The Legacy of Flannery O’Connor: A Conversation with Jonathan Rogers
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor, and a number of other books, including the acclaimed Wilderking trilogy. He holds a PhD in English literature from Vanderbilt University. He is a contributor to the Rabbit Room, and maintains a personal blog. Today, I’ve asked him to join me for a discussion about the legacy of Flannery O’Connor.
Trevin Wax: What initially attracted you to Flannery O’Connor’s work?
Jonathan Rogers: I grew up in Middle Georgia, fifty miles from Flannery O’Connor’s Milledgeville. Long before I read any of her stories, I had heard of the peculiar writer who had lived up the road. I heard a few anecdotes from people who had actually met her, and she seemed so charming and likable and – well, normal – that it was hard to imagine that she was the same person who wrote those dark, sometimes gruesome stories.
The incongruity was sharpened by the fact that she looked like some of the women in my family. On the one hand, it felt like Flannery O’Connor was old home folks. She looked like my people, talked like my people, went to some of the same places my people went. But on the other hand, she wrote about things that my people wouldn’t ever talk about.
I have been aware of that incongruity for almost as long as I have been aware of Flannery O’Connor, long before I knew anything about her faith commitments, which make her even more perplexing for many readers. Those incongruities are at the center of my biography: how could this woman have written these stories?
Jonathan Rogers: I guess it was reading her letters, collected as The Habit of Being. As much as I had admired her fiction, it was those letters that made me fall in love with her. She was so funny and so wise and so brave in the face of suffering and disappointment. It was the letters that made me understand that the grotesqueries of her fiction aren’t incongruous with the rest of her life but grow out of it. She once wrote:
“Many of my ardent admirers would be roundly shocked and disturbed if they realized that everything I believe is thoroughly moral, thoroughly Catholic, and that it is these beliefs that give my work its chief characteristics.”
But that still doesn’t quite answer the question of what compelled me to write a biography. I was talking about Flannery O’Connor to Joel Miller at Thomas Nelson, describing what a huge impact she had on me as a writer. He was the one who actually suggested that I write a biography.
I was reluctant because Brad Gooch had recently published a very good biography of O’Connor. But Gooch chose not to go very deeply into her spiritual life; he had other interests and therefore different emphases. He acknowledges that faith was important to O’Connor, but he more or less treats her faith as a black box – up there in the cockpit somewhere, but unopened.
For my part, the black box is exactly what I’m interested in. So Joel and I agreed that there was indeed space for another biography – a “spiritual biography,” as the subtitle says – that opens up the black box and shows what’s inside.
Trevin Wax: You write about the way the initial critics misunderstood O’Connor’s work. Even the religious reviewers did not understand her intentions. Why was this the case?
Jonathan Rogers: It seems there were as many ways to misunderstand O’Connor as there were critics. Book reviewers detected similarities to, say, Kafka, and assumed she must share his absurdist worldview. She once complained that her readers thought she was some kind of “hillbilly nihilist.” Or they lumped her in with the “Southern Gothic” writers (“the school of Southern degeneracy,” she called them), assuming that her grotesque, freakish characters signaled the kind of misanthropy that you find in Erskine Caldwell or Carson McCullers.
Though O’Connor was writing from a distinctly Christian worldview, religious readers didn’t seem to understand her any better than the literary elite, and they liked her less. She was misunderstood because she was writing into a culture that expected Christian truth to be nice and safe and tidy, and she refused to accommodate those expectations. The Jesus of O’Connor’s fiction is a “wild ragged figure,” not the sort of fellow you would invite to Sunday dinner unless you were ready to get your table tipped over.
I’m reluctant to use the term “prophetic” to describe O’Connor’s work, but I will say that her fiction is uncomfortable and offensive in some of the ways that the Old Testament prophets’ words were uncomfortable and offensive to their original audience. For that matter, Jesus’s parables are calculated to offend and are easily misunderstood.
Trevin Wax: How did O’Connor combat the misperceptions and misinterpretations of her work?
Jonathan Rogers: She wrote some papers in which she explained what she was up to, but those papers didn’t have wide audiences. Mostly she just let herself be misinterpreted.
One thing she didn’t do: she never changed the way she wrote in order to be more easily understood. She saw her fiction as a calling, and in her letters she expressed a full confidence that God would do what he wanted to do with it, that it was her job only to give voice to her vision. I’m paraphrasing here, but she said something like:
“God may use my work to save some people and to test the faith of others, but that’s His business and none of mine.”
Trevin Wax: You quote O’Connor as saying, “Sickness is a place.” Most of her work was done while battling the effects of lupus and the side-effects from various treatments. What impact did her extended illness have on her writing?
Jonathan Rogers: That’s an interesting question. O’Connor had lupus from the age of twenty-five until she died at the age of thirty-nine. She was healthy when she wrote most of Wise Blood, her first novel, but she was sick when she wrote everything else. There were periods when her symptoms were under control, but even then she was aware that death was stalking her.
It was her sickness that brought her back to Georgia and kept her there; that may have been the most important way it affected her writing. She left Georgia when she was nineteen and had made a good start on a life as a “Southern expatriate” in Connecticut and New York. The lupus forced her to move back to Milledgeville “kicking and screaming,” as she said.
