Seer from Milledgeville
Russello, Gerald J., Commonweal
O'Connor, Flannery A Life Jean Cash University of Tennessee Press, $30, 376 pp.
Return to Good and Evil Flannery O'Connor's Response to Nihilism Henry T. Edmondson III Lexington Books, $24.95, 224 pp.
The action of grace in territory held largely by the devil" was how Flannery O'Connor described her fiction. It is a strange form of grace, featuring murder, sexual assault, and physical violence and generally unmitigated by happy endings. Her efforts were often bewildering to sophisticated readers and to those she called the "hair-dryer set," who perhaps expected something different from a soft-spoken unmarried Catholic woman from the South. Even her likely intellectual allies were disquieted. T. S. Eliot, for example, although praising O'Connor's "uncanny talent," said his nerves were "not strong enough" to handle her writing.
Nevertheless, O'Connor has become one of the most influential American Catholic authors of the last century. Her unrelenting depiction of temptation and the darkness of the human soul was a sharp contrast to the usually didactic and comforting Catholic fiction of her time. Her spare style and striking imagery--ice instead of fire for the Holy Spirit, Christ symbolized by a tree-line--departed from the expected tropes of religious fiction, which she called the "usual junk." And her unique perspective that the mission of a Catholic writer was primarily to write for non-Christians changed the way Catholic authors practiced their art. While her fiction was not primarily an apologetic tool, O'Connor was adamant that fiction be infused with a moral vision that could open the reader to God.
She was born Mary Flannery O'Connor in 1925, to a Savannah family. Her success at the University of Iowa's famed graduate school in creative writing introduced her to cosmopolitan literary figures such as Caroline Gordon and Robert Lowell, and brought her briefly to New York. After being diagnosed with lupus, the degenerative disease that had killed her father when she was fifteen, O'Connor returned to her mother's home in Georgia in 1951. She lived in the town of Milledgeville, under the care of her mother, until she died at the age of thirty-nine. Her isolation was both a blessing and a curse, as Georgia allowed her to concentrate in a way that a more superficially active literary life in a place like New York might not have allowed. Because of her illness and short life, her literary output was small. We have only two novels (Wise Blood  and The Violent Bear It Away ), a clutch of highly polished short stories, a number of addresses and essays collected as Mystery and Manners, and The Habit of Being, a collection of letters.
Jean Cash sets the spare events of O'Connor's life into a richer context in this well-researched study, the first full-length O'Connor biography. There are important chapters on O'Connor's years at Iowa, which she attended from 1945 to 1948, and on the time O'Connor spent at the writers' colony at Yaddo and later with Sally and Robert Fitzgerald in rural Connecticut. These experiences resulted in lifelong friendships with Lowell, Gordon, Brainerd and Frances Cheney, and her publisher, Robert Giroux. They remained her intellectual links to the world outside Milledgeville. Equally valuable are Cash's discussions of O'Connor's education and her relationship with her mother. The O'Connor that emerges is remote but not isolated, brilliant, humorous, and, above all, driven to succeed despite physical and social obstacles, going so far as to drop her first name professionally to appear more distinctive. …