My Friend, Mary Flannery

I’ve always felt a kinship with Flannery O’Connor. I hope to meet her in heaven, but until then I’ll read what she wrote, and biographies that others have written about her.

IS IT WEIRD to be friends with someone who died years before you ever heard of them? Not if you believe in the Communion of the Saints, I guess. At any rate, since I first read any of her work, way back in my college days, I’ve thought of Flannery O’Connor as a friend I never got a chance to meet. There are some parallels in our lives (for instance, we both grew up in the South and attended the University of Iowa as graduate students — where we even worshiped in the same parish, Saint Mary’s.) Since then, I’ve come to know her better and I can imagine that we will enjoy each other’s company in Eternity. I can imagine us laughing at each other’s jokes (dry wit, our specialty) and completing each others’ sentences — you know, when we aren’t discussing theology or doing imitations of our country cousins.

While a graduate student in Iowas City, Flannery liked to visit the nearby Amana Colonies with her classmates, as I did myself thirty-five years later.

I don’t suppose it really is so weird to look forward to great conversations after death, especially with those we never got a chance to meet in this life. Socrates did, you know, Socrates, you know, when he had been sentenced to death by his fellow Athenians as punishment for making the local bigwigs and know-it-alls look foolish. His fellow citizens though he was setting a bad example for young people, but when they decreed that he must die for his crimes against social conventions, he just wagged his finger at the jury and said, “I know you fellows think you’re being really harsh by condemning me to death, but I don’t see it that way. No one knows exactly what death is like but it is either the Big Sleep that never ends (and who doesn’t love a nice, long dreamless sleep?) or it’s a chance to have endless conversations with all the wise and interesting people who have died before you.” That was Socrates’ idea of heaven — one long, interesting conversation among wise people. It’s not a bad idea, I think.

Her Works

Although I hope to meet my friend, Mary Flannery, in Heaven and share some good times (the best!), I’ve enjoyed getting to know her through her writing and her friends’ accounts of her. Here are some books I can recommend.

Collected Works (The Library of America), selected and edited by Flannery’s good friend and literary executrix, Sally Fitzgerald

This is the book to get if you want to get up to speed on Flannery O’Connor quickly. It includes all her short stories, both her novels, and a goodly selection of her essays and personal correspondence. If you are unfamiliar with her work, start with the short stories — I recommend “Revelation” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” as quintessential O’Connor stories, but don’t stop there. This is one of those books that I’d want to have if I were stranded on a desert isle.

The Habit of Being , letters edited and with an introduction by Sally Fitzgerald. 

If you know anything about Flannery O’Connor, you probably know that she suffered from lupus, a disease which eventually killed her at age thirty-nine; it also forced her to give up her independent life and move back to Georgia to live with her mother, with whom she shared a tense, if devoted, relationship. Since she couldn’t get out much, she became a prolific correspondent, with friends, strangers, and admirers alike. These letters give a wonderful sense of her personality, which was witty, generous, and self-deprecating.

Biographies of Flannery O’Connor

Between these two books, you’ll have almost everything Flannery O’Connor ever wrote that has appeared in print, with the exception of some book reviews she used to write for her diocesan newspaper. But you’ll want to know more, which means you’ll want to read biographies of her. Be warned, most biographies reveal more about the biographer than the biographee. Here are some that I have read and not absolutely hated.

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor , by Brad Gooch 

Gooch obviously is a great admirer of my friend Flannery, but he doesn’t quite get her — which was probably also true of the men who actually knew her. Gooch is very interested in such men (there were only a couple, and O’Connor’s relationships with them never really developed into romances), so his discussion of the two or three young men who were close to Flannery adds something that you won’t get from her own letters (at least not the ones that Sally Fitzgerald saw fit to publish). Gooch has a tendency to see O’Connor’s stories as fictional elaborations of incidents in her real life, which at times seemed to me a bit of a stretch. Flannery would have HATED the suggestion that she wrote her own life into the stories. Read my full review here on Library Thing.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage , by Paul Elie

This is actually four biographies rolled into one: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. I’ll let Elie explain why he combines all these:

“Taken together, their stories are told as episodes in a recent chapter of American religious history, in which four Catholics of rare sophistication overcame the narrowness of the Church and the suspicions of the culture to achieve a distinctly American Catholic outlook.” [In other words, the AmChurch perspective.]

 “All of that is true and worth knowing. This book, though, will take a slightly different approach, setting out to tell their four stories as one, albeit one with four points of origin and points of view. It is, or is meant to be, the narrative of a pilgrimage, a journey in which art, life, and religious faith converge; it is a story of readers and writers — of four individuals who glimpsed a way of life in their reading and evoked it in their writing, so as to make their readers yearn to go and do likewise.”

Does that make sense to you? It didn’t make much sense to me and, when I bought this book, I just read the Flannery bits (and a few of the Walker Percy bits) and skipped Merton and Day altogether, because they weren’t what I was interested in. This method worked pretty well to produce a stand-alone bio of Flannery. These four different lives didn’t actually intersect in any significant way — i.e., although they were aware of one another and perhaps interested in each other in an academic way, they were not consciously working out any shared agenda, other than being well-known Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century. I may go back and read the Percy, Merton, and Day bits one of these days to see what Elie thought he could make of them, all put together.

