January 28, 2023

Flannery O’Connor and the Habit of Being

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor’s short story Greenleaf has a scene where Mrs. Greenleaf shrieks “Jesus, stab me in the heart!” and falls to the ground, her legs and arms spread out “as if she were trying to wrap them around the earth.”

Mrs. May, watching this, thinks no matter how far her boys have advanced in society, they came from that…

Here’s a picture from the latest Bronner’s newsletter, the famous CHRISTmas store in Frankenmuth, Michigan, considered to be the Christmas capital of the world:

Such a contrast with this picture in today’s Wall Street Journal on the danger that Christians are experiencing in the Middle East. According to the Journal, 54 Iraqi churches have been destroyed:

Both came from this, the holy spot where Jesus was born in Bethlehem:

The criticism of institutions is that in training and educating us, these institutions also institutionalize our vision, for good and evil. Flannery O’Connor wrote to fill in the “blank world” with structure and meaning. Dying of lupus, disfigured from it, and given last rites, she continued to write to her last breath. A devout Catholic, she had no problem writing lines in Greenleaf such as “Mrs. May winced. She thought the word, Jesus, should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom. She was a good Christian woman with large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

O’Connor’s letters and writings have made her a “one woman academic industry,” according to one of her biographers, Brad Gooch. Hundreds of letters she wrote were collected into the critically acclaimed The Habit of Being. The letters show her authentic being more so than her novels. Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post critic, wrote this of her when The Habit of Being was published: “If there is, among the other major figures of American literature, one with religious faith as deep and heartfelt as O’Connor’s, that person does not leap to mind; American writers (and other artists) are more likely to be skeptical about religion than committed to it. Yet religion never descended into religiosity with O’Connor, and it certainly did nothing to ameliorate a sharp sense of humor or tart literary opinions.”

She was a product of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. The writing programs have been criticized for shaping the vision of its students into a heavily structured formula. O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood is criticized for obeying the formula that she learned at Iowa.

But O’Connor’s true self shows in the letters that she wrote in response to almost anyone writing to her. Writing to an agent for the first time, she confesses that she is a slow writer and the novel won’t be finished for another two years. She explains that she sent out the best chapter to a literary magazine and will have to wait for them to reject it and send it back before sending to the agent to consider. She presents herself as a simple, unsophisticated person in her writings, which means her perceptiveness could do a strip search faster than a TSA agent about to go on break.

O’Connor wrote of broken bodies and “eyes that keep on looking.” Christmas decorations in Frankenmuth celebrate peace on earth. Masked gunmen at churches in the Middle East don’t share in the holiday joy. Only a “simple” writer like O’Connor, with penetrating eyes and a broken body, can reconcile the two. She wrote this in one of her letters, explaining the difficulty of writing about grace: “Part of the difficulty of all this is that you write for an audience who doesn’t know what grace is and don’t recognize it when they see it. All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc.”


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