When I was an undergraduate in the mid 1980s, The Chronicle of Higher Education surveyed ninety-nine literature professors, asking which works written since the end of World War II would be still studied one-hundred years hence. Flannery O’Connor was the only female author whose work made the resulting list.
O’Connor’s canonicity seemed — probably was — a fait accompli. O’Connor’s literary reputation thrived at the intersection of Women’s Studies, Religious Studies, and Southern (regional) Studies. We didn’t really have Disabilities Studies back then, but we do now.
So it surprised me momentarily when I was discussing the new documentary, Flannery, with a teaching colleague, that he reported not being able to get his current students to care much about O’Connor’s work. Neither, I realized, had I.
Maybe that only came as a belated surprise because I haven’t tried in a long time, which begs the question of how deep my own affinity runs. O’Connor’s short stories were staples of literary anthologies that I had gladly included in Freshman Composition courses or gen-ed literary surveys, but once I progressed in my own career, I focused more on novels and less on stories. Once I stopped teaching introductory surveys, I stopped teaching O’Connor. I didn’t miss O’Connor, I realized; maybe I was even relieved to not have the expectation of fostering a deeper affinity than I had ever had myself. I doubt O’Connor will ever disappear from school curricula, but was it possible that her seemingly ubiquitous popularity was more faddish than we cared to admit in the late 20th century?
My colleague did not go into much detail about why his students did not warm to O’Connor, but the author’s depiction of race was mentioned. The knee-jerk response to such objections in my own undergraduate years was to dismiss such complaints as coming from readers who lacked the sophistication to distinguish between author and character (or author and narrator). The grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I recall telling one community college class in the 90s, does uses racist language, but the narrator never does.
That’s as true today as it ever was, but I don’t know if it is as an exhaustive or satisfactory answer as I used to think. Flannery does a better job than most academic summaries of O’Connor’s life and career at including the eyebrow-raising details that literary hagiographies too often rush past. Specifically, it mentions that she “testified” against Agnes Smedley when the Yado director was accused of being a communist and quotes from a letter in which she refuses to meet James Baldwin in her home town of Millegeville (though she does offer to meet with him elsewhere.)
The Smedley incident is alluded to but not thoroughly documented. The film contextualizes the red scare of the late 40s as being fed by Catholicism, yet it also insists that O’Connor’s “testimony” against Smedley, whatever it might have been, was the product of an infatuation with Robert Lowell that left her too much under his influence. (Less shameful to be a love smitten college coed than an intolerant anti-communist, I guess….) Similarly, her rebuff of Baldwin is portrayed as anything but racism — as an invalid she couldn’t afford to rock the boat less she had to move; as an artist she couldn’t afford to become a pariah in the culture from whence she drew her artistic inspiration. When one interviewee said that O’Connor understood that if she met Baldwin in the South it would be a “civil rights” statement and not just a friendly meeting of artists, I rolled my eyes. Wasn’t that the point? At best civil rights statements were less important than protecting her own social comfort. “I observe the traditions of the society I feed on…” is the O’Connor quote used to explain her refusal to meet Baldwin. It’s hard (though maybe not yet impossible) to parse that sentence any other way than, “Well, it’s not personal; it’s just that one has to engage in racist traditions if one lives in the South…”
I don’t mean to suggest that either of those actions is indefensible, only that the documentary is a bit too quick to defend them and to rush to a verdict of “not guilty” before all the arguments have been heard. O’Connor scholarship has always suffered (in my opinion) a tad from being run by those too close to the author and too emotionally invested in casting her in the best possible light. Perhaps that is inevitable; perhaps it takes a generation or more before historians, biographers, and critics can begin to evaluate with less personal bias.
If the above makes it sound like I disliked Flannery, that’s not exactly right either. While I do wish that O’Connor studies were further along in the pendulum swing away from personal testimonials and more toward historical analysis, I think this biography takes some small steps in the right direction. I would have liked less biographical criticism (which documentary films almost always engage in) and more literary analysis. In a tantalizing thirty seconds, the film hints at the possibility that the pivotal moment in O’Connor’s career had less to do with writing instruction from Lowell and more to do with reading lists given her by Paul Engle. How does one learn to be a writer? Is it by practice (as the term “workshop” suggests)? Is it by instruction in methodology? Is it by imitation? It is ironic, perhaps even paradoxical, that O’Connor’s success is so often attributed to her pitch-perfect caricaturization of the her surrounding culture and yet her maturity as an artist came, ostensibly, from a wider exposure to writers of different times and places.
There is a sort of proud provincialism in O’Connor (perhaps in most Southern or even most Regional authors) that I find runs counter to my own reasons for loving literary art and my own beliefs about how it engenders empathy and, hence, morality. Yet whenever we are on the cusp of dismissing O’Connor as merely a product of her time and place, she will defy expectations, such as when she responds to Betty Hester’s confession of lesbianism. Perhaps the physical immobilization and isolation created by lupus made O’Connor more concerned with nurturing “spiritual” relationships (which is what she calls her friendship with Hester) than with observing the traditions of society that made it impossible for her to act the part of ally to Baldwin. Maybe it was just the passage of time.
One of the weaknesses of almost all literary biographies is that in attempting to craft a coherent narrative of any human life, we too often forget how much people can change in the time on earth allotted them. We tend to look for events in childhood that hinted at what the adult would become. Such attempts assume a person was always going to be whatever she eventually became. Flannery is at its best when it focuses on the details of O’Connor’s life, which are interesting in and of themselves, and stops trying to make those details the key to understanding her fiction.
Flannery opens in “virtual” cinemas on July 17, 2020. A list of participating venues is available here.