Mary Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) was a novelist and writer of short stories whose Southern Gothic fiction is informed by a deep Catholic faith. Born and raised in Georgia, after graduating from college, she earned a master’s degree at the University of Iowa’s prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, after which she embarked upon a career as a writer. In 1941, her father had died from lupus, and in 1952 she was diagnosed with the same disease. Undeterred by her illness, she attended Mass every day, supported local Catholic newspapers with numerous book reviews, and wrote most of her fiction. She is remembered for her short stories, which won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1972.
In this interview, Fr. Damian Ference will discuss O’Connor’s work.
Fr. Damian Ference is a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland where he serves as Vicar for Evangelization, Secretary for Parish Life and Special Ministries, and as Professor of Philosophy at Borromeo Seminary. He holds a licentiate in philosophy from The Catholic University of America and a doctorate in philosophy from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. He writes regularly on the intersection of faith and culture for a variety of outlets and is the author of the award-winning book, The Strangeness of Truth (Pauline Books & Media, 2019) and Understanding the Hillbilly Thomist: The Philosophical Foundations of Flannery O'Connor's Narrative Art (Word on Fire, 2023). Fr. Ference is the founder and director of Tolle Lege Summer Institute and is a life-time member of the Flannery O’Connor Society.
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What is missing from the preceding overview of Flannery O’Connor’s life? Quite a bit. She was also a cross trainer and an artist. Not only did she write narrative fiction. As you mentioned, she is best known for her short stories. She is also known for her two novels, her letters, and essays. However, many do not know that she was also a painter.
She liked to paint because painting helps you see and seeing is a big part of being an artist. She wrote every morning from 9:00 to 12:00, after going to Mass. Then, she spent her afternoons between visiting people, letters, or appointments. However, she also spent time painting, mainly landscapes.
In my book, I cover this interesting part of her biography and the importance for the artist to see what there is. The artist’s job is to make what she sees present to those who are reading her work or viewing her paintings.
If I recall correctly, she was not just a painter. When she was at college, she also drew many cartoons, something which would explain the humorous vein in her fiction. Yes, there are two collections of her cartoons. She was the editor of her college newspaper, and she was drawing cartoons even earlier. She would send her cartoons to The New Yorker and save her rejection slips. That is great. I save all my rejection slips because she saved hers. If you are going to be a writer, some people will not like what you are doing and that is okay. You keep on practising your craft and, eventually, someone will pick up your work.
How did Flannery O’Connor conceive the relation between her faith and her fiction? Her faith informed her fiction in that she believed that the world was: created by God; fallen as a result of the original sin; and redeemed through the salvific act of Jesus. In her letters, she says repeatedly that she writes the way that she does because she is a Catholic. It is in her blood and bones. She has an incarnational vision of the world.
This comes out in her art. Many, when they first read her work, do not understand it at all. That is why my book is entitled Understanding the Hillbilly Thomist. The title comes from a line in her early letters. She was about to go on TV and had received some early reviews of her first novel. Some had accused her of being a nihilist because her work can often be dark, violent, and grotesque. A grandmother is shot along with her whole family. One woman has her leg stolen, while another is gored by a bull. Upon a first reading, people cannot figure out why a Catholic writer is telling these stories.
However, O’Connor often uses violence, not for the sake of violence, but to waken the reader up. As she says, you need to shout to the hard of hearing and draw large, startling figures for those who are virtually blind.
Think of how a crucifix can be shocking at first. If you have not seen one before, you might wonder why in the world would someone hang an image of a man being crucified in the walls of a church or one’s home. However, if you understand that the one on the crucifix is our Incarnate Lord pouring himself out for the salvation of the world, then you appreciate that amid this violence there is a great act of love. In the same way, as I argue in my book, if you remove O’Connor’s Catholicism, specifically her Thomism, from your interpretation of her fiction, you are going miss most of what she is trying to do. I am not saying that this is the only way to interpret her, but that, if you leave that out of your interpretation, you are going to come up short.
