Hillbilly Thomists

Flannery O’Connor scholar and friend Marion Montgomery looks back.

Last spring, Flannery O’Connor returned to the news after Emory University unveiled the complete collection of her letters to the troubled Betty Hester, or “A,” as she is known in another compilation of O’Connor’s correspondence, The Habit of Being. How would Hester’s tragic life (the media described her as a lesbian who died by self-inflicted gun shot) reflect on O’Connor? inquired the media.

The coverage turned out to be a non-event, though the letters to Hester (which addressed her wavering faith and struggles as a writer) reinforced O’Connor’s reputation as a Thomist.

“You would probably do just as well to get that plot business out of your head and start simply with a character or anything that you can make come alive,” O’Connor wrote to Hester. “Wouldn’t it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write rather than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you.”

Volumes could be written about that last sentence alone—and Marion Montgomery has, literally. Montgomery’s two-volume Hillbilly Thomist: Flannery O’Connor, St. Thomas, and the Limits of Art (McFarland) was published last year. O’Connor also plays a large role in Montgomery’s newest book, With Walker Percy at the Tupperware Party: In Company with Flannery O’Connor, T.S. Eliot, and Others, scheduled to be published by St. Augustine Press.

To call Montgomery an O’Connor scholar is an understatement. He hasn’t just studied O’Connor; he has walked in many of her footprints. He was born the same year she was, 1925, and in the same location, central Georgia. He attended the same graduate program, the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and he highlighted the same passages in Anton Pegis’ seminal work Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas.

Montgomery first encountered O’Connor’s work after he and his wife, Dorothy, joined a group of senior faculty members at the University of Georgia who met once a week to read and discuss Aquinas. Except for his time at the University of Iowa, Montgomery spent his whole academic career at the University of Georgia. He began as an undergraduate in 1947, after serving in the Army, and retired from the faculty in 1987.

“It started as a group of our social friends with a common interest in philosophy and literature,” Montgomery said to CWR from his home in Crawford, Ga. A member of the club introduced Montgomery to O’Connor’s writings, and Montgomery discovered later that while he was up in Athens, Ga., reading Aquinas, O’Connor was on her family’s farm down in Milledgeville doing the same.

“When I was doing research for Why Flannery O’Connor Stayed Home, my first book about her that I wrote in the late 1970s, I saw her copy of Anton Pegis’ Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas and noticed that she had highlighted the same passages that I had. A lot of those highlighted passages became the basis for Hillbilly Thomist,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery and O’Connor became friends. She praised him after he published in 1962 his first novel, The Wandering of Desire. “The Southern writer can out-write anybody in the country because he has the Bible and a little history. You have more than your share of both and a splendid gift besides,” she wrote to him. The letter appears in The Habit of Being.

O’Connor and Montgomery shared many ideas, enough ideas, in fact, that she expressed a desire “to be on the same program” with him at a writer’s workshop someday. But her premature death at the age of 39 ended that possibility.

A well-known scholar and friend of Montgomery’s, Gerhart Niemeyer, once wrote an essay about him titled “Why Marion Montgomery Has to Ramble.” Montgomery approved of the title, but “ramble” has connotations of aimlessness and leisure that don’t describe Montgomery at all. Actually, no single word could provide an adequate description, but a simple example gets close.

The title of his upcoming book, With Walker Percy at the Tupperware Party: In Company with Flannery O’Connor, T.S. Eliot, and Others, originally had Fyodor Dostoevsky and Gabriel Marcel in the title as well, but the publisher said the cover wasn’t big enough. The “Tupperware party” is a reference to a quote from Walker Percy in a talk he gave titled “How to be an American Novelist in Spite of Being Southern and Catholic.” The full quote reads, “Catholic or Protestant, the believing writer is equally unhappy. He feels like Lancelot in search of the Holy Grail who finds himself at the end of his quest at a Tupperware party.” The quote is also the epigraph to the first chapter of Hillbilly Thomist.

