The Magazine

Southern Gothic

The universal voice in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By SHAWN MACOMBER
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Gooch mines innumerable similarly revealing nuggets from O'Connor's stint at the Georgia State College for Women ("Although the majority of you like the 'my love has gone now I shall moan' type of work, we will give you none of it," she writes in her first editor's note for the school's Corinthian), life on Andalusia ("I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation. In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both"), the Iowa Writer's Workshop ("She was a lovely girl, but scared the boys to death with her irony," a mentor recalls), and the alcohol, drug, and free love-addled Yaddo artists' retreat in Saratoga Springs ("You survive in this atmosphere by minding your own business and by having plenty of your business to mind, and by not being afraid to be different from the rest of them").

Different she was. "You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you," she advised. The shoving virtually guaranteed O'Connor would exist between worlds.

Not that she felt particularly adrift. "I stayed away from the time I was 20 until I was 25 with the notion that the life of my writing depended upon my staying away," she wrote to author Cecil Dawkins. "I would certainly have persisted in that delusion had I not got very ill and had to come home. The best of my writing has been done here."

Indeed, some of O'Connor's most oft-quoted lines--"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"; "I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic"--are drawn from her public defenses of the South.

Yet in her own hometown Wise Blood was passed around in brown paper bags and hidden in closets like pornography. Longstanding Milledgeville scuttlebutt holds that her unsuspecting aunt spent a week in bed, horrified after reading the book, drafting apology notes to the priests she'd proudly sent copies. This reaction was not limited to family and neighbors: O'Connor's first college writing instructor, apparently no convert to Hazel Motes's Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, mused to a journalist, "The character who dies in the last chapter could have done the world a great favor by dying in the first chapter instead."

To be sure, writing was not missionary work for O'Connor. "When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one," she noted. But neither her Roman Catholic faith nor her stringent moral code can truly be untangled from her fiction. To O'Connor there was "nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism," and she refused to sugarcoat the ugliness of sin or the arduous, uncertain process of redemption. A 1953 Christmas card to O'Connor from Robert Lowell captured this perfectly: "Both the baptizing and the homicidal lunatic are fearfully good," Lowell wrote.

Hazel Motes almost certainly doth protest too much when he insists, "I'm not a preacher." The cabbie's response, however, is nonetheless instructive:

"I understand," the driver said. "It ain't anybody perfect on this green earth of God's, preachers nor nobody else. And you can tell people better how terrible sin is if you know from your own personal experience."

O'Connor's most intense work offers a vicarious experience of sin. She saw evil not as "a problem to be solved but a mystery to be endured." The enduring is not a pleasant prospect. In The Violent Bear It Away, young Francis Tarwater, told by a madman he would soon become a prophet, stands in a field

.  .  . afraid that if he let his eye rest for an instant longer than was needed to place something--a spade, a hoe, the mule's hind quarters before his plow, the red furrow under him--that the thing would suddenly stand before him, strange and terrifying, demanding that he name it and name it justly and be judged for the name he gave it.

Flannery O'Connor named names, and it is precisely this which makes her work so challenging. A niece of O'Connor's close friend Maryat Lee once asked her aunt why O'Connor "made Mary Grace so ugly" in the story "Revelation."

"Because Flannery loved her," Lee, who the cruel yet socially conscious character was in part modeled after, answered--as Gooch notes, "wisely."