Flannery O’Connor earned her undergraduate degree in social sciences at Georgia State College for Women, a teachers’ college. O’Connor considered that career, but was “rather glad things didn’t work out that way.” She entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the rest is literary history.
Although O’Connor admitted that she was “in a state of pristine innocence” when it came to teaching, she had many opinions about the profession. In “The Teaching of Literature,” an address to English teachers later collected into an essay, O’Connor assails the “utilitarian” approach of doctoral studies in English, where it is assumed that novels “must do something, rather than be something.” She expects more of English teachers, who are “a sort of middle-man” in the “standing dispute between the novelist and the public.” Aimee Bender says O’Connor’s voice “often has a scolding edge,” but teachers at all levels would do well to listen.
In O’Connor’s experience, teachers often fell short of helping students see that the “business of fiction [is] to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.” Her words were a Southern, Irish-Catholic take on a phrase from The Ivory Tower, an unfinished novel by Henry James. For O’Connor, “the mystery he was talking about is the mystery of our position on earth, and the manners are those conventions which, in the hands of the artist, reveal that central mystery.”
Her own teachers found ways to “ignore the nature of literature” by instead discussing literary history, examining the psychology of the author, or considering a work’s social application, as if it were a policy document. In fact, if a teacher were “astute and energetic,” she could “integrate English literature with geography, biology, home economics, basketball, or fire prevention — with anything at all that will put off a little longer the evil day when the story or novel must be examined simply as a story or novel.”
Halfway through “The Teaching of Literature,” O’Connor stops talking about instruction and begins talking about the real focus of her discussion, something that sounds very close to her own work: “Possibly the question most often asked these days about modern fiction is why do we keep on getting novels about freaks and poor people, engaged always in some violent, destructive action, when, actually, in this country, we are rich and strong and democratic and the man in the street is possessed of a general good-will which overflows in all directions.” O’Connor rejects such a sensibility that attempts to “separate mystery from manners in fiction, and thereby to make it more palatable to the modern taste.” The novelist must never be asked to “begin with an examination of statistics rather than with an examination of conscience.” The novelist, and perhaps the teacher, “uses his eyes” in another way, in which “judgment is implicit in the act of seeing. His vision cannot be detached from his moral sense.” No tidy literature, and no over-planned, programmatic lessons. The novelist and teacher are both charged with making messes suffused with grace.
In “Flannery O’Connor’s Writing: A Guide for the Perplexed,” (pdf) Michael M. Jordan explains that O’Connor should remain on syllabi because of her “hard yet radiant wit,” her original and powerful representation of a Christian artistic vision, and for her storytelling method, which “uses violence, exaggeration, distortion to shock us into a serious consideration of religious dogmas and mysteries.” To the uninitiated reader or student, these dynamic elements often cause confusion.
As a Catholic, I find O’Connor less perplexing than illuminating. This is not to say that Catholics own her writing. A very lapsed Catholic, Joyce Carol Oates, says it well: “To readers and critics to whom life is not at all mysterious, but simply a matter of processes, her writing will seem unnaturally rigorous, restrained, even compulsive. It is certainly ‘neurotic.’ However, if one believes that life is essentially mysterious, then literature is a celebration of that mystery, a pushing toward the ‘limits of mystery.’”
Jordan reminds us that O’Connor believed “fiction is art, not primarily moral instruction, not a type of catechism.” That refusal to be clean and tidy in her fiction has unsettled readers and critics on all sides. O’Connor explained that her “violent literary means” were necessary to communicate to the world of her fiction to a secular audience, a readership often “hostile” to religious fiction.
Because her religion so profoundly formed her cultural and artistic senses, O’Connor is difficult for most students. In fact, many of the essential writers my students find the most difficult are Catholics: Thomas Pynchon, Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, James Joyce, and Toni Morrison. This is not to claim that their Catholicism makes them innately worthy of study — a claim that would be laughed away by O’Connor — rather, that their works speak to the diversity and complexity of sacramental visions of the world. In an educational sense, the extent of their religious practice is less important than the appropriation of Catholic iconography, symbolism, narrative tradition, and even the ritual language of Mass. Whether respectful or parodic of the Word, they all have been formed by it. O’Connor was the most publicly Catholic of the bunch, and, notwithstanding Pynchon’s eccentricities, the strangest on the page. Which, I think, makes her worth teaching.
