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Flannery O'Connor: A Life
by jean w. cash
university of tennessee press, 392 pages, $30

Writing of her mother, Flannery O’Connor once told a friend, “I always thought that if she had a dog she’d name him Spot—without irony. If I had a dog I’d name him Spot, with irony. But for all practical purposes no one would know the difference.” 

By its nature, irony is the most ephemeral of literary devices, and the wit, or malice, or affection it encrypts is inherently fugitive. Authors who trade in such wares must content themselves with a small audience even among their contemporaries, and the truly discerning readership inevitably diminishes with every passing year.

If Flannery O’Connor’s work has suffered mischief at the hands of critics and commentators, her relentlessly mordant irony and deadpan self-mockery are partly to blame. She expressed her deepest affections in a prose so sardonic as to seem like abuse to the inattentive. “I come from a family,” she said, “where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation. In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature. In me both.” Few readers share her religious and political sympathies; fewer still her delight in the violently incongruous. She relished life in the South not in spite of but, in part, because of its homegrown absurdities. A self-described “hillbilly Thomist,” she made the heroes of her fiction not Catholics but Protestants—radical nonconformists, more accurately—who are in perpetual collision with the complacent heathendom that surrounds them. Perhaps the most explicit statement of her authorial intent is found in a 1963 letter written to a nun:

To a lot of Protestants I know, monks and nuns are fanatics, none greater. And to a lot of monks and nuns I know, my Protestant prophets are fanatics. For my part, I think the only difference between them is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief, you join the convent and are heard from no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe anything much at all down on your head . . . . When you leave a man alone with his Bible and the Holy Ghost inspires him, he’s going to be a Catholic one way or another, even though he knows nothing about the visible church. His kind of Christianity may not be socially desirable, but it will be real in the sight of God.

O’Connor loathed sentimentalism wherever she found it triumphant. She shocked many fellow Catholics by her contempt for the now smug, now defensive churchmanship current in her day. She repelled, and continues to repel, many scholars and critics by her uncompromising orthodoxy. Her reply to Mary McCarthy’s dinner party warble that the Eucharistic host is “a nice symbol” is well known: “If it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” Less well known, but more characteristic both in style and substance, is a 1959 letter in which she responds to a friend’s misgivings about the Catholic teaching on contraception:

The Church’s stand on birth control is the most absolutely spiritual of all her stands and with all of us being materialists at heart, there is little wonder that it causes unease. I wish various fathers would quit trying to defend it by saying that the world can support forty billion. I will rejoice in the day when they say: This is right, whether we all rot on top of each other or not, dear children, as we certainly may. Either practice restraint or be prepared for crowding.

O’Connor was a political conservative; an integrationist; an amateur painter; a NASCAR racing fan; a despiser of Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, and self-regarding aestheticism generally. She raised poultry; she read de Lubac and Teilhard de Chardin. Fiercely inimical to the practice of approaching fiction as encoded autobiography, she gave few interviews, and refused to gratify journalistic curiosity about her personal life. In brief, she presents a challenging and paradoxical subject even to her admirers, and it was with a sense of pleasant anticipation that I opened Jean W. Cash’s biography, Flannery O’Connor: A Life.

It is a bitter disappointment. To begin with, it is distressingly ill-written: ponderous, trite, tediously repetitious, and burdened throughout by a kind of master’s thesis nervousness that shows itself in quotes that illuminate nothing and arguments for points that require no proof. To do her justice, the author worked under unusually grave disadvantages; O’Connor’s literary executors re­fused Cash permission to quote previously unpublished material, including letters, juvenilia, draft manuscripts, and other essential sources. Such a handicap would be daunting to any biographer; to one engaged in literary biography, it is all but fatal. Cash was obliged to rewrite her text and paraphrase in many places where she had quoted O’Connor directly. The result is awful, though excusable, in the early chapters that deal with O’Connor’s girlhood. It is awful, and inexcusable, in the chapters that treat of her high school and college days, where we get not only synopses of O’Connor’s early stories but prolix descriptions of the cartoons she submitted to the school paper.

