Sunday, December 2, 2007

Flannery O'Connor, Amen

I’ve been dazzled, awed, and humbled by the Sistine Chapel, Notre Dame, Chartres, and other medieval monuments to man’s Christian God. Nonetheless, the gorgeous St. John The Baptist Cathedral in Savannah, within sight of the childhood home of Flannery O’Connor, is enough to make anyone regret not being a Catholic and gives me a new appreciation for her Catholicism. I always dismiss to the back pews analysis of Flannery O’Connor’s writing in terms of her religion. When I read her, I remember the taste of cornbread and collard greens, but when I try to write about her, all my ideas and vocabulary come from the church. I suspect she would get a wry smile out of this.

Born in Savannah, she lived 13 years at 207 East Charlton St, on Lafayette Square. In the back yard of this house, Mary Flannery O’Connor, age 5, taught a chicken to walk backwards, an event captured on film by Pathe News. She later raised swans, geese, ducks, and peacocks on the farm she called Andalusia, on U.S. Highway 441 in the red clay and pine trees of Baldwin County, near Milledgeville. Both of these homes are maintained with reverence and are open to the public. Visitors to Andalusia get to see the PBS video of O'Connor's, "The Displaced Person," which was filmed on site. The day my wife and I stopped in, the place was empty but for Craig Amason, executive director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation, and his friendly conversation and extensive knowledge were our great luck. A Georgia historical marker just across the highway from the Andalusia hayfield was dedicated this year. O'Connor family friend Mary Barbara Tate spoke at the ceremony: “Those of us who came here years ago to rock on the porch, watch the cows in the pond, gather around the dining table, or talk to Regina over her sewing have a special joy in turning into this dirt driveway knowing that at the end is the place where Flannery O'Connor wrote her stories.” Atlanta novelist Todd Sentell, author of TOONAMINT OF CHAMPIONS, describes the dedication of the Georgia historical marker at Andalusia in "The Intersection of Pick-up Trucks and Holy Water." Mr. Sentell currently teaches Georgia history at Mill Springs Academy in Alpharetta and lists his literary influences as Flannery O'Connor and Lewis Grizzard. TS O’Rama has put together “If Flannery Had A Blog,” a clever and at the same time respectful digest of her non-fiction writings.

Flannery O’Connor is by head and shoulders the only true literary giant Georgia has produced. If you can think of someone who even comes close, let me know, and I will make sure to add to my reading list. If you think someone is better, keep it to yourself, because you are wrong. Flannery O’Connor died in 1964 at the age of 39 of lupus. Only a year or so before that, I was working on The Atlanta Journal as the youngest of young reporters. A more senior reporter scheduled an interview with Flannery O’Connor for another publication and invited me to tag along. However, I had no interest in a Catholic lady writer who still lived with her mother and raised peacocks on a farm in central Georgia. How young was I? That young. The other reporter gave me a copy of “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” I still wasn’t interested. “You’re a damn fool,” my friend said. All these years later the only thing I can say now is maybe I could have been a better and wiser person “if it had been somebody there to shoot” me “ever minute.”

Flannery O’Connor advised a pen pal about writing, “You would probably do just as well to get that plot business out of your head and start simply with a character or anything that you can make come alive…. Wouldn’t it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write rather than to impose one?” Emory University has opened to the public 274 such letters from Flannery O’Connor to Betty Hester, an Atlanta reader who began their correspondence in 1955 by observing that the main subject of O’Connor’s writing was God. The author responded, “I would like to know who this is who understands my stories.” Ms. Hester worked as a file clerk in an Atlanta credit bureau. She lived a reclusive life and was a lesbian. If you hear whispers, they are only from those who fundamentally miss the point of Flannery O’Connor as a character in her own story, one not so much of this world and certainly not of this body, unless it be Body of Christ.

Copyright 2007 by William C. Cotter


Heidi said...

In almost total agreement with all that has been said on P.P.B.'s magnificent blogs--including most recent position on Ms. Flannery O'Connor. Never shall I not think of john wesley and June Star when riding down just the ride deserted pine road; hating their lazy bratty slobiness but--hating that they must be killed, all the same (although they must). BUT--although I have no interest in reading his novels--I do believe there was ONE other Georgia writer I feel also deserving of serious consideration--thought a true PRICK by most accords, his writing must stand on its own, and SOME of the writing, I believe was up there with the best (early POEMS, to be sure) & so I offer up for consideration James Dickey, writer of poetry, at least, this being one such example, for evidence:

The Heaven of Animals

Here they are. The soft eyes open.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains
It is grass rolling
Under their feet forever.

Having no souls, they have come,
Anyway, beyond their knowing.
Their instincts wholly bloom
And they rise.
The soft eyes open.

To match them, the landscape flowers,
Outdoing, desperately
Outdoing what is required:
The richest wood,
The deepest field.

For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt, as they have done,
But with claws and teeth grown perfect,

More deadly than they can believe.
They stalk more silently,
And crouch on the limbs of trees,
And their descent
Upon the bright backs of their prey

May take years
In a sovereign floating of joy.
And those that are hunted
Know this as their life,
Their reward: to walk

Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain

At the cycle’s center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.

James Dickey, 1961

Paw Paw Bill said...

We gather at the roaring fireplace to warm ourselves after the winter water of the River Lesse, the chilly canoe ride through the Ardennes valley with castles high above. The country inn serves plates of pickles and cheeses and crusty breads. We recite Shakespeare and Frost and Eliot, and Rostand, and as we end a refrain, drink dark, sweet beer. It’s my dream; I’ll drink what I please. We argue about writers the way Hemingway characters talk worshipfully of The Great DiMaggio. “The Heaven of Animals” is a really fine poem, maybe Dickey’s best. Still, all in all, he’s no DiMaggio. Not in my dream, my heaven of animals who write.

annette said...

Hey, Pawpaw Bill. I think Dickey was an animal who could write. Or maybe he just wanted to be thought of that way. The heaven of animals is a fine, if modest poem. See also, "Angina". My personal memory of Dickey: At a cocktail party having felt up every woman there in the presence of his wife, then in the kitchen saying to a former roommate (male, a painter) "there we were in that rundown appartment, and all the while, in here (tapping his forehead) PURE POETRY! PURE POETRY." Well, though, he was drunk. When was he not. F. O'Connor once said in a letter she didn't read contemporary poets. They seemed to be more interested in acting like poets were supposed to act than in actually writing. As James Dickey lived his life and became drunker and even more egotistical, he wrote poems like the one about the airline stewardess falling out of the sky...some sorta metaphor for the modern woman getting down off her feminist high-horse. Puleez!Repeated intellectual forays into myth to interest academic critics. It worked. His latter work is outlandish, sensational, violent though strangely inert and ultimately boring. I think by the end of his career he thought even his farts were profound. Mainly, they just stunk.

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