I am, at my core, a Southern lady. There are a lot of things problematic with claiming Southern heritage. I’ll admit it. It’s a loaded thing with plenty of dicey terminology and enough jerks wrapping themselves in the stars & bars for the sake of “heritage.” But that’s not what my Southern sensibility means to me. There are pearls and sweet tea and pulled pork, yes, but there is wry wit buried beneath the genteel pretensions. And this is where Flannery O’Connor comes in.
It would be a lie if I said I don’t secretly hope I end up like Flannery O’Connor. Oh, not dying before my time. But embracing spinsterhood while raising peafowl? I could do that, if I had the faintest inkling of what it takes to raise peafowl. And morbid reflections on humanity and faith through the lens of thoroughly unpleasant characters? Sign me right up, y’all.
I’d call this a book review, in that O’Connor’s collected short stories are bound within the covers of a single book. But the beauty of the short story is that each is a microcosm, a tiny lens through which we peek in order to get a glimpse of what we always knew existed but were afraid to stare. And these are stories that stick with you long after you’ve turned the last page. They don’t feel particularly earth-shattering at first; indeed, the first time I read “Good Country People” I didn’t think much of it. The writing was such that the entire story made perfect sense, within its microcosmic universe, and I just went right along with it without stopping to consider what such a story would look like in real life. Twenty-four hours later, I had the image of a false Bible salesman stealing prosthetic limbs, and realized just how wonderfully strange the story was. It set me on edge a little, and in its own way gave me pause to consider what a world it is I live in.
Southern Gothic captures the spirit of this region beautifully. We do not have the Brontes’ brooding moors, or the stark horror buried in ancient history roused by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What we have in the South is the new brooding, born in a place that refused to join modern industry until it was far too late. It is born of an over-romantic nostalgia trip by well-to-do white folks who wish to recapture some imagined New American aristocracy. It comes through the lens of education where we remember that such aristocracy was born of horribly convoluted justifications and false morality, and it is facing this horror that twists the gorgeous into the grotesque.
I know, I’m starting to sound like a book report. But my dear Flannery rouses such wordiness. It is what her stories do. They poke and prod one into self-examination, and it is never comfortable, but it is always cathartic.
As a Southern writer, I’ll freely admit that I borrow heavily from some of Flannery’s themes. She’s got something in common with one of my other favorite authors: the use of epiphany. (That would be James Joyce, for those who don’t know my love for all things Irish, and if you haven’t read “The Dead” I can reassure you it’s well worth the first fifteen pages to get to those last few paragraphs.) But the epiphanies of O’Connor’s stories are morbidly comic. “Revelation” culminates in its lead shouting at God from the pig sty. O’Connor wrenches out the awesome from spiritual conversion and puts it in the lowliest context, and I don’t know about y’all, but that strikes a more resonant chord than any holier-than-thou redemption story you’ll hear at every Southern Baptist retreat. The religion gets to me, especially since O’Connor was writing from a Catholic perspective in a heavily Protestant South. She was her own sort of misfit. It gives hope to those who feel like they might be misfits, wherever they are: a liberal atheist in a Deep South small town, or a transplanted Southerner above the Mason-Dixon coming to terms with their raising versus their privilege.
For those who might be overwhelmed at the prospect of buying the entire collected stories of Flannery O’Connor, her most popular work has already been neatly packaged in two slimmer volumes: A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Take your pick, or just go all out and get the collected stories to see work that was included in her master’s thesis. That’s right, MFAs and aspiring MFAs of the world: you can write lasting yarns while completing your degree. It might help to get into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, too, but we’ll not let that discourage us. Above all else, Flannery O’Connor is an inspiration to the weird women of the world. There are probably many of us frequenting this blog right now. Hell, her story about her backwards-walking chicken being the high point of her life sounds exactly like something I’d say. We must learn to delight in the profane in conjunction with the divine, and I have to say, reading Flannery O’Connor is a great start.