Robert Coles's South and Other Approaches to Flannery O'Connor

By Friedman, Melvin J. | The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 1982 | Go to article overview

Robert Coles's South and Other Approaches to Flannery O'Connor


Friedman, Melvin J., The Southern Literary Journal


Robert Coles is Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard Medical School. This unorthodox title helps characterize an unconventional career, which has brought Dr. Coles from spirited civil rights marcher in the company of Martin Luther King to author of an overflowing shelf of books which may one day extend in length to Charles W. Eliot's magical five-foot shelf. Coles has in common with Eliot impeccable New England and Harvard credentials. He also has in common with him a discomfort with insularity. Trained as a child psychiatrist, Dr. Coles has crossed over to a variety of other disciplines, establishing formidable credentials as literary critic, poet, sociologist, theologian, philosopher. He is "myriad-minded," if the expression Coleridge used about Shakespeare has any meaning. His has been unfailingly a social discourse, with a distinctly humanistic cutting edge.

Coles is one of the premier intellectuals of his generation. Readers of Flannery O'Connor's correspondence, The Habit of Being, know how uncomfortable she was with that word and how she tortured it mercilessly until it became "interleckchul." Coles seems to enjoy playing around with the paradox, in the third part of his Flannery O'Connor's South, of O'Connor's being "an intellectual almost to her last breath, and at the same time she was toughly critical about certain influential intellectual assumptions" (p. 123). But he does evidence a certain discomfort and self-consciousness about his own geographical and cultural roots--which would seem to place him so far from Flannery O'Connor country. He need not have entertained any doubts. He has produced a book which almost certainly would have delighted its subject: it has the ideal mix of literary interpretation and social and theological speculation; it is agreeably modest and undogmatic; it is free of jargon and written with grace and ease. Rather than force Flannery O'Connor onto the couch and raise serious doubts about her personal life, as Josephine Hendin did in The World of Flannery O'Connor, Coles wisely divests himself of his psychiatric baggage and proceeds to read, listen, and search. These are three things he does very well.

Before delivering the lectures which form the basis of Flannery O'Connor's South, Robert Coles wrote a book about another Southern Catholic novelist, Walker Percy: An American Search. In this case, the pairing of author and subject seemed inspired: both Coles and Percy appeared to use medical degrees as occasions to wander off into other areas--Percy never practicing medicine, instead writing about philosophy and psychiatry on the way to becoming a novelist. The extent to which they are kindred spirits is clear from Coles's introduction which sets an autobiographical tone: "I may well be describing myself. I have no distance, certainly, on Dr. Percy's writing...." "I was making a decision about that life of mine during 1960, when The Moviegoer appeared; I decided to stay South, to live in New Orleans upon discharge from the air force...." It is clear from his introduction that Coles is as much on an American "search" as is Percy. The word is offered also to define Coles's methodology in writing this book, as he gently removes the prefix from research.

Walker Percy: An American Search offers a passageway to Flannery O'Connor's South: "I connect Dr. Percy, maybe out of my own peculiar inclinations, with another Southerner, Flannery O'Connor...." Coles's O'Connor study is also a search, as it eschews more conventional methods of literary commentary. Coles "adventures" into a geographical area, Baldwin County, Georgia, and "explores" an oeuvre which has abiding roots in that area. He examines O'Connor's two novels and a handful of stories in admirable detail.

Flannery O'Connor's South marks, in a certain way, the bringing together of the two strains of the New England sensibility on Southern soil, the dark side represented by Hawthorne, the light represented by Emerson. …

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