Cash admires her subject and clearly wants to arrive at a sympathetic understanding of her convictions and enthusiasms. Yet the critical tools at her disposal—sociology, psychology, the uncouth lexicon of gender studies—are not fitted to the task. When Cash writes that O’Connor’s faith “transcended the boundaries of the Roman Catholicism into which she was indoctrinated at an early age,” she probably intends it as a compliment, but it betrays a certain obtuseness toward O’Connor and the world of her intellect and imagination. Regarding a satiric story O’Connor (even then with her tongue in her cheek) wrote in high school, Cash says, “Having her heroine kiss chickens instead of boys may show Mary Flannery’s deliberate rejection of sexuality.” Here and throughout the reader feels he’s watching someone trying to assemble an F-15 with a spatula.

In a few places Cash’s own pieties cloud her view of her subject so greatly as to result in distortion. She is clearly jittery about O’Connor’s candor on issues of racial conflict, a candor she does not permit herself. In her discussion of O’Connor’s story, “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (whose title was taken from an idea found in Teilhard de Chardin), Cash writes: “She told several of her correspondents . . . that she was using Teilhard’s ‘proposition’ to ‘comment on a certain topical issue in these parts.’” This struck me as wrong and perplexing, given O’Connor’s insistence that fiction—good fiction, anyway—can never be a covert exercise in propaganda or essay-writing. Addressing a college writing class, she once said: “Whether you write to make money or to express your soul or to insure civil rights or to irritate your grandmother will be a matter for you and your analyst, and the point of the departure for this discussion will be the good of the written work.”

So I looked up the sole letter that Cash cites as a reference for her quote. It reads: “[The story] is called ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’ and touches on a certain topical issue in these parts.” They’re close, but they don’t say the same thing. A work of fiction can touch on, can even situate itself in, a topical issue, without being used to comment on it, without becoming a means to an end other than itself. Her quotation marks notwithstanding, I don’t believe Cash intentionally altered O’Connor here; it is more likely that, as a well-wisher, her desire to enlist O’Connor in the cause of enlightenment momentarily got the better of scholarly accuracy.

Cash’s powers of detachment likewise fail her on the subject of feminism, another issue for which she has considerably more enthusiasm than her subject. Writing to Betty Hester, a regular correspondent and somewhat demented feminist, O’Connor said,

On the subject of the feminist business, I just never think, that is never think of qualities which are specifically feminine or masculine. I divide people into two classes: the Irksome and the Non-Irksome without re­gard to sex. Yes and there are the Medium Irksome and the Rare Irksome.

On a later occasion, in a letter to Cecil Dawkins about the same Betty Hester, she wrote:

Her letters seem pretty high to me these days. She is making all sorts of discoveries about the difference between men and women—a subject which interests her inordinately. Her latest discovery which will revolutionize human thought is that woman are bigger than men. I listens, but I never get it.

Cash gets it, apparently, and repeats the speculation of feminist critic Louise Westling: “If Flannery O’Connor had lived long enough for the feminist movement to arouse her awareness of society’s injustices to women and of her own repressed rage, surely she would have confronted these problems consciously in her stories.”

It’s hard to imagine a more perverse, more gratuitously wrong-headed reading of a compatriot and approximate contemporary (O’Connor died in 1964). Yet Cash does Westling one better when she suggests that O’Connor’s villain-clowns—bogus intellectuals like Wesley in “Greenleaf” and Hulga in “Good County People”—are meant to be mouthpieces of legitimate artistic protest against the constraints of rural domesticity. Those who have long loved Flannery O’Connor will wince, but perhaps the ironist was reconciled even to her failures: her dog is still named Spot, and almost nobody sees the joke.

Cash makes no contribution to our understanding of O’Connor the writer, but it hardly matters; her writing is its own most eloquent expositor. That said, Cash does perform a valuable service in forcefully making the case that O’Connor was not a lesbian, crypto- or otherwise, contra many in the contemporary Lit Crit business (“She died unmarried at 39, ergo . . . ”). This is an area in which O’Connor cannot answer for herself, and Cash’s interviews and arguments conclusively rebut the charge. Hers is an entirely honorable accomplishment, and, while it doesn’t make the book worth buying, or reading, let it be reckoned unto her as righteousness.

Paul Mankowski, S.J., teaches at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.