"There is a reason why many non-Catholics, atheists, agnostics, or people without any religious affiliation, but who love good art and fiction, love her work. "
We say that she is a Catholic writer, but she did not try to present the faith directly, if I understand her correctly. Often it is insinuated or in the background. Yes, that is true. In her collection of essays, Mystery and Manners, she says in some that if you are going to be an artist, first you need to be an artist. If you do not the talent to write short stories, you should not try to evangelise people by writing a cool story. Leave that up to the short story writers because you will do more harm than good.
If you are going to be an artist, the most important thing is to be a good artist. O’Connor is an artist who is also Catholic. As a result, her Catholicism is going to come out in her art. However, you are right: it does not figure directly. Most of her stories are not about Catholics at all. Most of them are Backwoods Protestants. She has a couple references to some priests or some nuns in her stories, but for the most part she is just telling good stories an creating good art. However, because her art is good and because she is Catholic, her underlying metaphysics is there to be found. However, you are right. It is not simplistic. It is neither, as she would say, ‘vapid Catholicism’ nor about ‘pious little children’.
At beginning of one of her essays, “A Memoir of Mary Ann”, she says that stories of pious children tend to be false. This essay is her foreword for a book, written by the Hawthorn Dominican Sisters, about a girl who died of cancer at twelve years of age.
There is a reason why many non-Catholics, atheists, agnostics, or people without any religious affiliation, but who love good art and fiction, love her work. It stands on its own as excellent fiction and narrative art. People are often surprised when they realise that she was a a Catholic and a daily Mass-goer. Some have converted after making that discovery. They encountered beautiful art, were struck by it, wanted to know more about the author, started reading about her life, and concluded that if this is what Catholicism is, they could get on board with it.
Why should Catholics read Flannery O’Connor? There is a lot to read and people often wonder about where to start. Catholics should read Flannery O'Connor because she is a great narrative artist and they should be interested in anything that is true, good, and beautiful. Sometimes she shows the true by showing what is not true; the beautiful, by what is grotesque; and so on. Showing what is not is also to display or to manifest the longing for what is or what ought to be. Disfigurement, whether a shrivelled-up or missing part of the body, such as Mr. Shiftlet’s arm, is a trope in much of her fiction. Those symbols are displaying what something is and what it ought to be.
When I was a parish-priest, I used to run a summer book club. I would always pick two of Flannery O'Connor’s stories. At first, teenagers, young adults, the middle-aged, the empty-nester, and senior citizens were not sure about her. However, once they understood what she was doing and trying to accomplish, they greatly appreciated her work, along with her different way of seeing the world and engaging it.
O’Connor was a brilliant artistic genius. Whenever a Catholic reads the work of an artistic genius, it expands one's soul.
You mentioned the book club that you ran when you were a parish-priest. Is the Tolle Lege Summer Institute a continuation and expansion of that project? It was inspired by it.
I was ordained in 2003 and had many assignments at my first parish. The summer months were little slower, and as I used to read a lot during the summers, one of the things that I asked to do was a summer book club. What I found was that a lot of young people, even teenagers, were interested in reading and studying the faith. Moreover, at my first parish, I also ran the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program and was bringing teenagers into the Church every year. We also had a very large youth group at the parish.
There were some teens who were far advanced in their faith. If I catered the youth group to them, I would lose all the other kids. However, they needed special care. In the United States we have Advanced Placement (AP) courses, say, on history, English, or French. When I started working at the seminary, my colleagues and I were discussing this and discovered that there were camps for spirituality, bands, or sports for young people, but there weren’t any on the intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church. We had a seminary and faculty. Our seminarians were home during the summer, so, we had empty rooms. We also had 185 parishes in the diocese and I knew many of the youth ministers.
So we started a camp called Tolle Lege and invited young people heading into their senior year to come and study philosophy, theology, liturgy, and Catholic culture. We have been doing this for thirteen years now.
