Flannery, Milton, and Me

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Most of you probably don’t know that I’m working on a biography of Flannery O’Connor to be released in 2012. This will be part of Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounters series of short biographies. (My 2010 Saint Patrick book is from the first round of the same series).

Flannery O’Connor, like me, was a Middle Georgian. She’s always been one of my favorite writers. But she’s more than a favorite writer; she is one of the twin poles of my writerly world, the other being John Milton.

I was in tenth or eleventh grade the first time I read Milton’s Paradise Lost. As they say in the romantic comedies, Milton had me from hello. His language soars so high, plunges so deep. Whole worlds opened up as I immersed myself in that strange music.

Milton’s language was foreign enough to stretch me, and his allusions were just obscure enough to make me long for the erudition required to enjoy Milton fully. My academic path was set: I wanted to know enough to understand Milton.

Readers of fantasy fiction talk about fantasy taking them to other worlds. That’s exactly what Paradise Lost did for me. I can’t say I mean that literally, exactly, but I do mean it more than metaphorically. I don’t quite know how to articulate this, but something about the foreignness of Milton’s language propelled me, for better or worse, beyond Middle Georgia’s gravitational pull.

My academic career was a journey away from home. Being a scholar is mostly a matter of talking smart—which is to say, talking less and less like I talked normally. As it turned out, I was a skilled enough linguist to pick up this second language quite easily. And as a specialist in Milton, I burned with an Anglophilia that was tinged with a disdain for American arts and letters. Twain was nice. Faulkner was brilliant. Can you imagine, I thought, what they could have been if only they spoke the Mother Tongue?

But if Milton took me to another world, Flannery O’Connor brought me home again (this was years after my academic career was over and I was again free to read what I wanted to read and like what I wanted to like). It was Flannery O’Connor who made me see the artistic power that inheres in my native tongue. I don’t just mean American English, or even Southern English, but Middle Georgia English.

There are turns of phrase in O’Connor’s stories (and even more in her letters) that I’ve heard all my life but never expected to see on a printed page. I’m not talking about local color. I’m talking about a writer giving voice to the deepest of truth in speech that is beautiful and soul-stirring, but not elevated. It’s earthy speech, O’Connor’s native tongue. And the fact that I share her native tongue has made a huge difference for me as a writer. It has given me tremendous confidence to know that my lived experience—the language, the people, the social dynamics, the landscapes—is the stuff of great art. I don’t make any particular claims for Middle Georgia. My native tongue is no better than anybody else’s. But to see what Flannery O’Connor did with it was a gift and a legacy.

This post was first published at Jonathan’s blog, www.jonathan-rogers.com.

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Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


24 Comments

  1. Fellow Traveler

    O’Connor is undeniably gifted, but I’ve found it difficult to appreciate her work. She writes with a hard, cold brilliance that is at once impressive and unsettling. I can certainly name authors that I enjoy more even if I would at the same time freely admit that they are not as talented.

    The reason why I simply cannot bring myself to like O’Connor, after reading through many of her stories, is that I have trouble seeing any indication that she cares about her characters. Time and again, she takes the reader into a story, only to turn around with what can sometimes feel like a slap in the face as things are brought to a harsh, jolting end. If I go back through the story and try to find some sort of compassion or love, I sense that I am searching in vain.

    “The River” is hands-down her best story and my personal favorite. There is a tenderness in the way she handles and portrays the boy that makes that story particularly moving. However, that kind of tenderness is rare for O’Connor.

    Joseph Conrad said that the calling of an artist was to hold up the rescued fragment snatched from the jaws of time. I envision the artist picking it up, gently dusting it off, and triumphantly holding it aloft, offering mankind that glimpse of truth for which they have forgotten to ask…yet not without love. The fragment must be rescued with love if it is to shine with its full lustre.

  2. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    It’s true that tenderness is in short supply in FO’s stories. But tenderness isn’t the only way of expressing or practicing love. The awful things that happen to her characters bring moments of revelation; it is in those moments (and only in those moments) that those characters see truths to which they have willfully blinded themselves. For all the violence in FO’s stories, I don’t think there’s meaningless violence.

