Flannery O’Connor was not only one of America’s most accomplished authors of the 20th century — she was also a devout Catholic whose writings reflected her deep faith.
Henry Edmondson III, a professor of public administration and political science at the Georgia College and State University, has studied her work for many years. GCSU is the former Georgia State College for Women, where Flannery O’Connor studied in the 1940s. Her works are housed in the Special Collections area of the GCSU Library and Information Technology Center.
Edmondson spoke at a major conference on the author from the American South this spring at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. In this interview with Register correspondent Edward Pentin, he explains how O’Connor was especially effective in conveying how grace is visible in people’s everyday lives.
What were the main points you wanted to get across in your talk on Flannery O’Connor?
The main points had to do with the influence that several European thinkers had on O’Connor, both philosophers and novelists — which were both negative as well as positive influences. I use those relationships as a means to try to elucidate on her work and also the principal theme of her literature, which is the action of grace in the characters in her stories and the ways in which grace often comes with suffering, but not always.
I also discussed the reason why O’Connor employs what she calls the grotesque — the grotesqueness in her stories. And the reason is largely because we are insensible to the work of grace, to the opportunities of grace in our lives, and the cooperation with grace. For that reason, she uses extreme literary devices to demonstrate how grace can intervene in a multitude of ways in the lives of ordinary characters. If her characters seem extraordinary, it is really because she is employing these literary devices to say something about the ordinary. But since so much religious language has become bland, she turns to these extraordinary means to explain what should happen ordinarily for those who are willing to cooperate in the opportunities of grace. Some of the Europeans she admired in one way or the other will sometimes, in different ways, attempt the same thing, although they do it differently and employ different means. There is, nonetheless, something of a parallel track going across the board.
She set up situations that showed sin, suffering and grace. More specifically, how did she do that in a way that would attract the readers’ attention?
Well, she clobbers a lot of her characters! They get traumatized, but that’s what it takes to break through their insensibility to what occurs. She sort of softens them up for the opportunity. She employs a cartoonish manner of doing that, but it is intended to bring the reader back around to understanding what the everyday experience might be.
One of the questions after your talk made an interesting point: Readers who belong to other religions can also see moments of grace in her writing.
O’Connor believed that, whereas our primary opportunity to experience grace is through divine grace, she nevertheless seemed to adopt that Thomistic idea that there is a thing called natural grace, a residue of the Creator left in the creation that was not erased during the Fall. So when we sometimes see situations that aren’t particularly religious but people are acting in grace, sort of rising above themselves in kind of a heroic way, we look back and say, “That wasn’t ordinary.” I kind of believe that their ordinary grace can sometimes be kind of stirred up.
She drew a lot from Aquinas?
She was certainly influenced by Thomas Aquinas, and it is his theology that provides the underlying structure. She called herself a kind of amateur Thomist. And in her personal library, there’s a compendium and one volume of her principal treatises of Thomas’ work.
How would you say she compares with other Catholic novelists, such as Evelyn Waugh?
One of the differences between O’Connor and Evelyn Waugh — and she read Waugh; she mentions him in her correspondence — is that O’Connor’s writing is much more economical. Waugh can spend an entire novel getting to the point, and that point may not really come until the end of the story. O’Connor also has a climax at the end of the story, but her writing is much more condensed and economical — almost in an allegorical sort of way. So that would be an important difference. And also, that her writing is much more cartoonish than Evelyn Waugh’s.
Would you say a lot of her writing has influenced many writers today?
There are many people who say they’ve been influenced by O’Connor, although I don’t know of anyone who’s tried to imitate her. In some ways, she’s inimitable. She didn’t feel she quite fit into her Southern gothic genre. I don’t think there’s anyone who’s trying to pick up the mantle, and I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks they can match that genius. But there are many who have been influenced by her, for sure.
What other aspects of her writing are typically Catholic?
She’s interested not just in the sacraments — the seven sacraments — but in the sacramental. Her stories are full of the sacramental, the way in which any sort of thing might somehow be prompted to be a channel, or catalyst, for grace. That’s very characteristic of her story. A freak in a traveling show, for example, somehow spurs grace in a couple of individuals in the story. So this idea of the sacramental as a supplement to the sacraments is very important.
Edward Pentin writes