Over the first seven years, eighteen of the guys who took part joined our seminary. Not all of them stayed, but it was a great way to bring people to the seminary and see what’s there. A lot of the girls wound up being theology majors or studying philosophy. Even if they went into other areas of study, they had a deep experience, as a young adult, of what Catholicism looked like. They had learned to love reading and the liturgy of the hours. They had learned that the Church was smart and was interested in art and beauty.
The Tolle Lege programme was inspired by much of my work during my first four years as a parish priest.
For those who do not know Latin, the name, Tolle Lege, comes from the Confessions. “Take up and reed it”. It is the voice Saint Augustine hears that prompts him to pick up the New Testament and read St. Paul. Yes, that is right. Lust is the major sin that St. Augustine has been dealing with for most of his life and, at the end of Book Eight of the Confessions, he is still struggling with it. He is in his garden, with his friend Alypius, and asks, “Lord, when are you going to set me free”. Suddenly he hears a voice, like that of children, saying, “Tolle! Lege!”
Upon hearing this voice, he remembers that St Anthony of the Desert played roulette with the Bible. He would open the Scriptures and be moved by the passage he read. So, Augustine opens at Romans, reads from St Paul, feels freed, and his life changes thereafter. That is his “Tolle! Lege!” moment.
That is where the Institute’s name comes from, because much of our summer program consists in taking up and reading the tradition. St. Augustine is the patron; Flannery O’Connor, the unofficial patron. Though she is not canonised, she was such a great Catholic that we want to introduce our young people to her and the way she engaged the world.
Keep in mind that, whether she was studying at Iowa or whether she was at Yaddo, most of her colleagues or circle were not faithful Catholics. The Fitzgeralds and a few other friends were. However, a lot of the fellow artists that she hung around as fellow artists did not share her faith. She thought that she needed to know her faith well, answer for it, and do that mostly in her art, letting it for what is true and real. As John Paul II would say, she was not imposing, but she was proposing truth in her fiction. That was a big part of her mission.
What drew you to study and write on Flannery O'Connor? When I was a senior in seminary, I took a poetry workshop class with George Bilgere at John Carroll University, with which the seminary was partnered. We would write two poems a week and he would pick one each week, have one of the students read it, and then we would work on it together. He picked one of my poems and said that it reminded him of Flannery O'Connor. I took that as a compliment, took out my pen, and wrote the name to learn who this guy was.
I learned that Flannery O'Connor was not a he but a she. Her baptismal name was Mary Flannery O'Connor. She went by that name up to Graduate School, when she determined that, to get through editors who might be sexist, she would drop the Mary and just go by Flannery O'Connor.
I spent the summer reading most of her fiction. Then, I started getting into her essays. What really hooked me was The Habit of Being, a collection of her letters, which I reading as a seminary intern in theology and when my mother was in her last year. She had liver cancer. This was her last bout with it. She wound up spending fifty-three weeks at a cancer home run by the Hawthorne Dominican Sisters. When I told her nurse, Sister Kevin, that I was reading a book that kept mentioning her order, she asked, “Who you are reading? Flannery?” “Yes,” I said, “how did you know?” “I knew her.”
When she was young, the Dominican sister who was my mother’s nurse had worked at the cancer home in Atlanta, Georgia and used to visit Flannery O'Connor on her farm. Flannery was a friend of those Dominican Sisters and bequeathed her peacocks to them.
All these things were lining up: my poetry class, my reading of Flannery O’Connor, and the fact that my mother’s nurse had been one of her friends. When I was ordained, the sisters gave me some pictures of Flannery O'Conner as a gift. She just kept following me through my life.
When I was sent to study for a doctorate, I chose the Angelicum and decided I would really love to write about Flannery O'Connor. When I got there, there was a Dominican, Fr Thomas Joseph White, who came from Georgia, whose conversion was influenced partly by his reading of Flannery O'Connor, and who belongs to a band called the Hillbilly Thomists. All those stars lined up. It was not a coincidence or happenstance. So I read that as God, in his providence, calling me to undertake this study.