    I would also add that the question of whether or not FO loves her character isn’t nearly so relevant as the question of whether or not she loves her readers.

  3. Fellow Traveler

    “I would also add that the question of whether or not FO loves her character isn’t nearly so relevant as the question of whether or not she loves her readers.”

    Don’t you think the two are connected to a non-negligible extent?

  4. Jess

    Hmm. I can’t pretend to be an expert on O’Connor because I’ve only read a few of her stories. But what I found when I read those few is that while they seem to have a lack of emotion in the writer, they bring about a flood of emotion in the reader (or, at least, me). It’s a sort of different style; it’s not about the characters. It’s about the truthful representation of life as it is, it’s about the point of grace, it’s about the lessons learned (or not learned). That’s just my take on it–like I said, I’m not an expert, and I doubt I’m totally correct.

  5. Fellow Traveler

    O’Connor is indeed unusual in that you rarely feel an “authorial voice” when you read her stories. There is a stark quality to them because she distances herself so completely from what is happening to her characters.

    Contrast with Williams, who spends pages telling the reader exactly what is going on and what he thinks about it.

  6. Donna

    I *loved* this post, particularly the way Jonathan describes how he experiences the language of both writers. I experience writing in that same way. Thank you for this.

  7. Hannah

    Fellow Traveler,

    I definitely see what you’re saying, and you say it very well. At the same time, I find myself on the opposite side of the fence. I think O’Connor’s stories burn with a fierce charity. Very hot flame can look white or blue like the cold of snow, but its heat softens even steel.

    I think that O’Connor gravitates to characters with hearts of steel, characters who can be softened by nothing else than searing flame. When they pass through the fire of grace, they are destroyed, one way or another. If they refuse to accept grace even when it is so intensely turned upon them, then they are truly destroyed by that refusal. If they finally do accept it, then the shape of their old lives melt away and they are remade into something new. I think this is what happens to woman in “Revelation” and the young Tarwater at the end of The Violent Bear It Away.

    I would definitely agree that O’Connor sometimes feels cold, but I think over time the stories grow warmer, so that one feels the transformative fire of grace as well as its fierce surprise. “Revelation” and The Violent Bear It Away, both written toward the end of her life, are deeper and more inviting than her early work, to me at least.

    But I love O’Connor because she sees that grace means the wreck of our lives as we have always wanted to live them. To accept the Kingdom is to accept the fact that it will uproot and destroy the tidy world we are trying to make for ourselves and give us something far better and far wilder.

  8. Rebekka

    “I think O’Connor’s stories burn with a fierce charity. Very hot flame can look white or blue like the cold of snow, but its heat softens even steel. ”

    Love this. And I will definitely read the biography.

  9. BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck

    I read _Wise Blood_ a few months ago. I was so deeply agitated by brutality of O’Connor’s style, I packed the thing up half-read and drove over to the library to get it out of my house. I tossed it spinning onto the return desk like the body of a dead rat, then suddenly grabbed it back up before the librarian could touch it.

    “I HATE this wretched book!” I told her sternly, “But it’s brilliant!” Then, I took it home and finished it.

    O’C’s work often has that effect on me. I read her guiltily, like someone looking back to get a glimpse of a wreck. She leaves me penitent, horrified by my human potential to become the monsters she creates.

    All that to say, I am really looking forward to reading your book, Jonathan. I love the way you interact with literature, and I feel like this resource is going to be a vital tool for folks like me who have a love/hate relationship with O’Connor. I need this book and can’t wait to get my hands on it.

  10. Jonathan Rogers

    Hannah, that’s a brilliant summary of how FO’s stories do their work on us. One of the amazing things about her is the fact that she is so willing to be misunderstood by her readers. She resists the temptation to pull back and say, “Here’s what you’re supposed to get out of this story.” She trusts the story to do its work.

    BuckBuck, I get the love/hate thing, but I don’t think you need to feel guilty reading FO’s stories. They’re hard to look at in the way that some of the Old Testament prophets are hard to look at.

  11. Sondorik

    It’s always fascinating to me to learn who has influenced writers in their early, yet-to-be-published years. Which O’Conner title would you recommend to the uninitiated, Jonathan? Your own highly anticipated biography excepted. (Finished Saint Patrick, by the way. Intriguing story. It also increased my fondness for Bailey’s Irish Cream.)

