On May 14, 2006, I graduated with my PhD in Literature.
When I shortly — and fortunately — became a full-time faculty member of a community college a month after this photo was taken (yay employment with full benefits!), I realized that the “publish or perish” rat-race of tenure-track scholarship no longer applied to me. So I chose to indie-publish my dissertation, “My Kind of Comedy”: An Exegetical Reading of Flannery O’Connor as Medieval Drama, mostly for the hell of it. Of course, since it’s written in the tortured, abstruse language of academia, no one — and I mean NO ONE — has read my dissertation since my aforementioned doctoral graduation.
But that’s okay. Honestly, unless you were a scholar yourself, doing a literary review of existent Flannery O’Connor scholarship, why would you unless you were crazy obsessed over Flannery O’Connor?
However, there are three literary pieces from my past life as an O’Connor scholar that I’d like to share, if only to get folks interested in reading her fiction, as off-putting and uncomfortable as her short stories and novels often are.
The first is the “Preface” of my published dissertation., which I wrote on 29 January 2013. The second is my public lecture that I gave, after I successfully passed my dissertation defense in late April 2006. The third is the “Afterword” of my published dissertation, written on 5 August 2013. This third piece gives the reason that I will always be grateful for having studied O’Connor for as long as I had, even though I haven’t been an O’Connor scholar since the summer of 2006.
I stumbled on O’Connor serendipitously as a bored undergrad, behind my college bookstore counter and going through the returned merchandise. That’s where I discovered Wise Blood. A few months later, in the spring of 1994, I would be reading all of O’Connor’s published fiction, in a grand research project that all senior English majors at my college – the University of Dallas – masochistically go through to get our bachelor’s degrees. It was then that I had my “Aha!” moment, connecting the medieval morality Everyman to “Everything That Rises Must Converge.“
After various tangents into Creative Writing, the corporate world, and high school teaching, I returned to graduate school in 1999 with the sole purpose of studying O’Connor on the doctoral level. Seven years later, three of which were spent researching and writing my dissertation, I explored O’Connor’s entire written work – fiction and non-fiction – in the context of medieval drama and medieval exegesis.
It was the comparative nature – medieval drama and exegesis – that gave me fits at first because I was and still am not a medievalist. But with the help of two annual pilgrimages to the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I got enough material and knowledge for me, a modernist, to be able to speak intelligently on medieval literature. At those conferences, I felt like a duck amongst horses, but at least I could “neigh” convincingly for a change. Nearly half of this study is about medieval exegesis and medieval drama as themselves, for many lengthy O’Connor studies (back in the early 2000s) did short shrift on those two forms, and I wanted to do justice to the medieval side of my research.
Three years later, I had written this dissertation, and it passed muster — just in time. Not too soon after, I would realize that I would not be a lifelong O’Connor scholar (nor a university professor, for that matter). But I am still proud of my final scholarly work of O’Connor, even after all of these years.
FLANNERY O’CONNOR, MEDIEVAL EXEGESIS, AND MEDIEVAL DRAMA
When Flannery O’Connor died at age 39, the body of her work consisted of The Geranium: A Collection of Short Stories, her MFA thesis (published in The Complete Stories in 1971); Wise Blood, her first novel, published in 1952; A Good Man Is Hard to Find, her first short story collection, published in 1955; The Violent Bear It Away, her second novel, published in 1960; Everything That Rises Must Converge, her last short story collection, published posthumously in 1965; various uncollected letters, book reviews, and essays; and “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” the beginnings of a third novel “considered too fragmented to be published” (Scott xvii). But despite the small quantity of O’Connor’s creative work, written within the space of only fourteen years, her fiction is manifold in its meaning. The meaning is manifold because her fiction is serious, because it is comic, and, ultimately, because it is Christian. As novelist Alice Walker says, “After her great stories of sin, damnation, prophecy, and revelation . . . the stories one reads casually in the average magazine seem to be about love and roast beef” (79).