I have been down to Georgia on pilgrimage quite a few times. In some ways, I felt that Flannery was inviting me, a priest, to do some of this work. Perhaps that sounds weird but that this has been part of my vocation as a priest: to spend a few years doing some hard study and eventually turn the dissertation into a book.
Before we go on to discuss the books that you have selected, do you have any thoughts on Ethan Hawke's upcoming film on Flannery O'Connor? I definitely want to see it. I have watched Bishop Barron's interview on Word on Fire with Ethan and Maya Hawke.
There has been some controversy over a sex scene in the film. There are no sex scenes in O'Connor's stories, so the film may be imagining or filling out something that was insinuated. That controversy never came up in the interview.
I do not know how the film is going to be. I will see it first and then decide whether to recommend it or not. I hope that Ethan and Maya Hawke get a hold of my book and read it before making the final cut. It could be helpful.
"When it comes to building a community and living properly, we either make God the focal point or deny him. This is what the story is about."
First up is Flannery O’Connor’s most acclaimed work: her Complete Short Stories. Do any central themes run through them?Part of what O'Connor is trying to show is the drama of human life, which almost always includes suffering, darkness, and even some violence. She shows the human condition, the fallenness of the world, and that there always an opportunity for grace to breaking into that brokenness, fallenness, and darkness. Sometimes that grace is accepted; at other times, it is rejected. However, grace is always offered. Look for that moment of grace, how that wound up being the case and how the character responds to it. The breaking through of grace is a major theme in all of O’Connor’s stories. This theme develops as she develops.
Which short stories—no spoilers—would you recommend in particular? The three stories that I cover in my book.
In my chapter on her metaphysics chapter, I give an overview of how understands reality, the world, and God. The story that I use to illustrate it is“The River”.
This is a story about a boy called Harry Ashfield, who takes the name Bevel. He is about four or five years old. His parents are not taking the best care of him. One day he is out with a babysitter one day and some spectacular things happen that make him think about reality, what he has known thus far, and what he ought to know. “The River”is an excellent short story and I offer some original contributions to the analysis of it.
Then, there is the chapter on epistemology, which deals with how we know things and what it is that we can know. At the end of that chapter, I analyse “Parker's Back.”
There is a man named Parker. As a kid, he goes to a carnival and sees a guy who has a bunch of tattoos. As a young adult, he starts to get tattoos over all his body, except for his back. One day he feels that he needs to get one on my back. The story unfolds from there. O'Connor foresaw the tattoo craze.
Finally, there is her longest story, “The Displaced Person”, which I cover in the chapter on Flannery O'Connor's ethics.
This is a story about a woman who owns a farm and has some helpers. Then, an immigrant family from Poland comes. Mr Guizac is a very hard worker but his family begins to disrupti the order that exists on the farm.
There are many ways to approach this story, but I like to approach it in terms of community, relations, and doing the right thing. When it comes to building a community and living properly, we either make God the focal point or deny him. This is what the story is about.
This story has gained a lot of traction, especially since COVID, when there has been so much talk of inclusion, diversity, and immigration. Once again, O’Connor foresaw many of these conversations and contributes to them. The writing is just fantastic.
Is it accurate to characterize Flannery O’Connor’s fiction as Southern Gothic? Yes, I think so. You cannot understand O’Connor well without understanding her Catholicism. However, it is also true that you cannot understand her well without appreciating that she is a Southerner. The region matters. You need to write from a particular place. Catholics are big on specificities. She writes about universal themes, but always within a particular, specific place.
In 2014, there was an international Flannery O'Connor conference in Ireland was “Flannery O'Connor and Place”.
Readers who do not hail from the American South might not get Flannery O’Connor. They might find the setting of her stories bizarre, macabre, and grotesque. As a result, some might find them off-putting notwithstanding all their humour. Do you have any tips to help disconcerted readers overcome this impression and appreciate her stories?
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