  12. Jonathan Rogers

    Sondorik, I definitely recommend that you start with the short stories rather than the novels…and the short stories that you’ve heard of: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “Good Country People,” “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” “Revelation.”

    Fellow Traveler, you asked when FO wrote “The River.” That was an early one. She mentions it in a letter in 1952 (she would have been 26 or 27), and it was published in The Kenyon Review shortly thereafter, I think. It was published in the collection called A Good Man Is Hard to Find in 1955.

  13. Aaron Alford

    At the encouragement of the Rabbit Room, (and because of all the books mentioned in ‘Lost’, it’s the only one that gets a huge close-up!) I read Everything That Rises Must Converge. I, too, was shocked at the violence of her characters. But oh-so-good, too.

    It’s interesting that she had a background in writing comedy and satire. Often the things that make good comedy also make great tragedy. And, often, good satire doesn’t necessarily try to make us laugh. I’d love to hear (read) your thoughts on her sense of humour and satire.

  14. Jonathan Rogers

    Hey, Aaron, I’m not entirely sure what you’re referring to when you speak of FO’s “background in writing comedy and satire.” She definitely wrote comedy, but it’s right there in the stories we all know…which is to say, in the foreground rather than in her background. As for satire, you may be using the word in a different sense from the way I would use it, but I don’t see her as a satirist. A satirist, to my way of thinking, reduces his or her characters to objects of mockery–to something less than human. There is definitely some ironic distance in FO’s stories, but I don’t think that distance is far short of the distance a satirist puts between himself and his characters. I know some people read meanness in FO’s stories, but I don’t read them that way. I agree with Hannah’s remark upthread: FO’s stories “burn with a fierce charity” that doesn’t usually square with a satirical vision.

    As for FO’s use of humor, I think she just has a keen sense that the ridiculous is a key part of what it means to be human. I know from her letters that she saw the ridiculous in herself as much as she saw it in anyone else. I think Chesterton provides a lot of insight too. Consider the last chapter or two of Orthodoxy…which I don’t have in front of me at the moment.

    Wish I could be more detailed…hopefully I’ll get a chance to circle back around later. But maybe that gives you a little something to chew on.

  15. Jen

    Last year, I took on the Complete Stories anthology because I was thinking about Southern literature and feeling crazy. By the end, I was glad I’d made the effort, but not really sure what to think.

    I can relate to what both Fellow Traveler and BuckBuck are saying… I don’t know if I love or hate her writing. Maybe both. I love her command of language and complex characters, but the stories, at least on the first read through, often left me cold and wanting something more.

    However, with one exception: “Revelation.” It’s one of those things I had to read in a literature class that truly changed me and stuck with me, and is absolutely my favorite of hers, probably one of my favorite stories of all time. The ending is going to haunt me forever.

    Maybe I just need to give it another shot, only read slower, deeper, and in smaller doses? I know she’s brilliant, and that there’s more to the stories under the surface, but it’ll take some digging. I’ll be curious to read your biography when it comes out!

  16. Aaron Alford

    Thanks, Mr. Rogers.

    I cannot pretend to be more than just starting to learn about O’Connor, so forgive me. I seemed to remember something about her writing comedy pieces for her university. Upon further Googling, I see that I was remembering that she’d been the paper’s unofficial cartoonist!

    As for satire, I definitely mean it in the broader sense of the term, and not just as caricatured meanness.

    I think you can truly love the character you’re writing and still be in the realm of satire. It’s a way of putting the human condition on display. Done badly, it makes me feel like I’m better than the other guy. Done well, it let’s me smile sheepishly and say, “Oh. Right. That’s me.”

  17. Casey

    I had to read Flannery O short stories my freshman year in college and I was super traumatized. I wrote a paper on how much I hate her stories.

    Later I was reading a footnote in my Bible, and it quoted FO. SHE WAS IN MY BIBLE!!! I was so mad! Shouldn’t the Bible have been safe from FO?

    After a few years have passed, I’ve heard her referenced enough that I was thinking about giving her another shot. I’m scared though.

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