But O’Connor herself saw her fiction as comedy – “my kind of comedy” as she states in letter dated December 26, 1959, to John Hawkes (HB 367). But this comedy is often misperceived as tragedy precisely because the literal particulars in her fiction are grotesque and violent, many times ending with a major character’s death. For instance, it is difficult to see “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” as a comedy. The family is banal; the Grandmother is vain and manipulative; and the Misfit – the only character who is concerned with the theological issues of faith, doubt, and divine justice – orders the murders of the Grandmother’s family and murders the Grandmother himself. Certainly, the Grandmother recognizes the Misfit as “one of [her] babies” and, in an emotional reversal from fear to love, touches him on the shoulder (CW 152). However, this comic reversal does not prevent her murder. With this story taken literally, as an example of psychological realism that has been written with a “formidable and difficult [tone]” (Stephens 173), “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (as with much of O’Connor’s fiction) reads like the bleakest of tragedies.
However, O’Connor’s fiction possesses a distinctive quality of Christian comedy, the Dantesque “infernal” comedy (Cowan “Introduction” 11). This kind of comedy in some ways looks like tragedy, because the literal details of the protagonist’s story and his or her fall from his or her initial status often appear tragic. For Christian comedy can be violent and deadly serious, for the ultimate matter of such comedy is the salvation of a sinner’s soul.
I argue that medieval exegesis and medieval drama become important ways of making sense of the comedy in O’Connor’s grotesque and violent fiction. In the “Christ-haunted” world of O’Connor’s fiction, this comic drama is not as obvious as it is in its medieval predecessor, for her audience are not medieval Christians who are receptive to Christian truths but secularized moderns who regard Christian truths as unimportant or irrelevant to their everyday lives. The pattern of Christian comedy, as seen in medieval drama and explained though medieval exegesis, is clearly present in O’Connor’s fiction. Like the medieval exegetes who read different levels of meaning in the sacred text that is the Bible, O’Connor reads different levels of meaning in the sacred text that is God’s Creation, for, as “Augustine said, the whole of creation is at once natural and miraculous” (Wood, Christ-Haunted 181). Like the medieval dramatists who portray the Christian salvific pattern of pathos (suffering), peripety (reversal), and theophany (joy of divine intervention), so does O’Connor, though setting it in the negative grotesque world of the modern age, where “[h]er characters come to their revolutionary moments of grace, the utter conversion of their lives, as the extraordinary occurs within the ordinary events, though they may be extreme” (Wood, Christ-Haunted 180). As for the medieval exegetes and dramatists, the center of O’Connor’s vision is her Christian faith and its unshakable trust in God’s unconditional, salvific love for fallen humanity. As Wood puts it, “Christian faith is nowhere more comic than in this eschatological confidence” (Comedy 33). No matter how satiric, ironic, or infernal the tone of O’Connor’s fiction, underlying all of these is the background radiation (so to speak) of O’Connor’s “kind of comedy,” a purposefully strange vision that, in the end, explodes in the grace of loving and violent theophany.
Speaking of grace, O’Connor writes in an April 14, 1960, letter to John Hawkes, “Grace, to the Catholic way of thinking, can and does use as its medium the imperfect, purely human, and even hypocritical” (HB 389). This faith in the power of God’s grace to operate through fallen Creation in order to save it is the warrant behind the pattern of Christian comedy, in both medieval drama and O’Connor’s fiction. Christian comedy “moves to a rhythm even older and more fundamental than tragedy,” says Robert Potter, having “the rhythm of the victory of life over death, the shape of enacted ritual” (10). The model of the hero of Christian comedy is Christ, for whom anagogical, divine comedy arises from literal, human tragedy. So even in the midst of infernal comedy — the Fall of Man of a mystery cycle, the suicidal despair of Mankind in the medieval morality Mankind, Tom T. Shiftlet abandoning Lucynell Crater in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” — are the potential movements beyond the infernal, towards the purgatorial and even the paradisal. Even in the Inferno, comic theophanies occur; this paradox was obvious to a medieval audience but often was not to O’Connor’s modern audience, a fact that made O’Connor impatient. Commenting on a review of A Good Man Is Hard to Find, O’Connor writes in a letter of July 20, 1955, to “A”/Betty Hester, “I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call ‘A Good Man’ brutal and sarcastic” (HB 90). As Marilyn Chandler McEntyre observes, “The laughter she invites us to in these darkly comic tales is a laughter that mocks the devil, affirms the burning mercy of God, and perhaps also reminds us of another of Augustine’s claims: that the end of all things is delight” (50). What both medieval dramatists and O’Connor recognize is that God’s love operates even in the dark places of sin and thus offers the possibility for conversion and redemption.
