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O'Connor Country
© December 1966 Atlanta Magazine
A Multitude of thanks to Girl In A Cage for transcribing this article.

Long before her death at the age of thirty-eight, Flannery O'Connor had outgrown her early fame as the enfant terrible of Southern letters and had won her place in history as a writer who probed, in a distinctly Southern idiom, the mysterious outer reaches of reality that are the province of the prophet and the poet.

"Southern writers are stuck with the South, and it's a good thing to be stuck with," she once said, and her two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, and her short stories are regional in focus. But she had a horror of being known as a "Southern writer" with all that that entailed --- the dialect stories, the moonlight and magnolia myth, and the "hot house" school. "The woods are full of regional writers and it is the horror of every serious Southern writer that he will become one."

Yet she knew that all good writing begins at home, that the best American literature is regional, and that the smallest history can be read in a universal light. "You know what's the matter them? They're not FRUM anywhere," she said of that slick new breed of writers who have taken over the paperback book stalls. Flannery was FRUM Georgia, and rather fiercely so; she once observed wryly in print that the so-called anguish of the Southern writer derived not from the fact that he was alienated from the rest of the country but that he was not alienated enough. She gloried in the eccentricities of the region, in the complications and contradictions with which it abounds, and she found Georgia a "collection of goods and evils which are intensely stimulating to the imagination."

She was born in Savannah, grew up in Milledgeville, attended the Woman's College of Georgia, and, except for a stint at Iowa State and a brief apprenticeship in New York, she did most of her writing at Andalusia, the 150-year-old Milledgeville farmhouse where she lived with her mother Regina. Once can see it now, just off the highway, a narrow, steeply roofed white farmhouse beside a tall white water tank. Dairy cattle still graze the broad pastures in the shadow of the blue hills.

At the age of six she appeared with her pet rooster on the Pathe News, and she swore that was the pinnacle of her career, though in her lifetime she was accorded almost every honor that can accrue to a short story writer in this country --- three O. Henry Memorial Awards, two Kenyon Review Fellowships, and two national grants.

"If my characters speak Southern, it's because I do," she said, but it went a lot deeper than that. When The Misfit in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," after murdering a family of five on the highway, says, "Jesus thrown everything off balance," he is doing more than using dialect --- he is going to the very heart of the Christian mystery. Our history, customs, vices, and virtues are inherent in our idiom, she said, and she was a master of the idiom. Impious but devout, scathingly honest yet compassionate, deadly serious but relentlessly comic, Flannery O'Conno was uniquely fitted to portray the regional character, with its deep ambiguities, Gothic violence, wry wit, and idiosyncrasies. If her characters often emerged as displaced persons, it was because she felt that all human beings are displaced persons standing in need of divine grace. If they were also freaks, she took pride in being able to recognize a freak in a day when the man in the grey flannel suit is celebrated as normal. Her prophet freaks, she explained, were "figures of our essential displacement, images of man forced out to meet the extremes of his own nature." Her distortions and exaggeration were quite deliberate. To a twentieth century audience, reeling from the tinsel myths of Madison Avenue, she found it necessary to make her vision apparent by shock. "To the hard of hearing you shout and for the blind you draw large and startling figures," she said.

But she also understood that it is impossible to say anything about the mystery of personality "unless you put that personality in the social context that belongs to it." She balked at the term "frame of reference," perhaps because so few of the critics really understood the nature of hers. They thought it was the Southern landscape. She often said that even poets shouldn't be poetic, but in the best sense --- the sense of unerring accuracy and radiance of vision --- she is a poet when she describes a sunset "as if someone were wounded behind the woods and the trees were bathed in blood" and likens a white gold sun to "some strange potentate from the East." But she is using the landscape for her own purposes, to describe yet another region whose dimensions are illimitable.

Socially, her context was the Bible Belt, and she had a penetrating eye for its grotesqueries --- the tent revivals, the child evangelists, the sawdust salvations, and the highway admonitions to "repent or burn in hell." She had no illusions about the South being Christ-centered, but she did find it "Christ-haunted." Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive and they cast strange shadows, she said, and she found in the Southern temperament "a sense of the absolute, a sense of Moses' face as he pulverized the idols, a sense of time, place and eternity joined."

A Catholic, she once said her faith in Christian dogma furnished her with "a sense of continuity from the time of Christ" and assured her a respect for mystery. It was this respect which safeguarded her from the pitfalls of many regional writers who view the South only as a fertile source of local color. In the sparest and most vivid prose she used the region to suggest what transcended it. "The writer's gaze," she said, "has to extend beyond the surface, beyond mere problems until it touches that realm of mystery that is the concern of prophets."

There is always a moment when grace is offered, as when, in "The Artificial Nigger," the old man sees "that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as he forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise." Yet seldom is grace accepted. Its refusal is the ultimate human tragedy and it is repeated again and again for, as Archbishop Paul Hallinan pointed out, though, she treated her people with homeliness and humility, "she followed the relentlessly until they faced the kingdom."

Flannery once said that to her fiction the South had contributed "its idiom and its rich and strained social getup." But her region, her true region, was timeless and eternal and many readers found it terrifying. "That's not Georgia," they would say. But was Georgia and something more, a whole universe more. She realized that the writer's region was both inside and outside, and she had the courage and the tenacity and the intensity of concentration to descend far enough into herself to tap what she called the underground springs that gave life to her work. Quite properly, she called this descent through the sure and the familiar into the realms of mystery a descent into her region. After her untimely death from the disease that had crippled her most of her life, those who knew her best said that she had found beneath the darkness and the terror of the surface the luminous region of grace.

1995: Brian Collier and Comforts of Home

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