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‘The Habit of Art’

Flannery O’Connor, illustrator

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
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Milledgeville, Georgia

Drawing of a family sitting in a living room

Illustration for ‘Clubs,’ The Spectrum, Spring 1944

Georgia State College & University

In 1955 Flannery O’Connor wrote to her friend Elizabeth McKee that “the only way to get here”—her home, the antebellum farm Andalusia—“is by bus or buzzard.” Yet many came to see her, and many still come. In fact, there’s a small sign to let you know where to turn off Highway 441 for Andalusia—it’s right across the street from a barbeque place—but the sign is so small you might mistake it for a back or side entrance. Go past the sign, and within a few minutes’ drive you’ll see O’Connor’s red-roofed house set on a slight hill and girded by pecan trees.

For the past eight years Andalusia and its surrounding acres have been open to the public. In that time, nearly 30,000 visitors have made the pilgrimage to Milledgeville, where old wrought iron signs declare in white letters the town a “bird sanctuary.” Here O’Connor grew up and, weakened by bouts of lupus in her late twenties, returned for the last 13 years of her life, and wrote.

Her slender, meticulously wrought corpus, shot through with Gothic sensibility in its depiction of what she famously termed the “Christ-haunted South,” has afforded her a high spot in 20th-century American fiction. The popularity of her stories has increased steadily since her death in 1964 at 39, making her a misfit in the mainstream. When the Library of America published her complete works in 1988, the volume outsold William Faulkner’s, published three years prior. And just this past summer Penguin released A Good Hard Look, in which novelist Ann Napolitano uses O’Connor doubly as muse and character in a story set in Milledge-ville. (The dust jacket features her favorite bird: the peacock.)

Despite the uptick in O’Connorania, there is a portion of her work that remains little explored: her art. Like many writers, from William Blake to her contemporary Elizabeth Bishop, O’Connor understood the double-headed definition of the ancient Greek word graphos, which can refer to a mark as a word or as an image. O’Connor did not have pretensions about what was clearly her secondary gift; she painted for pleasure, and because it made her a better observer of her country. To young writers seeking advice, she wrote, “You have got to learn to paint with words,” and argued that any discipline, be it mathematics or theology—but especially drawing—would help them to see and, ultimately, to judge. For judgment, which is critical to fiction, begins and ends in sight: “Everything has its testing point in the eye,” she wrote, “and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.”

A phrase O’Connor used in her book of essays and speeches, Mystery and Manners, published posthumously in 1969, is “the habit of art,” which she culled from the book she “cut her aesthetic teeth” on, Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain. By Maritain’s phrase (which is not truly his, as its roots extend to Cicero’s writing on rhetoric) she does not mean artistic activity—though that, too, has its place—but the quality or disposition of mind that yields such activity:

Writing is something in which the whole personality takes part—the conscious as well as the unconscious mind. Art is the habit of the artist and habits have to be rooted deep in the personality.

O’Connor displayed the beginnings of such a habit early. In high school she fashioned lino-cut cartoons by the dozen. Classmates didn’t think of her so much as a budding writer but a quirky, constant cartoonist—the next James Thurber, as one peer put it. She earned that reputation by holding the art editorship of the Peabody Palladium, for which she wrought 120 block print cartoons in five years. Then at Georgia State College for Women she made one print per week for the literary magazine, the Colonnade, and would at times illustrate her own articles. After her freshman year, the Macon Telegraph ran a profile of her with this headline: “Mary O’Connor Shows Talent as Cartoonist.”

She likened thinking up an idea for a cartoon to “catching a rabbit,” and then tying it to something current on campus, such as the sudden inundation of WAVES in 1942 (one of her two references to World War II) or the much-dreaded Physical Fitness Day. In her senior year she drew the endpapers for the annual, the Spectrum, depicting a bird’s-eye view of students shunting to and from class along angular paths. While studying journalism at the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, she submitted cartoon after cartoon to the New Yorker, which sent her, she wrote, “a lot of encouragin’ rejection slips.”

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