St. Thomas Aquinas and Flannery O’Connor: Shedding Light on True Influences on American’s Gothic Writing

BOOK PICK: ‘Understanding the Hillbilly Thomist’

‘Understanding the Hillbilly Thomist’
‘Understanding the Hillbilly Thomist’ (photo: Word on Fire)

Understanding the Hillbilly Thomist

The Philosophical Foundations of Flannery O’Connor’s Narrative Art

By Father Damian Ference

Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, 2023

280 pages, $24.95

To order: Understanding the Hillbilly Thomist – Word on Fire


Everyone, it seems, is talking about Flannery O’Connor. 

The Georgia-based late Catholic author of Wiseblood and a number of compelling short stories, is the subject of the recently released film Wildcat, as well as a number of critical studies. These new releases examine various aspects of O’Connor’s canon, including her “Christian realism,” her use of the grotesque and violent, and the subtle racism, according to some critics, inherent in O’Connor’s letters and personal correspondence.

Some critics see the period 1945 to 1964, the period when O’Connor was most active, as the first real flowering of the American Catholic imagination.

The latest literary study, Understanding the Hillbilly Thomist by Cleveland-based priest and philosophy professor Father Damian Ference, examines a less familiar component of O’Connor’s inspiration. Father Ference, in his four-chapter, exhaustively footnoted work, posits the teaching and writing of St. Thomas Aquinas as the “soul” of the narrative art of Flannery O’Connor.

The book’s title is taken from O’Connor’s own words. In a 1955 interview with NBC, O’Connor described herself as a “Hillbilly Thomist,” a moniker deliberately chosen to counter the “Hillbilly Nihilist” many critics of the time came up with to characterize her puzzling and violence-laden fiction.

In introducing his new study, Father Ference acknowledges the renewed interest in O’Connor as a Catholic writer, but suggests that the “Thomist” influence has long been overlooked.

As the author notes, “Thomism is so pervasive, so deftly assimilated into the action and idiom of [O’Connor’s] work, as to be nearly invisible to many readers. The purpose of this work [is] to help make O’Connor’s Thomistic influence visible for literary O’Connor scholars, for philosophers (especially the Thomistic kind), and for the everyday reader of Flannery O’Connor [who is] interested in better understanding her narrative art.”

St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century theologian and doctor of the Church authored the Summa Theologica, a major work that became a foundational culmination of scholastic philosophy and Christian theology. 

Father Ference says that O’Connor, as a young Catholic nurtured in the Baltimore Catechism/pre-Vatican II era, would have been well versed in Aquinas’ writing and that this learning became a key part of her formation as a writer.

Despite the resurging interest in O’Connor’s work, Father Ference believes many of her novels and short stories are poorly understood, due to readers’ general unfamiliarity with Thomism.

“Her Thomistic art does not concern itself with subtle metaphysical, epistemological, or ethical distinctions the way that the work of a professional philosopher does,” Father Ference explains; “rather, it offers a general account of reality and its meaning in the modern world: Things haven an end. Things have meaning. Things are connected.”
Father Ference notes that O’Connor had no interest in turning out “pious trash” on behalf of an abstract idea (even if it was a good idea). “She was concerned with recta ratio factibilium: 

'right reason in the order of making things’ – beginning with the sensory data from the world, whether that data be pleasing, painful, or perverse. This approach — taking the world as she found it, then looking for the deeper reality it signified, even in all its messiness and distortions — was not just Catholic, but Thomistic.”

In coining the phrase Hillbilly Thomism, O’Connor was looking to describe a philosophy of life for the real world, the here and now. This attitude helped insulate O’Connor from the world-weary, disillusioned zeitgeist of early 1950s writing community. Father Ference suggests O’Connor was well aware that her traditionally Catholic views on reality were readily dismissed by many of her 1950s-era writing contemporaries, preoccupied as they were with atheism, materialism and nihilism.

Among the many benefits of Father Ference’s new work: It serves as a primer of sorts for Aquinas’ philosophy and theology. This, in turn, facilitates a better understanding O’Connor’s novels and short stories, many of which leave first-time readers mystified as to their essential message.

“I know many people who have tried to read O’Connor because they have heard that she’s a fantastic writer, but they have a hard time understanding her fiction, because it is strange and weird,” Father Ference told the Register. “My book can help people understand her project and give context and examples, with heavy reliance upon her own words.” Indeed, some of the most satisfying aspects of the book is Father Ference’s walk through of selected short stories, such as Parker’s Back and the Displaced Person, to demonstrate how O’Connor seamlessly worked Thomist allusions into her storylines.

Although Understanding the Hillbilly Thomist was not produced in anticipation of the new Wildcat film, there is no doubt the book is especially timely. Released in theaters May 3, Wildcat is a dramatic portrait of O’Connor as a suffering artist and as a believing Catholic desperate to use her art in the service of truth and to hint at the workings of divine grace and redemption.

The film, directed by actor Ethan Hawke and starring his daughter Maya, is certain to increase interest in O’Connor’s life and work.

“I think the Wildcat [film] is a lot like O’Connor’s fiction, in that it will receive similar reactions, because many people will not understand what they are seeing,” Father Ference told the Register. “But the more you know Flannery and the more you know about her, the more you’ll appreciate the film. Ethan and Maya Hawke have given the world a great gift.”

Mike Mastromatteo is a writer, editor and book reviewer from Toronto.




Maya Hawke as American writer Flannery O'Connor in the 2024 film "Wildcat."

Jessica Hooten Wilson on ‘Wildcat’ / Father Dave Pivonka on Title IX (May 4)

Flannery O’Connor shares the big screen with some of her most memorable short story characters in the new indy film ‘Wildcat.’ O’Connor scholar Jessica Hooten Wilson gives her take on the film and what animates the Catholic 20th century writer’s prophetic imagination.Then FUS University President Father David Pivonka explains why Franciscan University of Steubenville has pushed back against the Biden administrations’ new interpretation of Title IX, which redefines sex discrimination to include a student’s self- asserted ‘gender identity.’