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National Book Award Classics


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The following essay appeared in the July, 2003 issue of Ingram's Advance e-letter, as part of National Book Award Classics, a monthly series of essays by Neil Baldwin, highlighting past Winners of the National Book Award.

Flannery O'Connor
A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories
Finalist for the 1956 National Book Award in Fiction *

I am sitting in a faded-white old wicker rocking chair on my screened-in back porch overlooking the garden. I take a sip of lemonade. The ceiling fan spins slowly, soundlessly. Next to the brick steps leading down to the grass, day lilies nod in a damp breeze passing through from the nearby Watchung mountains after a quick, late-afternoon shower. I turn the page, and come upon this sentence from Flannery O'Connor's story, The River - "The white Sunday sun followed at a little distance, climbing fast through a scum of gray cloud…" What a wonderful confluence of life and art, I think, and smile, and allow myself to daydream yet again as I make my way slowly in her book, marvelling at her style.

Coming to appreciate Mary Flannery O'Connor, the empathic reader struggles to see past the sadness of her brief, troubled life in order to honor the few well-wrought works she left as her legacy to American literature.

She was born as an only child into a middle-class, devoutly Roman Catholic family in Savannah, Georgia in 1925, and spent her girlhood well aware of being "different," even "freakish," not only because of her religion, but also because she was by nature shy and soft-spoken -- possessed, as she wryly put it, "with a you leave me alone or I'll bite you complex."

The family moved to her mother's birthplace, Milledgeville, when Flannery was 12. They shared the sprawling house with maiden aunts, uncles, boarders, uncles and cousins. Her father died three years later after a long struggle with lupus, and the O'Connors relocated again to her mother's family farm in Andalucia, Georgia. There, Flannery developed her literary skills, "to write as well as I can, perhaps a little better." After graduating from Georgia State College for Women, she was admitted to the Iowa Writer's Workshop, and found tutelage with founder Paul Engle, and with the distinguished critic Allan Tate. From Iowa she continued with a stay at Yaddo, the artists' colony in upstate New York, meeting Robert Giroux, Robert Lowell, and Alfred Kazin.

After a short stint in New York City, Flannery was willingly "adopted" by the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald and his wife, Sally, and lived on their farm in rural Connecticut, where she continued work on her first novel, Wise Blood, publishing chapters in Mademoiselle, Sewanee Review, and Partisan Review. And then, just as Flannery O'Connor's writing life was peaking, she, too, was attacked by the same insidious hereditary disease that claimed her father. At twenty-five years of age, suffering from the debilitating effects of lupus, she moved back to the family dairy farm where her mother cared for her during the final fourteen years of her short life.

Flannery was forced to use crutches and underwent repeated surgery; she withdrew into her work, raised peacocks, and wrote as if her life depended upon it, which in a way, by now, it did. She won three O.Henry Awards, and a succession of grants from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the Ford Foundation. The first true moment of wider recognition came her way when A Good Man is Hard to Find was nominated for the National Book Award in 1956. This was followed by National Book Award nominations in 1961, and posthumously in 1966, for The Violent Bear It Away and Everything That Rises Must Converge - and then a posthumous National Book Award victory in 1972 for The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor.

"When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs that you do," she wrote toward the end of her life, "you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock - to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures."

As a parochial school first grader, Mary Flannery O'Connor taught a chicken with backward-facing feathers to walk backwards. This odd feat was captured on film by Pathe News and shown briefly in movie theatres in the early 1930's. I mention this odd anecdote because it brings to light a gifted young woman who saw herself as an outsider from her earliest years.

This sense of being apart from the main stream permeates her fiction - whether it be Hazel Mote in Wise Blood who means to establish a Church of Truth Without Jesus; or a man known as The Misfit in A Good Man Is Hard to Find who confronts an entire family with a violent fate; or the sad little boy Bevel in The River who goes off with his baby-sitter for the day, and takes on the name of a preacher who baptizes him; or the homicidal Mr. Fortune who is determined to have his View of the Woods at any cost; or the invalid in Good Country People, Miss Joy Hopewell, in her misguided sexual pursuit of Manley Pointer.

O'Connor's work is often (conveniently) characterized as "Southern Gothic," in which sense she is compared with Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty -for that matter, one can see glimmers of the O'Connor touch in the work of Joyce Carol Oates and Donna Tartt.

Such analogizing is helpful, but only takes us so far.

This Bible-Belt Roman Catholic often came across as a staunch contrarian when speaking of the difficulties of achieving her aesthetic ideals through her work. She assessed the moral situation in the modern world and found it replete with hypocrisy. She spoke of the "shock," and the "hell" of her "Christ-haunted" South, and looked proudly for solace to Kierkegaard, T.S.Eliot, Jacques Maritain and Graham Greene - authors with a similar strain of religious confusion in their writing.

We are grateful for the blessing of Flannery O'Connor's confusion.

N.B.

* NOTE to this column: All three 1956 Winners of the National Book Award - Ten North Frederick, by John O'Hara (Fiction); An American in Italy, by Herbert Kubly (Nonfiction); and The Shield of Achilles, by W.H.Auden (Poetry) are currently out of print. We suggest you check them out at your local library.


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