Writer Constance Hale first encountered Flannery O’Connor’s work at Princeton in the late 1970s. Princeton started admitting women in 1969, but the campus was “still a male bastion,” where men greatly outnumbered women on syllabi. An English major who wanted to write, Hale “was aching to read literature written by women, and I was desperate to find teachers who could help me formulate some of the ideas that preoccupied me (like, Who are the muses of female poets? Or, Why do I love Virginia Woolf so much? Or, If women’s literature is invisible in the academy, where does that put me as a young writer?)” Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop were given cursory coverage, but writers like Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Rich, and Muriel Rukeyser were absent. Hale asked her professor why. His answer: “We teach the canon.”
Hale and other students “scoured the syllabi of every English course taught,” discovering that other than courses in the 19th century novel, women were largely absent. The department chair was sympathetic to their concerns. By the end of that semester, a course titled “The Southern Short Story” was created, including fiction by Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty.
Now O’Connor is a mainstay of college courses, but still requires context and explanation. Fr. Mark Bosco, S.J., a professor of English and Theology at Loyola University, Chicago, stresses her status as a Southern writer, as a woman in a male-dominated publishing world, and her “identity as a devout Catholic whose faith informed everything she did and ordered all her understanding of the power of art.” At the start of a course, his students know “very little” about O’Connor, “except that I am fanatical about her work.” Fr. Bosco teaches her stories in series of four, beginning with “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” and sometimes “The River,” but says little “to allow students to register their own reactions to O’Connor’s works.” Only after the second story does he discuss “her Catholic imagination, of the way sacramentality is a kind of aesthetic strategy in her work, and how this strategy is so akin to art and metaphor.” He ends with the existential and religious discourses of “Parker’s Back” (pdf) and “Revelation” (pdf). This is when his classes finally “get” O’Connor. As one student told him, “not knowing the religious aspects of her stories is like not knowing that there is cake under the icing.”
One refrain I heard when speaking with those who teach O’Connor is the need to acknowledge her complexity. Writer Paul Lisicky, who teaches in the Rutgers-Camden MFA program, says “it’s so easy to simplify O’Connor. Even sophisticated readers are prone to missing out on all the nuances in the work. First timers tend to read the stories as satire. Yes O’Connor is poking fun, but she also believes in her characters’ capacity to change–that’s what distinguishes her from a satirist. In the classroom I spend a lot of time talking about all the complexities inside those moments of grace. Those moments (not ‘Why you’re one of God’s babies’ but ‘Why you’re one of my babies’) always manage to demolish a simple interpretation, and that’s what’s astonishing about them. You can’t tame the stories, they refuse to sit still, refuse good manners, and you’re not paying full attention if you’re not destroyed a little by them. Well, destroyed and vitalized.”
Destroyed and vitalized is the best phrase I’ve heard to explain the redemptive power of O’Connor’s fiction. I mean redemptive in the Catholic sense, but more widely so in the narrative sense. The sheer originality of her stories shows students how amplifying their surrounding world can make great fiction. Now, 50 years after her death, when she is a staple of syllabi and the very canon that previously excluded her and other women, it is most important to stress fresh approaches to her work within the classroom.
This, of course, begins in the way we write about O’Connor. Two recent works of note are Carlene Bauer’s epistolary novel, Frances and Bernard, a fictionalization of the correspondence and friendship of O’Connor and the poet Robert Lowell, and RT Smith’s The Red Wolf, a book of poems that effectively channel O’Connor’s persona. Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, a consideration of O’Connor along with Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day, remains an essential reference. One of the most original examinations of her work and influence is A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America, a sequence of essays by David Griffith. Griffith examines American conceptions of violence in the art and thought of Andy Warhol and Susan Sontag, in films like Pulp Fiction, Blue Velvet, and The Exorcist, and in everyday life (one essay is titled “Regarding the Electric Chair My Wife’s College Boyfriend Built in His House”). Griffith’s locus is the Abu Ghraib prison photographs. He thinks O’Connor would have found them “grotesque,” but in her own definition, that the grotesque “makes visible hidden ‘discrepancies’ between character and belief.” Abu Ghraib unwound American innocence through shock, in the same metaphorical way her fiction disrupts and disturbs us. Similarly, American public reaction to the photographs — the tendency to identify the perpetrators as in no way representative of “us” — is reflective of O’Connor’s “judgment of what she saw as the modern attitude toward ‘redemption’: Everyone wants it, but no one stops to consider its real cost.”
