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The Liberal as Graceless Pharisee

Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South

By Ralph C. Wood

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 270 pages

Price: $22

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York.

No surprise that today’s self-righteous liberals — always the target of O’Connor’s satire — should be her nemeses. From the start, she used the art form of the grotesque to expose the smug types who were leading America into a religious void, a cultural abyss. She despised “vaporized liberalism,” the new American civil religion that was turning faith into individual preference. In a felicitous phrase, Wood describes O’Connor as “recalcitrantly unpluralistic.” She insisted that “dogma” was a necessary instrument for “penetrating reality,” and she wrote about Southern backwoods fundamentalists precisely because they, at least, still saw the Bible as objective truth and kept hold of the supernatural. This is what made them powerful witnesses to our modern age.

Ralph Wood is an expert on his subject. For thirty years he edited The Flannery O’Connor Bulletin, which is now The Flannery O’Connor Review. In this fine book, a labor of love, he writes in an “openly confessional” manner, taking his title from Flannery O’Connor’s famous homage to the South as not Christ-centered, yet “most certainly Christ-haunted.” Remarkably, Wood is a Baptist writing about a Catholic, who in turn is writing about Southern fundamentalists. His engaging, well-documented work places O’Connor memorably in the rich context of the Christian South.

This is not to say O’Connor was limited by the South, for her reading was wide and deep. Wood calls her library a “compendium of pre-Vatican II theologians,” from Aquinas to Maritain. She also read devotional literature as ancient as the Desert Fathers, and such non-Catholic theologians as Buber, Eliade, Niebuhr, Tillich, and Barth. Further, she studied literary masters who were not “Christian in any orthodox sense.” In particular, she admired Henry James, Hawthorne, and Poe for understanding “evil” better than most Americans. But Aquinas seemed to hold a high place with her, since she dubbed herself “a hillbilly Thomist.” Disciplined and unsentimental in her religion, she attended daily Mass when she could and was moved simply by its objective truth. Wood sees her as “a virtual mystic of the mass.”

For Flannery O’Connor, there could be “no excessive love of God.” Wood goes to the heart of her stories by presenting them as a series of “startling summons to intense belief through the immoderate love of God.” The events of her tales often culminate in “revolutionary moments of grace” in the most unpromising of circumstances. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the Grandmother, after a life of vapid respectability, finds “radical help” in the Misfit, a self-pitying and mannerly Nietzschean who kills her. In a visionary moment before she dies, as Wood says, the Grandmother recognizes her “Adamic solidarity” with the Misfit. In “Parker’s Back,” when Parker comes home with an icon of Christ the Pantocrator tattooed on his back, his wife responds: “It ain’t anybody I know.” But Parker himself is transformed: “The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed.” Similarly, in “Greenleaf,” Mrs. May’s Southern propriety is offended by the antics of Mrs. Greenleaf, a primitive Pentecostal woman who writhes and shouts for Jesus to save all the world’s sufferers, yet at the end it is Mrs. May who has a powerful encounter with the eternal that enters time. In all her stories — comedies in the great visionary manner of Dante — the only alternatives, Wood demonstrates, are “total faith and total unbelief.” For her, salvation and damnation are not just “inward states of consciousness” but “objective states of both our immediate existence and our final destiny.”

Wood contrasts O’Connor to the Southern Agrarians, who (in the 1930s) made the civilization of the South, rather than its religion, the answer to modern barbarism. He also contrasts her to other Southern writers who have turned to their regional history for transcendent meaning. Since they cannot be sure “this history belongs to any grand pattern of divine order,” Wood observes, these writers end up sifting this history through private consciousness and turning it into personal construction. But O’Connor refuses to go that way: She simply assumes “a transcendent referent for human existence.” This is why her narrative voice is “akin to the Old Testament in its unapologetic directness of approach to the reader.” Her prose is remarkable for its biblical “plainness” and “spare straightforwardness.” To those who claim that she refused the burden of history, Wood responds that she in fact “assumed it heroically” by taking up the history of “obscure fundamentalist Protestants” who were generally seen as beneath notice.

In explaining O’Connor’s complex views on race, Wood puts forth the evidence from all sides, and concludes that she was “not a racist, either politically or theologically.” It is telling, he notes, that “not a single black character is treated as an object of mockery or contempt anywhere in O’Connor’s fiction.” In her stories, only four blacks come under censure, while “virtually all of her white characters receive severe condemnation for their sins.” The black writer Alice Walker once remarked that O’Connor’s work was about grace, not race. Wood agrees and adds that O’Connor offered the only “lasting antidote to racism” — the “race-transcending, race-reconciling gospel.” She had the Christian conviction that all people, black and white, are equally sinful, that racism comes from our fallen nature, and that we can only be reconciled as the children of the same Lord.

None of O’Connor’s friends ever accused her of being a racist, not even Maryat Lee, to whom she often wrote in an ironic, antagonistic persona on racial matters. Wood cites an important, previously unpublished letter shared by William Sessions, in which O’Connor expressed support in 1963 for the civil rights movement, especially for the gains made in her region: “I feel very good about those changes in the South that have been long overdue — the whole racial picture. I think it is improving by the minute, particularly in Georgia, and I don’t see how anybody could feel otherwise than good about that.”

It took “courage,” Wood thinks, for O’Connor “to resist the moralistic tendency of the high literary culture” of that time. She would surely have been rewarded with kudos from the literati had she gone along with the liberal mantras. But she remained “suspicious” of Northerners who left behind “segregated cities that were seething with racial discord” to go and reform the South. Moreover, she couldn’t help but see a “chasm” between these secular liberators and the deeply religious Southern blacks. In response to all this, she created some of her most memorable stories about “racially righteous” fools, such as Asbury Fox, the agnostic of “The Enduring Chill,” who preens himself on his supposed solidarity with two black laborers, though he cannot tell them apart.

O’Connor saw the value of courtesy in race relations: she “believed that the social manners of the South, despite their many deceptions and hypocrisies, could sometimes serve as a far-off reflection of God’s own incarnate love.” While forgiveness and reconciliation were the “better way,” courtesy was “the next best thing,” and O’Connor was confident that “the manners of both races will show through in the long run.” While she realized that the old manners of the South were “obsolete,” she thought “new manners” would arise out of “charity and necessity.” Her story “Judgment Day,” composed at the end of her brief life, turns on this point of courtesy between the races.

Of course, the story that has received the most opprobrium, the one so often censured by liberals for political incorrectness, is the very one in which O’Connor offers her most profound insight into race relations. In “The Artificial Nigger,” Mr. Head and his grandson Nelson, both white, are locked in an evil contest of wills, but they are “offered redemption by black people” on three occasions. The “real root of racism,” O’Connor shows, is our fallen nature.

There’s no sentimentality in Flannery O’Connor. She saw sentimentality as next door to pornography. In all her stories, O’Connor displays a “tough-minded charity.”

Is this the kind of author that should be banned from our schools?

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