On the Southern Literary Trail: Part Two—Flannery O’Connor, an Appreciation

In Part One, I discussed Flannery O’Connor’s life and home. Here I will give a brief look at her work and ideas.

Never heard of Flannery O’Connor? Or have you read a story by her and scratched your head? Barely remember her name from a distant high school class in American Literature? You’re probably not alone.

Casual readers often consider her stories nihilistic satires of Bible-thumping zealots.  They might chuckle at O’Connor’s freakish Southern hicks and their absurd behavior, something akin to Honey Boo Boo.  I believe O’Connor would have loved Honey Boo Boo. She’d have trotted out HBB & Co. center stage and have you laughing your false teeth out, laughing till you choked on that olive pit you swallowed.  Perhaps the shock of these accidents would work the way violence does in her stories. When asked how to train a mule, she answered, first hit him on the head with a two-by-four to get his attention. Now that I have your attention, her stories say, let’s dig deeper.

Sacred Heart Church in Milledgeville

Sacred Heart Church in Milledgeville

Rather than a nihilist, O’Connor was a thunder and lightning Christian, a Roman Catholic in the Protestant Deep South, where she probably felt like an outsider. She attended mass almost every day at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. She would have agreed with British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God./ It will flame out like shining from shook foil.” Here’s how O’Connor put it in her novel Wise Blood:

The black sky was underpinned with long silver streaks that looked like scaffolding and depth on depth behind it were thousands of stars that all seemed to be moving very slowly as if they were about some vast construction work that involved the whole order of the universe and would take all time to complete.

The next sentence says, “No one was paying any attention to the sky.” Wise Blood is rife with characters compared to animals (“He moved like a crow,” “three young women dressed like parrots,” and the sharp-eyed “blind” preacher/ conman Asa Hawks), characters so smug, so complacent, so blind to God’s reality that they are just asking for mule training. Wise Blood is full of laugh out loud scenes as its hero Hazel Motes, nicknamed Haze, the blindest of the bunch, sets about starting his Church without Christ, his only disciple Enoch Emery, who steals a mummy from the museum to be Motes’ New Jesus and later achieves his heart’s desire when he kills an actor dressed as a movie star gorilla in order to don the gorilla suit himself.  The two-by-four is poised and ready to drop on someone’s head—time to wake up.


O’Connor’s typewriter & crutches by her bed: From here she could catch the early morning light.

It’s easy to see how these Southern grotesques could mislead the unwary. Among the unwary was television’s General Electric Theater, which adapted “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” a short story about a one-armed conman named Mr. Shiflet, compared to a “crooked cross” as he stands, arms outstretched before the sunset. Later,  to acquire a car, he agrees to marry a young retarded girl, but leaves her at a diner, saying she is just a hitchhiker.  The program starred dancer Gene Kelly, who called it “a kind of hillbilly thing…[set] in the hills of Kentucky.” O’Connor said of this adaptation: “Mr. Shiflet and the idiot daughter will no doubt go off in a Chrysler and live happily ever after.  Anyway while they make hash out of my story, [Regina] and me will make ice in the new refrigerator” (which  O’Connor bought with the money).  Milledgeville looked with awe at its famous daughter now that she had television’s imprimatur.

Perhaps this misunderstanding was preordained. When O’Connor was five years old, living in Savannah, she trained a bantam chicken to walk backward. The Parthe newsreel company sent a cameraman to capture every thrilling step, and the film clip later screened around the country. O’Connor later said this event marked her for life.

Thanks to Clarke Weeks for his photography.

Further Reading

Fiction by Flannery O’Connor

The Complete Works of Flannery O’Connor

Everything that Rises Must Converge (short stories)

A Good Man Is Hard To Find (short stories) (I would start with these.)

The Violent Bear It Away (novel)

Wise Blood (novel) (Read this book next.)


Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being, Letters Edited and with an Introduction by Sally Fitzgerald http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/07/05/AR2005070501680.html

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch


Film/ Television

“The Displaced Person,” PBS series The American Short Story (DVD), starring John Houseman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Irene Worth (filmed at Andalusia)

Wise Blood, film directed by John Huston and starring Brad Dourif and Harry Dean Stanton (DVD)

Have you ever read anything by Flannery O’Connor? If so, what? What was your reaction?

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