Griffith now directs the creative writing program at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, but first taught O’Connor to gifted high school students in Pennsylvania. They were “savvy readers,” “precocious storytellers,” and “astute observers of literary conventions,” but they “struggled” with meaning; they “wanted to leap straight for it and pin it down, like it was the jugular and then sit back satisfied once they felt they had punctured it.” Biographical and cultural context was essential. Students needed to know “how lupus required her to live with her mother on their small Georgia farm; how being a well-read, well-catechized Catholic in central Georgia might cause you to regard Protestants; and how her faith lead her to understand the work of writing.” Those biographical mini-lectures, as well as excerpts from workslike “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South” (pdf) and “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” helped students understand that O’Connor “felt that what happens to the Grandmother in ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ was a moment of Grace.” Students soon “fell in love with Flannery” more than the work of other writers. Her fiction revealed that the best artists held “a sense of urgency, a sense that what they are doing is the working-out of larger, personal concerns and obsessions.” Although the vast majority of his students did not share O’Connor’s religion, her Catholic worldview–an “Augustinian view that all is sacred except sin, or the Kierkegaardian view that even the man knocking at the door of the brothel is looking for God”–so fully informs her work that students benefit from observing a writer suffused with a passion, “that there is a definite philosophy and worldview there underneath all these wooden-legged philosophers, and one-armed hoboes, and Polish refugee farmhands.” Griffith teaches O’Connor “because I love her work and think it is important, but also because it helps young writers who might feel they have strong convictions about the world see that the next step is seeing what happens when you test them in the crucible of fiction.”
Bryan Giemza, author of Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South, teaches O’Connor’s fiction at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. He admits that her stories “are getting harder to teach” as students become less biblically-literate; “when Manly Pointer makes off with Hulga/Joy’s leg in ‘Good Country People,’ (pdf) they don’t necessarily see it as an illustration of the importance of losing the limb that bars entry to the kingdom of God.” Giemza explains that O’Connor’s “droll humor” often happens when “scripture is misquoted, misappropriated, or misunderstood to suit the purposes of a character.” In that way, students are similar to O’Connor’s contemporary readers, so the hard work of teaching “is helping them to see how often they are tricked into thinking a character is repellent–only to see their own face reflected there. And to demonstrate that grace by its nature is hard, and that hope is by nature a test of faith.”
He recommends her recently released Prayer Journal and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” as good starting points for students. Her journal allows him to “point out the various prayer traditions she canvasses and how she shared in the aspirations and worries of someone their age, albeit someone with an incredible depth of field, spiritually speaking. She commands respect that way.” I like Giemza’s method in teaching her popular story. He tells students “things tend towards their ends, that we are creatures of habit, and that virtue has to be practiced. I give them a series of statements to respond to, like ‘I’m basically a good person.’ A majority of my students agree with that position, and aren’t aware that it flies in the face of orthodoxy, and certainly goes against Flannery O’Connor’s belief. They’re usually stunned to learn that no less an authority than Christ said that no man is good. And those who condemn the grandmother have to be shown their own warts, just like those who despise the mother in ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge,’ (pdf) with her patronizing coin, need to be reminded of the story of the widow’s mite.”
O’Connor is one of the best at peeling back our public covers and showing those warts. Like so many writers chided for their disturbing content, criticisms of her work are often less about the texts themselves, and more about our refusals as readers, students, and teachers to examine our own lives. Perhaps even more than her odd characters, it is the “stark racism” of O’Connor’s world that pushes away some of Giemza’s students. But Giemza doesn’t want them to blink; “the danger . . . is that students who (think they) live in a post-racial age must still contend with the sins of the fathers, and I am surprised by how many can blithely accept that those sins have been expiated. Perhaps they don’t see its urgency, but here in the region that helped the nation understand its first fall (i.e. the legacies of our foundation in slavery), we have a duty to try to come to grips with it. It remains the essence of the fallen-ness in her work, and its insistence that God is no respecter of persons or the hierarchies of the temporal order, which can be inverted at a stroke.”