Patrick J. Walsh probably gives the best description of Montgomery’s writing in his review of Montgomery’s book Eudora Welty and Walker Percy: The Concept of Home in Their Lives and Literature in Modern Age: “Montgomery’s books, which are not strictly literary criticism, incorporate a wide body of theology, philosophy, and poetry. Many enlightening statements from these sources reflect and play off one another like light through a multifaceted crystal.”

Just discussing this book title can send conversation with Montgomery off in any number of directions—literature, philosophy, religion, the South. Montgomery loves to talk about it all.

“I used to tell my students that my responsibility as a teacher was to muddy the water for them, and they would have to wade around and wait for the water to clear. As it clears, you see deeper and deeper into it,” he said.

An expert in navigating the muddy waters is Dr. Michael Jordan. He studied for his doctorate under Montgomery, and the two have remained friends. Jordan invites him to speak occasionally at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Mich., where Jordan is the chairman of the English department.

“Mr. Montgomery will challenge even the strongest readers. He taught great Western literature for years and years. What is old-hat to him is not oldhat for the rest of us. I can follow him on a lot of things, but when he gets into the finer points of Aquinas or modern philosophy I have to take him at his word,” he said.

Montgomery has written over 30 books, including novels and collections of poetry, but Jordan thinks he will be remembered most for his literary criticism.

Then there is the matter of Montgomery’s output. Even though he’s in his 80s, he’s still publishing at least one book per year. And the books are big. Hillbilly Thomist is over 700 pages stretched across two volumes, and could have ballooned to over 1,000 pages if the pages were of average size.

“I’ve often wondered how he managed to read as much as he has and cover as much as he has, all the while raising five children and entertaining innumerable grandchildren and the people that pass through. I suspect thathe has a photographic memory,” Jordan said.

And he writes everything on a 1925 Remington manual typewriter. “Not using a computer has not held him back any. To tell you the truth, I’m his literary executor, and I haven’t been able to keep up,” Jordan said.

“It’s not that I object to laptops, I’m just not comfortable with them,” Montgomery said. “I like the feel, the noise, and the immediate piece of paper with words on it that I get from a manual typewriter.”

“I need to write a book in order to give a paper,” Montgomery added, explaining a book project about Nathaniel Hawthorne he began as a series of lectures at Hillsdale.

His output also shows the influence of St. Thomas on him. First, a thing must exist. “I have no idea who is going to publish the Hawthorne book. I haven’t even thought about it. I’ve just been trying to finish. I usually write what I have to write, and then I try to figure out who, if anybody, would be interested afterwards,” Montgomery said.

In the 1980s, Montgomery gave a series of lectures that became the book Possum, and Other Receipts for the Recovery of ‘Southern’ Being. Montgomery argues in it that “the South is more open to existence out of which St. Thomas himself moves. Implicit in those lectures is the argument that St. Thomas has a Southernness to him with his understanding of the natural law.”

“I began those lectures with, ‘First, catch a possum.’ That’s what I do. First I write it, and then I figure out how it has to be cooked and served,” Montgomery said. “The first thing is to try and clarify your own thought. It is not the end but the starting point.”

“Flannery O’Connor understood that. She wasn’t against publication, but she knew what the primary intent of her writing was. That’s why she wasn’t much affected by audience response or Gallup Poll numbers,” he said.

An article about Marion Montgomery wouldn’t be complete without discussing literature in the South. “Somebody asked Walker Percy why the South had such a flowering of literature. He said it was because we lost the war,” Montgomery said. “In losing the war, we began like Dante coming to himself in a dark wood at the beginning of the Divine Comedy. Physical, intellectual, and spiritual survival was at issue in a crucial way to a lot of folks in the South. It meant holding on to things in a way that helped maintain what an agnostic would call a ‘fundamentalist throwback,’ but in the long run it proved for both Percy and O’Connor a source of intellectual and spiritual vitality.”

This ethos has also energized Montgomery’s body of work. When I talked to him in July, he was on the fourth draft of his book on Hawthorne. He estimates it will be over 500 pages.


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About Mark Sullivan 0 Articles
Mark Sullivan is a songwriter and guitarist living in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the co-author, with Mike Aquilina, of St. Monica and the Power of Persistent Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013).