This article first appeared at The Christian Manifesto.
I can pinpoint the year I first read Flannery O’Connor. It was 1976, I was 24 going on 25, and a new person had joined the Public Affairs Department at Shell Oil where I worked. She came from a well known Houston family, had lots of eccentric relatives and was an extraordinarily fine writer. She and I talked about Shell, the oil industry, relatives, literature and writing; most of all, writing.
She was shocked that I hadn’t read Flannery O’Conner.
I started with Three by Flannery O’Connor, which included The Violent Bear It Away, Wise Blood and A Good Man is Hard to Find. From there I went to The Complete Stories, and then to Mystery and Manners, which included her essays and speeches. Finally, I read The Habit of Being, her letters collected and published in 1979, quite some time after her death (in 1964 from lupus).
There are all kinds of stories about Miss O’Connor, some true and many apocryphal. One that could be true or untrue is that John Kennedy O’Toole left New Orleans to drive to Georgia to see her, learned she had died some years before, and killed himself, leaving his manuscript for his mother to worry over. His mother did, made a huge pest of herself, and finally convinced author Walker Percy to read it. The manuscript became A Confederacy of Dunces and won the Pulitzer Prize (this is still the only novel I’ve read that’s set in what I recognize as authentic New Orleans).
O’Connor’s works were – are – extraordinary. She is often considered a Southern writer, and she is that in the sense she was born and lived in the South. But she is more than that, too.
Her writing bears the likeness of William Faulkner but in a wholly original way. She is a kind of heir to Faulkner, particularly in the sense of having challenged the norms of literature and writing.
But, as if not more importantly, she is also the heir to G.K. Chesterton. Like him, she was Catholic. As author Bret Lott points out in an essay on O’Connor in a 2012 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, she is a Catholic writer even more than she is a Southern writer, and that’s something not normally taught in the English classes where her stories are studied.
Lott says something else in his essay (not available online, unfortunately) that strikes me as profoundly true: you will not find her in her stories. When you read one of her stories, you forget who’s written it; the point is the story, not the author. In an age of instant and often fleeting celebrity, her stories still resonate – and one of the reasons may very well be that she refused to be one. For her, the story, not the author, was the story, and she was not very patient with questions about what stories meant or what different aspects or elements or plot devices or characters were really about. She would tell such questioners to “read the story.”
She had a model for this, of course, and that was Jesus. He spent 33 years on this planet, and then physically removed himself from the Christian narrative – the narrative that he is still the point of. In many ways, the fact that he’s physically removed makes the mystery all the greater and all the more important, and he’s left us his story to study, to tell and to live. And one day he’ll return to complete it.
It was that mystery that defined O’Connor’s writing. She’s been dead for almost 50 years, but her influence has, if anything, grown in the intervening years. She left us with a number of remarkable stories, stories that “tell” just as well now as they did when she first published them.