An Inventive Storyteller is Good to Find
Until last week, I hadn’t read anything by Flannery O’Connor since high school. I had a vague memory of off-kilter characters–some harboring sinister impulses (A Good Man is Hard to Find), a story in which an artificial limb is stolen (Good Country People), and an authorial sensibility distinctly different from most of what I’d encountered so far. But when I learned the O’Connor was going to be inducted into the Poets Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine I decided it was time to learn more about her work and her life.
Born in Georgia in 1925, O’Connor spent most of her brief life in her home state. (O’Connor died at 39 from complications of lupus.) Although her stories are primarily set in the South, O’Connor preferred not to be identified as a “Southern” writer or as a Catholic one—despite her strong adherence to her faith and the role of religion in her work. Regarding her depiction of what might conservatively be called eccentrics, O’Connor said, “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.”
Her Southern ties notwithstanding, for a brief period in the spring of 1949, Upper West Siders could call O’Connor one of their own. She stayed in The Manchester, a building on Broadway and 108th Street. Today the building’s website cites “a classic, graciously proportioned pre-war apartment house that combines grand old-world Beaux Arts era details with modern amenities and conveniences.” But O’Connor’s friend Robert Fitzgerald remembered “a furnished room where she lived and worked in a drab apartment hotel on the upper West Side.” At the celebration of her life last week, also at the Cathedral of John the Divine, James Tate, who recently retired from teaching English at Dowling College, noted that while in New York City the author not only lived nearby, but prayed at The Church of the Ascension on W. 107th Street.
While researching this post I came across this recording of O’Connor reading A Good Man is Hard to Find to a live audience. At first I was surprised by the laughter some of her descriptions elicit, but as I started reading her stories I began to understand why. In The Comforts of Home, for example, a man who lives with his mother is forced to contend with her charitable impulses when she brings home a “Nimpermaniac” who then shows up naked at his bedroom door. In Everything that Rises Must Converge, another mother and son story, O’Connor describes the son’s obligation to take his mother to a “reducing class…designed for working girls over fifty, who weighed from 165 to 200 pounds.”
O’Connor’s legacy endures both in the academic setting and the popular one. For a scholarly (and accessible) perspective on the role of religion in O’Connor’s work, consider viewing Yale Professor Amy Hungerford’s two-part lecture on Wise Blood that starts here. (This is just one offering in the rich array of free on-line courses made available by the university.) Readers might also be interested to know what Bruce Springsteen said about O’Connor in a recent interview in the New York Times Book Review. When asked “to name one book that made you who you are today,” Springsteen responded:
One would be difficult, but the short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me. You could feel within them the unknowability of God, the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters, and which I find by my side every day. They contained the dark Gothicness of my childhood and yet made me feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.
For a general overview of O’Connor’s life and work, the Georgia encyclopedia offers this entry.