Monday, April 20, 2009

Quote of the Day (Flannery O’Connor, on the Impact of One Trait on Her Vocation)

“I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation. In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both."—Flannery O’Connor, in a letter to Betty Hester, June 28, 1956

Over the years, thousands have felt good reason to read the short stories, novels, essays or letters of Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)—for bizarre characters, for her precise use of words, for theological concerns that yet never trump the fiction writer’s need to convey humanity in all its crazy complexity. But the best reason of all can be glimpsed in this quote: the lady was a pistol.

At, that voice—so deliciously tart. “She was a lovely girl, but scared the boys to death with her irony,” an instructor at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop observed. Their loss. She was born too early for ace pop tunesmith Marshall Crenshaw, who might have found the kindred “Cynical Girl” he longed for in the sickly young woman from Milledgeville, Ga., who never let either her increasingly grave physical condition or a fallen world get in the way of her humor.

In addition to pressing on me Moss Hart’s Act One (recounted in a prior post), my college friend Greg Burke also urged me to delve into O’Connor. While aware of her artistry, I never fell under her sway as completely as Greg did—maybe because, though of Irish-Catholic descent like myself, her milieu was overwhelmingly rural Protestant, while mine was northeastern (northern New Jersey by way of the South Bronx), with my faith neither submerging nor submerged by others in my region.

I think I need to revisit my attitude about her work. The more I have read of her letters (collected in in Habit of Being) and of her life, the more that merging of style and sensibility has captivated me.

Ten years ago this coming fall, while touring Savannah, I visited O’Connor’s childhood home. She is more often associated with Andalusia, the farm in Milledgeville where she raised peacocks (an avocation she wrote about, in typically hilarious detail, in “The King of the Birds,” an essay in the Literary Savannah anthology) and lived most of her life.

Knowing her Roman Catholic background, however, I wasn’t surprised to learn that her family’s home at 207 East Charlton Street on Lafayette Square was located so close to the city’s Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. (I mean, she could see it, as well as Sacred Heart School, where she was educated as a young girl.)

The brick, stucco structure, dating back to the 1850s, is long and narrow, only half as wide as the neighboring house, where a wealthy cousin lived. But somehow I doubt that O’Connor cared about wealth so much as enough health to do her work. This past fall, the home was reopened after a lengthy renovation.

The writer would probably be chagrined to know that her lifespan would be closer to her father’s, who died when she was only a teenager, than to her mother’s, which extended to 1995, when Mrs. O’Connor was 99 and had outlived her daughter by more than three decades.

One last thing: We don’t have more work from this “Southern Gothic” writer because, at age 39, O’Connor was struck down by lupus—the same disease that claimed her father. The high school English teacher who encouraged me the most to write, Sister Marie Harold, was afflicted with the same condition. I think that these two women would have gotten along very well if they had ever had the opportunity to meet because of their shared love for words and for Christ.

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