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Flannery O’Connor and friends, revisited

Good Things Out of Nazareth, a new collection of previously unpublished letters, is a powerful reminder of the intensity of Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic faith.

Robie Macauley with Arthur Koestler and Flannery O'Connor at Amana Colonies in Iowa, October 9, 1947. (Cmacauley/Wikipedia)

Her fiction may occasionally get the chop in politically correct 21st-century American high schools. But as Benjamin Alexander writes in the preface to a new collection of her letters, Flannery O’Connor’s place in the pantheon of American short story writers seems safe, up there with Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. (I’d be tempted to drop Hemingway from the canon, but that’s a matter for another day.) Good Things Out of Nazareth makes for an even richer read, however, because Dr. Alexander amplifies O’Connor’s previously unpublished letters with correspondence from (and among) Caroline Gordon, Walker Percy, and others in O’Connor’s wide circle of friendship.

For aspiring writers, the O’Connor/Gordon correspondence is particularly fascinating. Caroline Gordon was a Catholic convert and a central figure in the Southern literary renaissance of the mid-20th century. To read her letters advising Flannery O’Connor how to sharpen a story is to watch a master editor at work. Like O’Connor, Gordon’s own fiction was deeply influenced by her Catholic faith. So, one learns, was her unsparing sense of literary worth. Thus Gordon, writing to a friend in 1953:

“I hope you and Fannie will run into Flannery O’Connor sometime…[Robert] Lowell says she is a saint, but then he is given to extravagance. She may be, though, at that. She is a cradle Catholic…but she sure is a powerful Catholic. No nonsense about her! She has some dire disease — some form of arthritis — and is kept going only by a huge dose of something called ACTH. We are expected to adore all the Lord’s doings, but it does give you pause when you reflect that this gifted girl will probably not be with us long, whereas Truman Capote will live to a ripe old age, laden down with honors….”

Then there is Walker Percy writing to Caroline Gordon about being a Southerner and a Catholic, in a letter Gordon shared in 1952 with another member of the Southern Agrarian movement, Andrew Lytle. Wrote Gordon to Lytle, “I had a letter from Walker Percy….the other day in answer to some things said about St. Thomas More. That boy is sure smart: His letter is so good that I have copied [an] excerpt from it and [am] sending it to you…” Percy’s letter is a fascinating window into the Catholic Fifties in the Old Confederacy:

“I agree with you about St. Thomas More [Percy wrote Gordon]. He is, for us, the Road Back. For our countrymen, I mean, for southerners. For More is the spiritual ancestor of Lee. He is the man to pray to for the conversion of the south. One of the stumbling blocks to the Southerner (or the American) who is drawn to the Church is that he sees, not the Church of More, not the English Church which is his spiritual home, but the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori by way of the Irish Jesuits. If he does go in, he must go in with his face averted and his nose held against this odor of Italian-Irish pietism and all the bad statues and architecture. Of course this is somewhat exaggerated and prideful, because it is a salutary experience in obedience and humility to take St. Alphonsus. (Hell, he was a great saint!) But if Allen [Tate, Gordon’s husband] is forming a St. Thomas More Society I want in.”

Say what you will about the judgments; you don’t get that kind of crisp writing on Twitter.

Above all, Good Things Out of Nazareth — Gordon’s biblical metaphor for the Southern literary renaissance, which Dr. Alexander adopts for his title — is a powerful reminder of the intensity of Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic faith: an intensity that was unmarked by sentimentality, that was informed by an astonishingly broad reading in the Fathers of the Church and St. Thomas Aquinas, and that sustained her through many dark nights of the soul, both literary and physical. At the end, that is the deepest impression her letters leave: here is a woman of extraordinary courage whose configuration of her life to the Cross was a source of both personal strength and literary genius.

The O’Connor letters in The Habit of Being introduced the world to Flannery O’Connor’s exceptional skills as a Catholic apologist able to explain the faith to others. Good Things Out of Nazareth fills out the portrait of Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic seeking to plumb the depths of the tradition and finding professional inspiration and spiritual liberation in doing so.


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About George Weigel 257 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). His new book The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform was published by Basic Books on September 17.

5 Comments

  1. I surely hope that Flannery’s stories do not get “the chop” in politically correct classrooms. That would be a huge loss. But I can see how that might come to pass.

  2. An avid reader often meditating on her moral messaging couched ‘outrageously’ ever so truthfully leaving no one unscathed George Weigel deserves accolade for this really good informative essay on the best of Am short story writing. It’s the shorter works the often reveal the gifts of the artist. Similar to Beethoven who when had the financial luxury after publishing his symphonies of writing trios and quartets said Now I can write real music.

  3. I first came across the Gordon to Lytle letter Weigel cites containing Percy’s comment on St. Thomas More in the Vanderbilt Library archives almost 40 years ago, and it blew me away. Here was Percy, who though thoroughly exposed to Anglicanism in the environs of Sewanee (TN) could not, along with his wife, find in it a home but found it instead in what he saw as the English Church of More. Various members of the family had been Episcopalians (and Presbyterian, as was his maternal grandmother of Athens, GA), but the ecclesia founded by the crucified one was not for him located in those communions. The relationship, by the way, between Percy and O’Connor is fascinating in itself, one a convert, the other a cradle Catholic but both arriving at a similar places with widely (or wildly) varying gifts. See for instance Percy’s Father Smith’s “Confession” in the Thanatos Syndrome and O’Connor in “A Memoir of Mary Ann” on “tenderness” as divorced from the source of tenderness in Christ. (Did Percy borrow this from FOC? Hard to say.)

    • Thomas Hubert,
      Yes that’s an interesting point. Embracing Catholicism in the South, outside of New Orleans perhaps, was to embrace the immigrant, the newcomer , the less established classes, even the Yankee.
      It’s simaler to that experience in Britain.
      Robert Lowell took a path to the Catholic Church also and suffered for it. Sadly, his mental health and other issues affected the length of his stay.

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