All that fancy literary theory about separating the writing from the writer? Forget it, if the writer is Flannery O’Connor. Her life and her work are inextricable, and the St. Louis premiere of Flannery, winner of the first Library of Congress/Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, makes that clear.
As astute as O’Connor but without her sharp edges, Flannery opens tenderly, with bits and pieces of her life. First, an upside-down reflection of her family home, grand and Southern, the place she left without hesitation at twenty, only to boomerang seven years later, when she became ill. She saw, and wrote, its constraints, managing to catch the whole world within them.
Other bits: An empty baby Coke bottle. A proper, ladylike tapestry purse. A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A hypodermic syringe, no doubt for the cortisone she self-injected for lupus (“or, as we literary people prefer to call it, Red Wolf,” she wrote wryly). Right away, narrator Mary Steenburgen guides us to the contradictions: how you hear O’Connor’s work and think she was this bitter old woman when in fact she was young and devoutly religious. How she was shy and proper yet “able to go straight into the craziness.” How she was, in one critic’s opinion, one of the five or six writers in the world least afraid to look at the darkness.
The first contradiction comes at age five, when a film crew arrives to photograph Mary Flannery with a pet chicken who walks backwards. Despite her shyness, she loves having an audience. She also quickly grasps the connection between fame and oddness—she continues to raise special birds and jokes about trying to lure the film company back. You get the sense that she already, in some inchoate way, senses her purpose on Earth—or is willing herself into one.
Mary Flannery is a well-loved only child. Her father exults in her creativity; her mother is constantly fussing to improve her. As fate will have it, her father is the one who dies early, when Flannery is just fifteen. He dies of lupus, three years after diagnosis. A dozen years later, his daughter will be diagnosed. She will live another twelve years, thanks to that syringe. She expects, though, to die in three years, by age thirty. This is why her mother did not want her to know she had lupus, and why at first she talked about her “arthritis” and did not send for her belongings. Finally, a friend tells her the truth.
She takes it straight. Even as a child, O’Connor lived close to death. Her mother, who came from money, whisked her back to the family estate in Milledgeville, Georgia, rather than stay in Atlanta while her father tried to find work there. Mary Flannery was surrounded by older relatives, and somebody was always sick or dying. Then her father died, too.
He could have been a fine writer, she decided years later, but the recipe was wrong: “Needing people badly and not getting them may turn you in a creative direction. He needed people I guess and got them, or rather wanted them and got them. I wanted them and didn’t.”
In her imagination, though, she moved among multitudes. “Freaks,” “saints,” “prophets,” “misfits”—the words float on the screen. When I first read a Flannery O’Connor short story, I recoiled, guilty of what she predicted: “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” Seeking mystery, she used the grotesque. But as the doc points out, she was first a caricaturist. Her drawings were sharp-edged and dark, not cute, and the plan she made in college was to make a living with her cartoons and write for the joy of it. When writing came to the center instead, she used a caricaturist’s exaggerations of humanity’s best and worst to probe the depths of her own faith. The result is so like medieval allegory that it is fun to see footage of the Cloisters and learn that she loved the place, with its medieval blend of the ribald, the grotesque, and the sacred.
If she were a less powerful writer, it would sound reductive to trace her characters back to unrequited love affairs. Instead, it just makes sense of their tone. She began writing Wise Blood, the doc reminds us, while at the Yaddo artist’s colony. The poet Robert Lowell—brooding, arrogant, brilliant—was there at the same time with his girlfriend (and future wife) Elizabeth Hardwick, who dripped literary glamour. Shy O’Connor, with her round face, sweetly crooked teeth, and wire spectacles, fell hard for Lowell, a New Englander who was inching toward to Catholicism (the surest way into her heart). “He is a kind of grief to me,” she said later. Sure enough, Lowell’s manic rebelliousness and reluctant hunger for Catholicism found their way, by literary alchemy, into Wise Blood.
Years later, when she was living back home with her mother, hiding pain, getting around on crutches, O’Connor’s loneliness was even more profound. “Sickness is a place more instructive than a long trip to Europe,” she wrote. “It’s a place where there’s no company. Where nobody can follow you.” One man, a handsome Danish textbook salesman deeply interested in religion, took a few steps in that direction. When he finally kissed O’Connor, who by all accounts was smitten with him, he “had a feeling of kissing a skeleton,” he says in the film, “and it reminded me of her being gravely ill.” He left for Europe, where he became engaged. Desolate, O’Connor wrote “Good Country People”—about a traveling Bible salesman (the Dane called his Harcourt Brace book list his Bible) who seduces a woman who has a wooden leg, then steals it.
Ouch. Left without a leg to stand on. She would later write, “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.”
About her work, though, she stayed brisk. Her longtime editor, Robert Giroux, chuckles, remembering O’Connor grumbling that her previous editor treated her like a dimwitted campfire girl. She needed to give up her aloneness, the unfortunate editor had insisted. But she was well aware of “the peculiarity or the loneliness of the experience I write from” and had no desire to relinquish it.
How did she become so fiercely sure of herself? She always had a place in the world, was always special in her family’s eyes, was always socially awkward. In the journal she kept in college, she wrote that she would give up anything for a little social ease. She so desperately wanted to be cool, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and witty that she made it an acronym, writing that invariably, “the inarticulate, confused blunderer overwhelmed the CSCW.” That sense of being set apart, though, gave her a certain indifference to the world’s opinions. One commenter notes that in the South at that time, Catholics were as suspect as Jews and Blacks, so she could not take widespread approval for granted—which may have braced her for disapproval of her work. It is lucky she was braced, because Wise Blood did not charm the critics; many felt it had been written by a nihilist.
The joke was on them; O’Connor was 180 degrees away from nihilism. One of the documentary’s directors, Mark Bosco, is a Jesuit, and close attention is paid (though how could it not be) to the theology in O’Connor’s work. In “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” a little girl becomes fascinated by a “circus freak” who is intersexual, and when an ornate monstrance is held up in church, the ivory center that represents the host becomes, for the child, this person’s circus tent. The profane and the sacred merge.
Asked the overarching subject of her work, O’Connor replied, “The action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” If the life and work are inseparable, her faith and her work are even tightly bound. Yet dogma never kept her from seeing things whole. “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see,” she once observed, “but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.”
Nor did she allow her family’s opinions to substitute for hers. The writer Alice Walker grew up in Milledgeville, too: “Flannery lived across the way from us,” she says in the film. “One of my brothers took milk from her place into town.” Walker grins at the way O’Connor’s quintessentially southern mother showed up in her fiction: “Flannery had a great subject there and did a lot of examination of that personality.” Her mother never dreamed she was a character in a lot of the stories, prim and bigoted. Yet—another apparent contradiction—when O’Connor had a chance to meet James Baldwin in Georgia, she refused, saying she would meet him if she were in New York but “I observe the traditions of the society I feed on.”
During her last hospital stay, she worked furiously to finish her story “Revelation,” which skewers that society’s bigotry and social hierarchy.
She finished. On August 3, 1964, her mother wrote on the calendar, “Death came for Flannery.” She was thirty-nine years old, and already one of the finest fiction writers of the twentieth century.