Flannery O’Connor


Joyce Carol Oates adds to her many writings on Flannery O’Connor in the April 9 New York Review of Books with The Parables of Flannery O’Connor, a review-essay around Brad Gooch’s biography of O’Connor. JCO, a great admirer of O’Connor’s work, speaks of  her “cartoon art” (but this term is desrciptive, not derogatory):

Is the art of caricature a lesser or secondary art, set beside what we might call the art of complexity or subtlety? Is “cartoon” art invariably inferior to “realist” art? The caricaturist has the advantage of being cruel, crude, reductive, and often very funny; as the “realist” struggles to establish the trompe l’oeil of verisimilitude, without which the art of realism has little power to persuade, the caricaturist wields a hammer, or an ax, or sprays the target with machine-gun fire, transmuting what might be rage—the savage indignation of Jonathan Swift, for instance—into devastating humor. Satire is the weapon of rectitude, a way of meting out punishment. Satire regrets nothing, and revels in unfairness in its depiction of what Flannery O’Connor called “large and startling figures.”

JCO has previously written on:

O’Connor’s story “The Artificial Nigger”: “This graceful, parable-like short story, with its precise, weighted language and its comically sympathetic rural Georgians Mr. Head and his ten-year-old grandson Nelson, is virtually unique in Flannery O’Connor’s oeuvre, ending not in violent death, nor even in devastating irony, but with tenderness.”

O’Connors letters: “The experience of reading these collected letters (which are, in fact, rigorously selected letters) is a disturbing one: but tonic, provocative, intriguing. For while it cannot be said of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction that she revealed herself anywhere within it—her strategy was to submerge herself, to “correct” emotion by means of art—it must be said of the letters that they give life to a wonderfully warm, witty, generous, and complex personality, surely one of the most gifted of contemporary writers.”

O’Connors essays: “Reading and rereading this book is a moving experience: not only is Mystery and Manners (Occasional Prose of Flannery O’Connor, selected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald) a valuable and exciting collection of essays in itself, it is a testament to the deep humanity of Miss O’Connor, to the modesty and wisdom and gentle humor that lay behind her vivid, sometimes repulsive fictional accomplishments. Her death at the age of thirty-nine is one of our bitterest losses.”

And in JCO’s most extensive essay, on O’Connor’s fiction: “It is this complexity that makes the fiction of Flannery O’Connor so rich and at the same time so perplexing and alienating. She seems unique in her celebration of the necessity of succumbing to the divine through violence that is immediate and irreparable. There is no mysticism in her work that is only spiritual; it is physical as well. She has been accused of being un-Christian or anti-Christian in her insistence upon the limitations of the human will. For, as she says in an introductory note to her first novel, Wise Blood, ” … free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery …. ” Her refusal to account for the mystery leads to the bizarre atmosphere of her world.”