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Happy Birthday, Freak! Getting to Know Flannery O’Connor
There are some authors with whom you find an instant kinship; you read their prose and your soul expands in a chorus of “yes! yes! yes!” and you feel you have found a friend. When you discover later that they’ve been dead for decades, you feel a little heavy inside, as if someone had tied a lead fishing weight to the end of one of your heartstrings.
I did not feel this way about Flannery O’Connor. Not at first, anyway.
My first encounter with her, in fact, wasn’t really an authentic encounter at all. A friend posted a quote attributed to O’Connor on Facebook. I used it later in a scholarship essay, and was invited to interview.
The panel questioned me about the quote: where did I find it? What were my thoughts on O’Connor? What works of hers had I read?
The interview had been going fairly well, but at these queries my heart sank. I had found the quote–unsourced–on the internet. The only O’Connor I had ever read was a vaguely-recollected essay. Shoot.
Reader, I am ashamed to say that, instead of admitting my shortcomings, I tried to wiggle around the questions. I talked about the importance of Catholic female writers. I dodged pointed queries. I made things up. Some sort of violent grace must have preserved me from utter destruction at the hands of the panel, because I’m sure they saw through my pathetic ruses.
After the interview, I decided to go and actually read some O’Connor.
I went to the library and left with Everything That Rises Must Converge, O’Connor’s final collection of short stories. I tucked in, and the birth of my relationship with Flannery O’Connor began.
Like most births, it was a violent, gory process. O’Connor’s characters are brutes, bigots, and boneheads. They throw books at each other, and shout scripture-addled profanities, and smash tractors into trees, and bludgeon each others’ brains out on rocks. I knew O’Connor explored religion, human nature, the role of violent grace, and the southern mind, but I was unprepared for her method. Don’t get me wrong: her fiction is not a prose rendition of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But still, I was shocked. How could a human being–let alone a lady (and a southern lady at that!)–write such horrific things? In my mind, O’Connor was an incomprehensible freak. I returned her to the library.
And then, quite by accident, I stumbled on this article by Ralph C. Wood in which he basically gives a short curriculum for reading–and understanding–Flannery O’Connor. For me, the best piece of advice he gave was to read some of O’Connor’s letters from The Habit of Being.
The letters showed me O’Connors human side–she wasn’t a freak; in fact, she was really quite a delightful lady–and also put her philosophy (both of man, and of literature) into more accessible terms than her highly symbolic and deeply layered prose. In reading her letters, I finally came to understand and appreciate both O’Connor and her fiction.
This coming Monday, March 25, marks the anniversary of what would have been Flannery O’Connor’s 88th birthday. Is she a weirdo? Maybe. But she’s also one of my favorite authors. If you haven’t read her before, I encourage you to pick up one of her works, and check out Ralph C. Wood’s article for pointers on how to begin. And regardless of whether you have read Flannery before, I encourage you to read her letters from The Habit of Being. She’s one humdinger of a lady, and a friend of mine that I am overjoyed to share with you.
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