It’s been a couple of years since I read The Life You Save etc., but I recall that Elie had a tendency to rank his biographees on various hot-button social and political issues, a practice that I find tedious and tendentious. “Where did Flannery O’Connor stand in matters of race?” he asks. “The black characters in O’Connor’s fiction are invariably admirable . . . [y]et at the same time there is the word ‘nigger’ running through the correspondence.” You can tell that Elie did not grow up in the South, or he would know that what is now referred to as “the N word” was used universally in the South before the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s, and was not necessarily  derogatory. It was culturally neutral, if rather uncouth. (When I was a child in the South, about the time Flannery O’Connor was dying of lupus, I was taught that “colored” was the polite term.) Anyway, why can’t Elie just describe Flannery, rather than judging her? Let her life speak for itself.

The Abbess of Andalusia – Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey , by Lorraine V. Murray

I’ll admit I haven’t actually read much of this yet. I bought it a couple of years ago, toward the end of a long, intense bout of Flanneryism, and got distracted before I got too far into it (no fault of Murray’s book). After reading the Gooch and Elie bios, I wanted to read something that gave due, and sympathetic, attention to Flannery’s deep Catholic faith — this book is certainly that. Murray apparently tries to show that Flannery, although a very “human” person with her share of sharp edges, nonetheless was deeply spiritual, and was sanctified through her suffering. Murray does not make a plaster saint of her, but she does acknowledge that Flannery became saintly.

If she is declared a saint, then let her be a saint sitting next to Regina [her mother] in the pew at Sacred Heart church, blanching at the St. Patrick’s Day decorations. Let her be a saint gazing with equal parts piety and irony at the pilgrims of Lourdes, dreading the moment of bathing in the grotto. Let her be a saint who laughs so loud that books fall from her hands. Let her be a saint from whose pen stampede the wild-eyed Hazel Motes, the lumbering Hulga, the dazed Mrs. Turpin. Let her be a saint in the same way that Thérèse was — in her own “human and terrible greatness.”

I’m looking forward to spending time with Saint Flannery in the Big Conversation of Eternity.


Since writing this post, I have downloaded a Kindle sample of a new “spiritual biography” of Flannery, called The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor , by Jonathan Rogers. The sample includes the Introduction, and a page or two of the first chapter. Judging from the introduction, I’d say this looks promising — i.e., I think Rogers “gets” Flannery. I’m not sure exactly how he’s going to approach her life, though, because he acknowledges:

No amount of poking around in the external events and facts of her life is going to get at the heart of her. There’s no accounting for Flannery O’Connor in those terms. Thankfully we have her letters, which provide windows into an inner life where whole worlds orbited and collided.

The outward constraints that O’Connor accepted and ultimately cultivated made room for an interior world as spacious and various as the heavens themselves. Her natural curiosity was harnessed and directed by an astonishing intellectual and spiritual rigor. She read voraciously, from the ancients to contemporary Catholic theologians to periodicals to novels. She once referred to herself as a “hillbilly Thomist.” She was joking, but the phrase turns out to be helpful. The raw material of her fiction was the lowest common denominator of American culture, but the sensibility that shaped the hillbilly raw material into art shared more in common with Thomas Aquinas and the other great minds of the Catholic tradition than with any practitioner of American letters, high or low. I expect I’ll wind up buying this one. When I’ve read it, as well as Lorraine Murray’s The Abbess of Andalusia, I’ll write a review of them. Watch this space!

6 replies on “My Friend, Mary Flannery”

I'm so glad you posted this! I only learned about Flannery O'Connor a few months ago (pathetic, I know) and I've been wanting to read her work ever since, but haven't found a good place to start. Thank you!

I wish you would follow the thread of Teilhard de Chardin and Flannery. I don't know your background or if you are aware that there has been a protracted struggle in the Church between modernistic forces, and traditional, but Flannery is part of that discussion. I'm currently working on the short story Revelation, looking at the text for what it says about Flannery's Catholicism, rather than listening to her pronouncements in non-fiction, like her letters. If you read the story, you will note that it is Mrs. Turpin's virtues that must be burned away before she enters heaven, and that people enter heaven in groups, racial and social. Perhaps you don't read either St. Thomas Aquinas, or Teilhard de Chardin, nor have I extensively, but if you begin to read about it, you'll see that St. Thomas promotes the virtues of which Mrs. Turpin is guilty–generous almsgiving, supporting the Church, helping others regardless of their worthines of help. It was Teilhard, whom Flannery really loved and read even when it wasn't time for bed, as she did Thomas. Teilhard, on the other hand, supports the idea that we enter heaven in groups and all enter, all, after their individual identities had been burned away. That's why he was a heretic and rejected by the Church, along with all his bogus evolutionary crap, although he influenced the Church deeply, and perhaps mortally.

It is a common modernistic trick to 'stay Catholic' and keep getting the paycheck (or the captive audience, in Flannery's case) when one actually rejects the teachings of the Church–the encyclical Pascendi wrote of this trickery and warned us that some Catholics are not what they seem to be–look it up, you'll be surprised, I'll bet! I was floored! (I'm pretty much a what-you-see-is-what-you-get person, and expect that of others, but that's not the case sometimes.)

I have a post on Flannery's book reviews on my blog, The White Lily Blog. The piece is called 'St. Flannery–Not!' Now I am trying to capture the point in a piece about the short story. She just isn't who she said she was, is what I am finding.

By the way, nice blog. I was looking for something and stumbled in. Best of luck.

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