A Good Woman Found

By Williamson, Chilton, Jr. | The American Conservative, March 13, 2006 | Go to article overview

A Good Woman Found


Williamson, Chilton, Jr., The American Conservative


FLANNERY O'CONNOR (1925-1964) has been dead now three years longer than she lived. Only several years ago, she was honored by inclusion in the Library of America series, cheek by jowl with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton. (On the other hand, also represented in this American pantheon are nonentities like Dawn Powell and James Agee, as well as the atrocious Philip Roth.) The attention perhaps reflects her status during the 1980s and '90s as the center of a literary cottage industry. A great many of the critics engaged in this enterprise were academics, a large number of these academics women, and a significant percentage of the women left-wing feminist and lesbian activists, hungering to establish Flannery O'Connor as one of their sordid own. The industry itself now seems rather played out.

O'Connor's letters, edited by the late Sally Fitzgerald, wife of the Harvard classicist Robert Fitzgerald, were published in 1979. At the time of her death in 2000, Mrs. Fitzgerald was at work on a biography of O'Connor-an early and close friend of the Fitzgeralds-a project that may, or may not, see completion one day at the hands of her daughters. In 1979, John Huston made Wise Blood, the earlier of O'Connor's two novels, into a film that was well-received at the time but appears to have resided since, for the most part, in a canister on the back of a shelf somewhere in Hollywood.

Reflecting a brief life plagued by illness and invalidism, the O'Connor oeuvre is meager: the two brief novels of 45,000 words or so apiece, a plump collection of short stories, a slim one of essays, and the hefty volume of letters. Whether this amounts to a reputation for the ages remains to be seen, Library of America or no. Not at all in doubt are Flannery O'Connor's genius, the quality of her prophetic vision-at once luminous and penetrating-her originality as an artist, and her importance both to American letters and the distinguished apologetic tradition of her Catholic faith.

The present effort is intended as a ridiculously brief introduction to Flannery O'Connor and her work, in no way as an authoritative statement about either. (Readers interested in something more are referred to the critical work of two O'Connor scholars, Prof. James O. Tate of Dowling College and Loxley F. Nichols of Loyola University.) I was introduced to Flannery O'Connor by my sister, who in the late 70s was living, on the family farm in rural Vermont, a life that was the New England equivalent, more or less, of Miss O'Connor's on her mother's dairy farm near Milledgeville, Georgia Images of O'Connor in a garden hat delivering basins of feed to surrounding flocks of flapping peafowl, chickens, and snow geese were sufficient to suggest the affinity Jane felt for this woman, while engaging my own sympathies as well. (Birds, like lions, have always appealed to me imaginatively as active supernatural agents, as well as symbols of the Divine.) It was not, however, through the fiction but rather the letters, published as The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O 'Connor, that I first encountered the work itself. They made an impression unsurpassed in scope and impact by any single work I had read before or have looked into since and with the direct result that, 13 years later, I was received into the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic faith, so rich in two millennia of apologetics, is nowhere better outlined, suggested, and served than in this marvelous book for the introduction it offers to the nature and workings of the Catholic mind behind the formal pattern and structure of Catholic belief.

"I write the way I do because and only because I am a Catholic," O'Connor concedes to one of her correspondents. "I feel that if I were not a Catholic, I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason to feel horrified or even to enjoy anything.... I have never had the sense that being a Catholic is a limit to the freedom of the writer, but just the reverse. …

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