey, "that historical glacier the Church."
That is why it is not wholly correct to say, as the dustjacket of the otherwise excellent Flannery O'Connor: The Collected Works (Library of America, 1988) does, that O'Connor "in her short lifetime ... became one of the most distinctive American writers of the twentieth century." O'Connor was an American writer only in a highly qualified way. No one with a passport from the una sancta can wholeheartedly embrace the American project of liberal commercialism, or why would O'Connor have made old Hazel Motes say, "Nobody with a good car needs to be justified"? The novel wherein Motes stalks (Wise Blood) takes him from his Church Without Christ, run out of his Essex automobile, to the self-inflicted blindness that gives him real sight. …