It took her a while to accept the fact that she was never going to leave the South. But once she did, she realized that it was exactly what her writing needed. Her stories are so rooted and grounded in Southern experience, it truly is hard to imagine her writing them from a garret apartment somewhere up North. She was writing what she was seeing and hearing and touching smelling and tasting every day.
I wouldn’t want to over-psychologize, but surely the constant threat of death impacted O’Connor’s inner life. In her letters she’s surprisingly reticent about her illness. She never wasted her dramatic powers on self-dramatization. In my book I describe her as the opposite of a hypochondriac: instead of playing up minor ailments, she played down a huge, life-threatening ailment that limited every hour of her waking life.
But I will hazard this much psychologizing: I think the limitations of her illness amplified O’Connor’s sense of herself as an outsider and increased her compassion for the weak and even the freakish. A lot of people think O’Connor is being mean-spirited when she introduces so many freaks into her stories. But her fiction isn’t a freak show, inviting us to gawk and point. It’s a reminder that we’re all broken, one way or another.
Trevin Wax: O’Connor wrote often about the smug, self-righteousness of Southern white people in the 1950′s. Yet her legacy is tarnished to some extent by an unwillingness to condemn everything that was wrong about Southern racial attitudes. How do you explain the tension between her progressive views on race and her lapses in the area of racial equality?
Jonathan Rogers: It pains me to say it, but you might be overstating the case to describe O’Connor’s views on race as “progressive.” I think it would be more accurate to say that within the normal range of racial attitudes for her time and place, she is on the progressive end; but she’s still in the normal range.
In her fiction she is careful to portray black characters with at least as much dignity and humanity – and usually more – than her white characters. But in her personal correspondence she reveals attitudes that I can’t really defend or explain away.
In matters of race, she was a product of her time and place. I don’t offer that as a defense; in many matters she was decidedly not a product of her time and place, and it would have made us all feel better if she had chosen not to be in this matter either.
Having said that, however, I would direct the reader to Ralph C. Wood’s book, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. His chapter “The Problem of the Color Line” is by far the best thing I’ve read on O’Connor’s racial attitudes.
The gist of his argument is that O’Connor viewed racial progressivism (if that’s the word) as a kind of substitute piety that could lead to a self-righteousness that was at least as spiritually perilous as racism. In O’Connor’s body of work, Pharisaism is the greatest of the spiritual bugaboos; I can’t disagree with that. She viewed race as a major vector for Pharisaism in her culture. That may have been true too. However, it seems to me that there is plenty of middle ground between racism and self-righteousness.
Trevin Wax: O’Connor was a devout Catholic who saw the Eucharist as the central and most profound aspect of Christian worship. How did the sacramental vision she inherited from the Catholic Church impact her view of the world, and Southern Protestants in particular?
Jonathan Rogers: O’Connor once wrote,
“The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.”
She was making a theological statement. Everything deserves our attention because the world of human experience is shot through with meaning.
That’s the sacramental vision – the idea that ultimate meaning doesn’t just live off in some Platonic ideal that we strain toward “spiritually,” but that God reveals Himself to us, does His work on us, through the concrete facts of the material world. For that reason, the artist has an obligation to depict the world that she sees, the way that she sees it. It is not her job to clean anything up or tie up loose ends or offer simplified answers to complicated questions. It is her job only to portray what she has seen in the world God has made.
All Christians agree, of course, that God reveals himself through the world around us. In that broad sense, all Christians have a sacramental vision.
But O’Connor, as a Catholic, was much more comfortable with mystery than most Protestants tend to be. She wrote:
“The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”
We Protestants aren’t looking to inhabit mysteries; we’re looking for explanations, solutions, household hints. Just stroll through a Christian bookstore. Seven Steps to This, Ten Steps to That, Your Best Life Now! It’s all very pragmatic and solution-oriented, thoroughly modern and slickly marketed. The modern/post-modern impulse is an impulse toward demystification, and American Protestantism is right in the middle of it.
O’Connor’s sacramental vision frees the Christian writer from the tyranny of “edification.” We assume that the Christian writer’s job is to edify the reader – which is true enough, I suppose – but we have such a narrow definition of edification.
What passes for edification is, to borrow a term from O’Connor, “Instant Uplift.” It doesn’t invite us into a mystery. It’s “safe for the whole family,” as the billboards for the Christian radio stations say. I don’t know that the Bible is safe for the whole family. It’s hard to imagine Christian bookstores stocking a book so wild and ragged and mysterious as the Bible if it weren’t the Bible.
Trevin Wax: What’s your favorite paragraph or line from O’Connor’s work?
Jonathan Rogers: There’s a moment at the end of the short story “Revelation” that encapsulates for me all of O’Connor’s work, right down to its use of the “n-word,” which I will bleep out. Ruby Turpin is this outlandishly self-satisfied bougeois woman who has spent most of the story judging and belittling the African Americans and trashy white folks around her, congratulating herself and thanking God that she is not one of them.
But at the end of the story, after a traumatic event or two, Ruby has a vision that shows her that the kingdom of heaven doesn’t look the way she had always imagined it. At sunset she looks at a purple streak of cloud in the sky:
She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black n—–s in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like her and [her husband] Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned in to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.
That, in 150 words, is why I love Flannery O’Connor.