Flannery O’Connor makes an appearance in White Girls, a collection of fact and fiction by Hilton Als. In “The Lonesome Place,” Als explains that O’Connor’s “black characters are not symbols defined in opposition to whiteness; they are the living people who were, physically at least, on the periphery of O’Connor’s own world.” She portrayed her black characters in a more authentic way than William Faulkner; she “didn’t use them as vessels of sympathy or scorn; she simply–and complexly–drew from life.” And O’Connor’s racists were realer, more evil than Faulkner’s bigots: they were the nice ladies who patronized black children on the bus, or the old woman “who loves to regale her grandchildren with stories about the ‘pickaninnies’ of her antebellum youth.” Those women “wouldn’t know grace if it slapped them in the face–which it often does.”
Like many, I introduce O’Connor with “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” but I think “Parker’s Back” delivers the best intellectual slap. The story’s theological pivot–a misunderstanding of a character’s tattoo of Christ as an act of idolatry rather than iconography–can be explained to students once the story is experienced on a dramatic level.
The story shows how O’Connor’s understanding of bodies was formed by her Catholicism, and through her own suffering from lupus. She refined “Parker’s Back” while home at Andalusia twenty pounds lighter after four blood transfusions, and finished the story within a month of her death in August, 1964. Biographer Brad Gooch notes that O’Connor “devoted every inch of her consciousness” to “Parker’s Back” and another story, “Judgment Day,” and that dedication shows. Parker’s body, identity, and soul transform within the story. He never has a sense of “wonder in himself” until he sees a performer tattooed head to foot. A lapsed Methodist, Parker undergoes a spiritual awakening when he watches the performer “[flex] his muscles so that the arabesque of men and beasts and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own.” The sight of this man is the first clue for Parker “that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed.”
Parker soon gets a tattoo, and the process is Catholic in sentiment: “It hurt very little, just enough to make it appear to Parker to be worth doing.” Those tattoos are the first thing that simultaneously attracts and repels his future wife, Sarah Ruth. She is a fundamentalist caricature who “insisted that the pictures on the skin were vanity of vanities” and “thought churches were idolatrous.” In order to keep her around, though, Parker decides to get a religious tattoo on his back.
This is where I pause the story. If the students have been paying close attention, they should recognize this is a fool’s errand. Sarah Ruth rejects her husband’s tattoos not because of their subjects, but their defacement of his body. Parker misunderstands this. His conversation with the tattoo artist encapsulates the entire story:
The artist went over to a cabinet at the back of the room and began to look over some art books. “Who are you interested in?” he said, “saints, angels, Christs or what?”
“God,” Parker said.
“Father, Son or Spirit?”
“Just God,” Parker said impatiently. “Christ. I don’t care. Just so it’s God.”
Parker is the classic O’Connor character, a man who cannot “see” or understand those who surround him, whose blindness hides God. His large tattoo requires two days of work, and so he spends the night at a Christian mission, where the “only light was from a phosphorescent cross glowing at the end of the room.” He can only see the “little red and blue and ivory and saffron squares” of the work in progress, not the Christ to come.
When Parker returns home, Christ on his back, sensitive readers know the reunion will not end well. O’Connor is not a writer of mundane surprises. She is a writer of transformations. Sarah Ruth refuses to open the door for her husband, saying “It ain’t nobody I know,” which symbolically could refer to Parker or to the tattooed image of Christ on his back. She screams: “God? God don’t look like that!” Parker asks how Sarah Ruth would know the look of God, and she responds “he don’t look . . . He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.” She beats Parker with a broom until “large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ.”
The final paragraph is pure O’Connor: “She stamped the broom two or three times on the floor and went to the window and shook it out to get the taint of him off it. Still gripping it, she looked toward the pecan tree and her eyes hardened still more. There he was–who called himself Obadiah Elihue–leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.”
Flannery O’Connor reminds us that the best way to read a story is to encounter the work on its own merits. A student, O’Connor writes, needs to have the tools of understanding “proper to the structure of the work, tools proper to the craft. They are tools that operate inside the work and not outside it; they are concerned with how this story is made and with what makes it work as a story.” O’Connor’s interior idea of art helps literature students experience words and not merely project theories. Her fiction helps young writers craft stories and not sermons, religious or otherwise. She warns “for the reading of literature ever to become a habit and a pleasure, it must first be a discipline.” We might think her intonations stern, but we are lucky to have her as a teacher.