Giannone, Richard. Flannery O'Connor, Hermit Novelist.
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
In a 1957 letter to a friend, American writer Flannery O'Connor (1925-64) described herself as a "hermit novelist." O'Connor meant that she was physically and socially isolated by life on a rural Georgia farm, by her debilitating lupus, by her Catholicism in the deeply fundamentalist South, and, one may extrapolate, by her career as a woman and a writer. Richard Giannone takes her appellation one step further and argues that O'Connor incorporates "desert life and ascetic spirituality" into her fiction, essentially the imagery and psychology of the Desert hermits.
Many writers have explored the "under-consciousness" that D. H. Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) calls "devilish"; a number of artists also have portrayed the solitude and empty spaces of America; and some even have described the desert we carry within; but only Flannery O'Connor has shown how encountering the devil in this inner emptiness opens life up to fullness in God. Through O'Connor's record of her protagonists' anguish and triumphs, the whole of an ancient wisdom, simultaneously theoretical and practical, has been transmitted, giving modern fiction new life.
While American Catholic writers of the 1950's were predominantly writing "safe" tales for Catholic readers, the generation of O'Connor, as in Europe, was also exploring how to communicate the realm of guilt, sin, evil, redemption, and wholeness to a secular audience. O'Connor was critical of the vapid and pious fiction cranked out in the Catholic colleges, magazines, and presses, ready, instead, to engage her faith with worldly reality -- in her case, the reality of a decadent racist society. But did she do so as a "hermit novelist"? Giannone's claim is rather bold.
We learn more about O'Connor's thoughts from her voluminous correspondence and her many talks and essays such as "The Catholic Novelist in the Deep South," "Catholic Novelists and Their Readers," and "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction." And, of course, the fiction itself tells all, for it establishes the relationship among characters that is dominated by moral decisions, all within a Southern Gothic universe that is the setting for O'Connor's story-telling. But where is the eremiticism?
Giannone's claim is that
Through the Sayings [of the Desert Fathers], the Lives [of the Desert Fathers], and allied texts, O'Connor discovered how to guide her fictional solitaries to start life afresh and, despite their unbelief, come close to God. ... John Cassian's Conferences, the fifth-century pioneering commentary on desert spirituality, [is also] helpful in putting alien desert asceticism into a modern psychological perspective.
Undoubtedly O'Connor was well versed in the Desert Fathers, but her fiction depends more on the doctrinal and ontological content of Catholicism, not on any particular tradition or favorite authors. The structure of her moral universe frames the experience of her characters, who nevertheless remain representative Southerners. Southern culture was (is) imbued with Biblical phraseology and paradigms. Its social relations reflect a grotesque and decadent primitivism, and an economically and culturally impoverished hierarchy of power and authority. O'Connor uses the full force of her faith and knowledge to expose this.
O'Connor was willing to reveal the core of Southern society through the looking-glass of a Catholicism that provided the tools for a critique. Naturally, the themes of the Desert elders are literal enough to incorporate in her vision. The Desert Fathers' sayings and her own fiction are stark, unadorned, stripped of ecclesiastical piety. Together they form a perfect response, foil even, to Southern fundamentalism. But Giannone's emphasis on ascesis, acedia, demons, and the panoply of sin, guilt, sacrifice, and salvation in O'Connor's fiction is not particularly derived from the desert hermits.
A couple of examples will illustrate this point. The bald confession of The Misfit in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" suggests the impossibility of redemption from evil in the fundamentalist universe as much in that of unbelievers. In "The Artificial Nigger," the rural white grandfather and grandson visit Atlanta so that the old man can convince the boy of the superiority of white people and country living, but instead he is humiliated by his own pride and stubbornness in getting lost. These are simultaneously literal stories and religious metaphors. But Giannone goes so far as to posit a master-disciple relationship between the main characters of "The Artificial Nigger," and a model of desert versus city, all of which seems to miss O'Connor's point.
Indeed, Giannone writes page after page comparing this character's dilemma or that character's action to a saying of Macarius, Antony, or Poemen. Themes of pride, lust, sloth, and others frame the honest portraits of O'Connor's depiction of alienation, racism, and violence. The Desert Fathers are useful but the catalogs and analogies of Giannone never amount to a proof of dependence. As Paul Elie's breakthrough comparative work on Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor shows, only Day and Merton routinely used the Desert Fathers as models of resistance to culture and the foundation of an alternative spirituality. O'Connor herself mentions Aquinas and Aristotle, but the doctrines of the Church such as transubstantiation are her foremost models.
O'Connor wrote that she had more in common with what she called "backwoods prophets and shouting fundamentalists" than with those polite elements for whom the supernatural is an embarrassment. Her hermit life was made inevitable by her debilitating lupus, and she returned at age 25 to live on her family's 500 acres farm, Andalusia, and its 1,000 acres of woodland. She traveled and entertained infrequently, in part due to her debilitating lupus, but certainly as part of her introversion. Living near Milledgeville, Georgia, she had no telephone until 1956 and no television until 1961. Naturally, correspondence became important, but her solitude was through-going. She resigned herself to the progressive disease that had killed her father when she was sixteen years old. Sickness, she wrote, is "always a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow."
Of her writing, O'Connor has commented quite clearly.
I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like a bald statement. However, I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty.
O'Connor crafted her fiction in the moral style of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Joseph Conrad, and some of the authors she pursued include Merleau-Ponty, Mounnier, and Simone Weil. Her opinions of contemporary American writers is acerbic and not minced. Hence, she defended her art whenever she felt necessary.
I am mightily tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man is Hard to Find brutal and sarcastic. The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported on the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.
These quotations are not, unfortunately, in Giannone's book, if only because they do not directly support his thesis, which fills 287 thickly phrased pages (including the book's faulty index). It is not enough for Giannone that O'Connor was a hermit novelist or that her fictional characters are abysmally solitary, but he must also claim that O'Connor derived and supported her themes and stories from the Desert Fathers, or at any rate that the Desert Fathers best illustrate her themes. There is plenty to admire in O'Connor and her work, and that she did not depend on the Desert Fathers only or primarily does not detract from her life or work at all.
O'Connor, Flannery. Collected Works. New York: Library of America; Viking, 1988. See also: Brinkmeyer, Robert H. The Art & Vision of Flannery O'Connor. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1989 and Elie, Paul. The Life You Save May be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.