When my oldest daughter was born, I lobbied long and hard to name her Flannery. My wife would have none of it and, in retrospect, she was probably right. Flannery is a weird name, and my daughter, who ended up as the equally literary Emily, might have been subjected to scorn and ridicule. Who needs it?
But I meant well. I meant well because a woman named Flannery had shaken up my world, which iswhat good writers often do. I read Flannery O’Connor – everything by Flannery O’Connor – for the first time when I was in college. I’ve since re-read everything another four or five times. And she’s absolutely worth revisiting. Her writing is sharp, funny, sad, and bitingly prophetic, and she picks at scabs until they bleed. She was a bundle of contradictions; a shy, retiring woman who had an acidic tongue, a devastating wit that she rarely used on human beings, preferring instead the company of chickens and peacocks. She could, from a distance, look a bit like a misanthrope, but she deeply loved humanity, even if she couldn’t always stand individual human beings. She was a devout Roman Catholic in the middle of the southern Bible Belt. She died far too young, at only 39, and she was always thinking about eternity. But here is where the contradictions ended: she was a moral compass. She pointed True North. Always.
I first encountered Flannery O’Connor around the time I became a Christian. And Flannery O’Connor writes a lot about Christians. But in Flannery O’Connor’s world, Christians are bumblers, crackerjacks, backwoods charlatans, judgmental Pharisees and pious, sanctimonious haters in their Sunday finery. In her short story “Revelation,” which I try to re-read every few months or so as a sort of curative spiritual tonic, a good, upright, churchgoing, middle-class farmer’s wife goes to the doctor’s office and looks on with distaste at the detritus of humanity that surrounds her. A little snot-nosed kid sprawls across a couple seats, a trashy woman with too much makeup reads a gossip magazine, a cynical young woman who is obviously too educated for her own good reads what appears to be a big, uppity-looking college textbook. The upright, churchgoing wife makes snide, disapproving small talk with the other upright, churchgoing folk in the office until she is unceremoniously stopped by the big uppity-looking college textbook, which has been flung through the air, and which hits her square on the nose. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” the cynical young woman tells her before she is sedated and carted away in an ambulance.
True North. Revelation. Again and again. What Flannery O’Connor understood, better than any other writer, is the smugness and pride of the religious. The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ was a concept she explored in her first novel, Wise Blood, which was about an atheist and itinerant evangelist who couldn’t stop talking about Jesus, but in fact the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ was never far from her thoughts. It’s what she wrote about constantly. It was the constant subject of her prophetic voice; the hollow, ostentatious, prideful vacuum that always, always struts and preens religiously in the absence of genuine conversion. It’s still alive and well. Some days it’s alive and well in me. And that’s why I need to re-read Flannery O’Connor from time to time.
The cynical, intellectual woman who pronounced the wart hog epithet was named Mary Grace.
Today’s is Flannery O’Connor’s birthday. I’m so glad she was born.