This Sunday, August 3rd will be the 50th anniversary of the passing of the great, prematurely taken Flannery O’Connor. She only lived to thirty-nine years, but she wrote two novels—of which I’ve never read, so I can’t assess their stature—but she left a body of short stories, thirty-one in total, that rivals the best short stories writers ever.
CrisesMagazine has a wonder feature on her life and work by Regis Martin.
Her life bore such eloquence of pain that when she left it—August 3, 1964—her friend Thomas Merton could recall no other writer of the last century to compare her with. Rather, he said, she summoned the voice of Sophocles: an artist whose vision had likewise reached into the dark places of the human heart, there to reveal with “all the truth and all the craft…man’s fall and his dishonor.”
Flannery O’Connor has been dead a half-century now, and the weight of her reputation remains as fixed as Faulkner’s. A remarkable achievement for someone whose actual published work amounted to a couple of novels and a handful of short stories. But altogether astonishing in light of her last years, the fourteen or so she spent literally dying of lupus. A rare and terrible disease, its cumulative debilities failed utterly to diminish the grace of her spirit. “All my life,” she would say, “death and suffering have been brothers to my imagination.”
Acceptance of her end would appear to have come fairly early. It could hardly have come easy. For all the brave talk of brotherhood, is any bond ever possible with enemies as fearsome as these? Amid the ruinous terms of this world, death remains the ultimate evil, and in every brush with suffering, be it ever so brief, there is always some foreshadowing, some showing of the skull beneath the skin. Yet she steeled herself to submit to both suffering and death, cheerfully acquiescing to whatever losses each in turn would exact. Always she sought passive diminishment, that condition of suffering whose meaning she’d first learned from Teilhard de Chardin, which taught her to endure every affliction she hadn’t the capacity to escape. All this she set about doing because, not unlike the sufferings of Christ, the terrible diminishment of his cross, such sufferings bring to those who have borne them well a triumph and consummation equal to his own. It is nothing less than the Christian life itself, pressed to the point of sheer anagogical extremity, without, however, any correlative loss of freedom or hope. Instead, there accrues such enlargement of soul that grace alone may account for it. Of which the outpouring exists in complete, scandalous disproportion to the data of one’s own crushing debility.
It is a wonderful article and if you have any interest or curiosity in her work you should read it. The article summarizes her vision:
How does one disabuse the godless? By telling tales that render most truthfully the consequences of their belief that he is. Here she would flesh out what clearly must be among the more ludicrous aspects of our fall from grace, to wit, our persisting and sentimental refusal ever to acknowledge that we had.
How incisive she was in cutting through the sentimental syrup, straight to the bone and marrow of real meaning. “The stories are hard,” she would allow, “but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them.”
It is a superb gloss on the stories, the Yeatsian echo of which intimating all that is most deeply abiding in her work. In short, to see all that was there, her faith the pure light by which she was enabled to see. “The Catholic novel,” she wrote, “is not necessarily about a Christianized or Catholicized world, but one in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by.”
I want to provide a short excerpt of what might be my favorite O’Connor short story, “Parker’s Back.” O.E. Parker is a sailor with a penchant for tattoos, and he has gotten a preacher’s daughter, Sarah Ruth, pregnant, and has married her. Sarah Ruth turns out to be a hard woman, difficult to satisfy, petulant, indignant, and even nasty. Parker wants to do something that will shake her up, something that will both startle her and get her to admire him. He wants her to love him, despite being anti Christian and she being a religious woman, of the sort of hard southern Baptist type. It is not a smooth marriage to say the least. What Parker decides to do is fill in the only place on his body not covered in ink, his back, and he chooses an image of a Byzantine Christ, one whose eyes penetrate his very soul. He thinks it will penetrate her soul too. He returns home in the wee hours of the morning after not returning home for several days, sobering from a night of drinking. He knocks on the door and she has locked him out. One of the keys to the scene here is that he has been embarrassed to say what his initials stand for.
A sharp voice next to the door said, “Who’s there?”
“Me,” Parker said, “O.E.”
He waited a moment.
“Me,” he said impatiently, “O.E.”
Still no sound from inside.
He tried once more. “O.E.,” he said, bamming the door two or three more times. “O.E. Parker. You know me.”
There was a silence. Then the voice said slowly, “I don’t know no O.E.”
“Quit fooling,” Parker pleaded. “You ain’t got any business doing me this way. It’s me, old O.E., I’m back. You ain’t afraid of me.”
“Who’s there?” the same unfeeling voice said.
Parker turned his head as if he expected someone behind him to give him the answer. The sky had lighted slightly and there were two or three streaks of yellow floating above the horizon. Then as he stood there, a tree of light burst over the skyline.
Parker fell against the door as if he had been pinned there by a lance.
“Who’s there?” the voice from inside said and there was a quality about it now that seemed final. The knob rattled and the voice said peremptorily, “Who’s there, I ast you?”
Parker bent down and put his mouth near the stuffed keyhole. “Obadiah,” he whispered and all at once he felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts.
“Obadiah Elihue!” he whispered.
The door opened and he stumbled in. Sarah Ruth loomed there, hands on her hips. She began at once, “That was no hefty blonde woman you was working for and you’ll have to pay her every penny on her tractor you busted up. She don’t keep insurance on it. She came here and her and me had us a long talk and I…”
Trembling, Parker set about lighting the kerosene lamp.
“What’s the matter with you, wasting that kerosene this near daylight?” she demanded. “I ain’t got to look at you.”
A yellow glow enveloped them. Parker put the match down and began to unbutton his shirt.
“And you ain’t going to have none of me this near morning,” she said.
“Shut your mouth,” he said quietly. “Look at this and then I don’t want to hear no more out of you.” He removed the shirt and turned his back to her.
“Another picture,” Sarah Ruth growled. “I might have known you was off after putting some more trash on yourself.”
Parker’s knees went hollow under him. He wheeled around and cried, “Look at it! Don’t just say that! Look at it!”
“I done looked,” she said.
“Don’t you know who it is?” he cried in anguish.
“No, who is it?” Sarah Ruth said. “It ain’t anybody I know.”
“It’s him,” Parker said.
“God!” Parker cried.
“God? God don’t look like that!”
“What do you know how he looks?” Parker moaned. “You ain’t seen him.”
“He don’t look,” Sarah Ruth said. “He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.”
“Aw listen,” Parker groaned, “this is just a picture of him.”
“Idolatry!” Sarah Ruth screamed. “Idolatry! Enflaming yourself with idols under every green tree! I can put up with lies and vanity but I don’t want no idolator in this house!” and she grabbed up the broom and began to thrash him across the shoulders with it.
Parker was too stunned to resist. He sat there and let her beat him until she had nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ. Then he staggered up and made for the door.
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.
It’s a great story by a great writer. We lost so many more great stories by her early death. May she be smiling down at us.
By the way, I've promised to read and post on O'Connor's story, "Greenleaf." I should get to that in a few weeks to a month or so. So stay tuned.