Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
“The writer operates at the crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet,” Flannery O’Connor once observed. “His problem is to find that location.”
O’Connor, a devout Catholic long celebrated as one of the greatest American short story writers of the 20th century, placed her strange, quirky characters in the “Christ-haunted” South.
There, self-righteous Christians and evildoers alike found themselves ambushed by the grace of the Holy Spirit. In O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a smug, class-conscious grandmother sets off with relatives on a family holiday in Florida, only to meet her maker at the hands of an escaped convict known as “The Misfit.”
“Only at the barrel of a gun does the matriarch reveal her first sign of humanity,” thus opening herself to the possibility of redemption, explains a commentator in Uncommon Grace: The Life of Flannery O’Connor, a documentary that will air several times this week on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
Those who have relished her award-winning stories and novels will learn about the personal struggles and philosophical themes that shaped the legacy of the author, who died from lupus at age 39.
Baptized Mary Flannery, she quickly developed a distinctive approach to her faith. For example, she refused to join the children’s Mass at her parish church, preferring to sit with her parents and other adults.
She was especially close to her father, Edward O’Connor, with whom she shared her writings and illustrations.
“I am only 14 years old, but I feel I need to bring literature into being,” she explained, as she began to spend more time alone writing and drawing.
When her father, whom she called her “best friend,” died of lupus during her adolescence, it was her first brush with mortality — and an omen of things to come — even as her literary talent would later earn a coveted fellowship at the graduate writing program at the University of Iowa.
A promising start as a New York-based fiction writer followed, until her own diagnosis with lupus forced her to return home to Georgia, and move in with her mother, who cared for the author for the remainder of her short life.
Uncommon Grace offers a sympathetic look at her growth as a writer and a believing Christian who remained enthralled by the mystery of faith, and strengthened by her devotion to the Blessed Virgin.
Likewise, the documentary notes her prescient critique of moral relativism, which had established a beachhead in elite culture.
The protagonist in Wise Blood, her first novel, founds the "Holy Church of Christ Without Christ," but discovers that he lacks the power to redeem a fallen world. Uncommon Grace frames the novel as a story about “the role of faith in a world that increasingly saw it as irrelevant.”
Yet, O’Connor never employed a traditional brand of religious piety to get her point across. Instead, her plots often turned on acts of violent, sometimes lethal force, and this shocked and mystified some of her fellow Christians.
The experts, who have studied O’Connor’s fiction and share their insights in Uncommon Grace, say she rejected “sugar coated pieties” in the belief that shock therapy was needed to grab the attention of jaded readers.
Joy Hulga, the angry overeducated spinster in the short story, “Good Country People,” partly serves as a placeholder for the postmodernists who controlled the liberal arts departments of U.S. universities.
Hulga believes she can seduce and outsmart a traveling salesman, only to find herself abandoned by the man, a con artist. As he makes his exit, the salesman brags that he didn’t need her string of graduate degrees to believe in “nothing,” and was born that way.
“Good Country People” also signaled O’Connor’s distrust of atheistic ideologies, which promised to liberate men from God and the "crutch" of organized religion.
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky warned, “Without God, anything is possible.” The gas chambers of Auschwitz and the gulags of the Soviet Union proved him right, but many American intellectuals and writers never made that connection.
In contrast, O’Connor created stories and characters that clarified the truth that God’s laws protected his human creatures from the lure of absolute power, while nihilism opened the door to enslavement by the Devil.
O’Connor “was afraid for the souls” of people in a world without God, one professor explains in Uncommon Grace.
She examined these universal themes in the particular context of the rural South. In her world, the battle between good and evil occasionally breaks into daily life, like the family that takes a road trip to Florida, but is stopped dead by The Misfit.
As Uncommon Grace explains, the point of O’Connor’s fiction “is not to count the dead bodies.” Rather, it is to see “the act of grace in the stories.”
This grace, at least in O’Connor’s fiction, is experienced through an epiphany, a jolting awareness of the totality of God’s loving providence.
The author’s poor health provides further context for her examination of impending death, as the documentary makes clear.
When Flannery was diagnosed with lupus, the twentysomething writer faced a death sentence, and that surely helped to clarify her immediate concerns as a believer and writer.
Still, when O’Connor made a short pilgrimage to Lourdes, she owned that she had petitioned the Blessed Virgin for help with her writing, not her health. Even so, the film reports that a painful hip condition did improve after her visit, allowing her to operate without crutches for the first time in years.
The reprieve did not last, however, and she died in 1964, before her 40th birthday.
Until the end, her poor health seemed to enliven, rather than diminish, her creative talents and spiritual insights. In the end, the remarkable body of work produced by a frail woman of indomitable spirit is another mystery Uncommon Grace can only partly explain.