When 2020 dawned, I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions. Instead I promised that I would nurture some positive habits and choose some activities that would improve my life in small ways. One of the small changes I promised myself was to read at least one of Flannery O’Connor’s works.
Years ago I loved reading Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner and Mark Twain. They took me right to the edge of the mighty Mississippi and there I sat listening to the river boat’s whistle blow. They all showed me the darker places in the human spirit and flavoured their words with the hope that maybe, just maybe, our species can rise above our basest nature. This is the quality I was hoping to find in O’Connor. She did not disappoint.
Listen to me read this review:
A decade ago I was fortunate to visit Savannah, Georgia, and a trolley tour took us right by the childhood home of Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor. In 1938, when O’Connor was a teenager, her family, mother Regina (Cline) and father Edward, moved from Savannah to Andalusia Farm near Milledgeville, GA. Mary Flannery O’Connor was the couple’s only child.
When Mary was fifteen her father died of systemic lupus erythematosus, more commonly known as lupus. This same disease would afflict Mary at the age of 27 and finally end her life at 39 years old.
Following her father’s death in 1941, Mary and her mother stayed on the farm at Milledgeville. There, Mary attended Georgia State College for Women (GSCW) where she edited Corinthian, the college’s literary quarterly. It was during this time that Mary’s talent became obvious. She wrote fiction, essays, and sometimes poetry which she contributed to this publication.
At GSCW, Mary majored in the social sciences and took several English courses besides. Her classmates remember her as being very shy. When Mary completed her studies at GSCW, she received a scholarship to study journalism at the State University of Iowa. After Mary’s first term in that program, she asked Paul Engle, the head of the Writers’ Workshop at the university, if he would allow her to enter the creative writing program. From there, O’Connor went on to establish herself as a strong voice in American literature.
Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.
― Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor was a delicious surprise to me. Her writing is dark and her characters, twisted. She spices up plotlines with dashes of sudden violence and pinches of unexpected humour.
I started with Wise Blood, O’Connor’s 1952 novel. It is strange in the best way, filled with creepy people that exist on the social fringes and stare for uncomfortably long periods of time at normal life as it passes them by. It’s this gothic quality that has me in suspense and keeps me reading on. Everyone and every situation in which O’Connor’s creations find themselves feels so tenuous, so tightly stretched that I’m just waiting for something to snap. And snap it will. I got halfway through a digital copy of Wise Blood before a paper book arrived for me from the Edmonton Public Library.
A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories is a collection of O’Connor’s short stories published in May, 1955 by Harcourt, Brace and Company. I set down my tablet, picked up that book, and began turning those good old paper pages.
A few years ago when I first opened up Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, I recall feeling like his work was a literary vitamin, something I should swallow not because I’d like it but because ingesting it would be good for me. Admittedly, I felt mildly the same way about Flannery O’Connor’s writing.
Imagine my delight when she took me on a wild ride with men who steal women’s glass eyes and wooden legs; with outlaws who shoot children and women just to get them to shut up; and people who kill out of fear but lacking a real reason to be afraid.
No, O’Connor doesn’t reveal the best in folks. Instead she shines a light on all our human pettiness, prejudice, neuroticism, and racism. Somehow, though, hope of redemption is there in her work, a theme as silent and as strong as the Mississippi’s undertow. Grace is offered to her misguided and profoundly-isolated characters if they would only choose to accept it. Mostly, they don’t.
An excerpt from A Good Man Is Hard to Find
Here I am reading an excerpt from the title story of O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories. The story begins with a bickering family in the living room of their home preparing to leave for a short vacation. The grandmother is telling the family about The Misfit, an outlaw she’s just read about in the newspaper and how he’s on the loose in the area. The children’s father, Bailey, is grouchy and his wife is quiet and seems disengaged. The children are complaining and disrespectful.
The grandmother doesn’t want to leave the family cat alone for three days because she is afraid he would miss her too much and not be safe in the house alone. She smuggles the cat in a basket that sits with her in the backseat. All is well with this arrangement until it isn’t.
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Mistfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”
– The Misfit, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories
I start reading the story after the family has been on the road for a while. They’ve already stopped at a restaurant for lunch and are continuing their journey when the grandmother remembers a plantation she used to visit as a girl. She convinces her son to turn back a ways and head down the dirt road where she is certain the house still stands. Before they reach their destination, the grandmother realizes that the house she recalls was not in Georgia but in Tennessee.
Listen to me read this excerpt:
I wanted to include a little bit about my mother’s experience with an autoimmune disease that’s related to lupus. This personal information didn’t suit the book review format and so I created a page here where you can read that story.
Take care and thanks for visiting.
“Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”
~ Flannery O’Connor