NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE F ew writers can say they even attempted to accomplish what Flannery O’Connor did: to carve out their own distinctive genre. O’Connor’s two novels and 32 short stories combined three factors — the Southern, the Catholic, and the grotesque — to create a black-comic effect like no other. “She just saw the mystery of the craziness,” says fellow novelist Alice Walker.
Biography is often a fallow field in which to search for clues to a writer’s imagination, but not so in this case, as the documentary Flannery ably shows us. Mary Flannery O’Connor had a sequestered, tormented, devout, and brief life, largely spent on a dairy farm in Georgia with a mother she hated and ruthlessly satirized. (Across the way lived the family of Walker, who would go on to write The Color Purple.) O’Connor never tired of lampooning the bitterness and cruelty of “old dirty Southland,” as she once called it in a letter. But she corrected the Northerners who considered her work Gothic fantasy. For her, fiction was a “plunge into reality,” not an escape.
Flannery (which was slated to be shown at New York City’s Film Forum but is instead being released online) is, like its subject, heavily constrained by circumstance but liberated by imagination. The film makes use of only a single filmed television interview with O’Connor, shot in 1955, but her stories come to life via charming animated sequences and droll narration by Mary Steenburgen. Otherwise, the visual pickings are slim. The doc makes use of clips from four television and film adaptations of O’Connor’s work (one of which starred the young Gene Kelly) and footage taken in her Milledgeville, Ga., farmhouse, which is now preserved as a museum, complete with her sad twin bed and her crutches propped beside it. Friends and family members offer helpful insights in interviews, as do such eager readers as actor Tommy Lee Jones, novelist Alice McDermott, and New Yorker critic Hilton Als.
O’Connor pictured herself achieving success as a cartoonist, and her work from undergraduate years at the Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College & State University) is indeed sly and delightful. But achieving some distance from the South, first at the Iowa Writers Workshop and then at the Yaddo colony in upstate New York, unlocked her true gift. A minority as a Catholic back home, up north she was additionally a minority as a woman writer in male-dominated spaces — and thirdly as a Southerner. These varying sources of apartness fueled her fiction, as did her social awkwardness, but she became increasingly confident in her gifts and made friends with prominent literary figures such as the poet Robert “Cal” Lowell and the poet-translator Robert Fitzgerald. She might have spent her career as yet another New York City writer, and gradually lost what made her special, but illness drew her home to the South, and her mother’s care. Her father died of lupus when she was 15, and the same disease haunted the last dozen years of her life until it killed her at 39.
Back home on the farm, where the steroids she took to combat the illness weakened her bones, she couldn’t do much but attend Mass every day and write (also every day). The grim facts of racism, classism, and xenophobia nourished her creatively. Her mother Regina, whom she considered deeply stupid, often appeared in disguise in her work, as a blustering and hateful archetype of Southern intolerance. “Why can’t you get Flannery to write about nice people?” Regina once asked an editor.
Some of those not-nice people who fascinated O’Connor were racists, a charge that some are making against O’Connor herself today. Her onetime neighbor Walker, in an interview, is generous about this failing, noting that racism was the norm throughout O’Connor’s life. And to her credit, O’Connor in her final short story, “Revelation,” approached racism as a sin, one that inspired rage in those who were forced to confront its horrible truth.
Despite being defined by her pain, O’Connor didn’t complain, according to a close cousin, and continued to work feverishly right up until her final months. Suffering seemed to be a part of her power, her Catholic power, and she once went to Lourdes merely to humor a relative, not because she really yearned to be made whole again. “I do not want to be lonely all my life,” she said, “but people only make us lonelier by reminding us of God.” Once she learned she had the same disease that had felled her father (her mother initially concealed this information from her, telling her she had only arthritis), she figured she had three years to live, and wrote as if any day might be her last. “In a sense sickness is more instructive than a long trip to Europe,” she once wrote. Her hardship was our bounty.