Throughout her work, O’Connor dramatizes this comic intervention of divine “tough love” (so to speak) for the most undeserving of Everymen and Dante the Pilgrim and through the most unlikely Beatrices and even devils. Even in “The Partridge Festival,” a short story that O’Connor calls “very light” (HB 348) and drops from Everything That Rises Must Converge (Giroux xv), one sees the pattern of Christian comedy in the comic tale of two young secular humanists’ encounter with their devil. In the Southern town of Partridge, Calhoun, a young part-time major-appliance salesman and aspiring “rebel-artist-mystic” (CW 776) and Mary Elizabeth, a cynical college student and aspiring “thinker” (CW 787), arrive separately during the town’s summer Azalea Festival in order to mock it and to write about Singleton, the local iconoclast. Publicly humiliated for not buying a festival badge, Singleton has retaliated by shooting six members of the Partridge community; declared criminally insane, he resides in a local mental hospital (CW 773-75). In their mutual pathos, both Calhoun and Mary Elizabeth blame the Partridge community for Singleton’s crime (CW 787), thereby, as James Grimshaw states, “alienat[ing] themselves from their community through their self-righteous judgments” (60). Similarly, Rob Johnson states, “Both Calhoun and Mary Elizabeth are would-be writers trying to capture Singleton’s story. . . . From the beginning of the story, the community sees writing, except within narrow limits, as an antisocial act” (10).
But in isolating themselves from their home community, they also alienate each other, in spite of their shared conviction of the banality of the festival and of Singleton’s status as a “Christ-figure” (CW 787). Like two damned souls in hell, they prefer their own solipsism to shared community, resulting in comic moral failure. For instance, instead of discussing their shared beliefs, they argue over what is the best literary expression of Singleton’s plight: novel (Calhoun’s choice) or “a non-fiction study” (Mary Elizabeth’s choice) (CW 787). Childishly, Mary Elizabeth dares Calhoun to see Singleton in the flesh, and Calhoun dares her back (CW 788). In an absurd contest about who is braver, they both declare that they will see Singleton. On the drive to the mental hospital, they argue over how to approach him (CW 791). In fact, Mary Elizabeth has to scream at Calhoun to stop before he passes the hospital altogether (CW 791). So, it is apt that Mary Elizabeth quotes Dante’s Inferno: “‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here,’ the girl muttered” (CW 791).
Paradoxically, in this Southern Inferno, Calhoun and Mary Elizabeth come together in an awareness of shared sin. Pretending to be relatives of Singleton in order to visit him, “[b]oth appeared to recognize that in their common kinship with him, a kinship with each other was unavoidable. Generously, Calhoun held out his hand. She shook it” (CW 792). Also, as Mary Elizabeth becomes overwhelmed with nervousness, Calhoun reassures her (CW 793). They sit “together as if they were waiting for some momentous event in their lives — a marriage or instantaneous deaths” (CW 794). These tiny, unaware acts of charity are still so nascent that they cannot see the devil they face and are “mesmerized” before him (CW 794). Singleton is “spider-like” and “reptilian” with “the eyes of a treetoad that has sighted its prey” (CW 794). A Satan who has spotted his Eve, he tempts her, saying, “‘You’re a queen'” (CW 795). But, in a quick peripety, he reveals his bestial and demonic nature, lunging after Mary Elizabeth and exposing himself (CW 795). Seeing a devil underneath “the savior they sought” (Driskell and Brittain 113), they flee as their nascent ability for charity for each other explodes in full force. Calhoun “thrust open the door just in time to prevent her crashing into it” and drives both of them “as if his heart were the motor and would never go fast enough” (CW 795).
After stopping at the side of the road, they look at each other, seeing “at once the likeness of their kinsman” (CW 795). Calhoun and Mary Elizabeth feel the Fall of Adam and Eve, see their spiritual nakedness and their shared sin, and are ashamed. According to Leon Driskell and Joan Brittain, “Their secular quest brings them back to the hard facts of man’s need for redemption by a power outside himself” (114-15). Although they look away, they look at each other again, to “find a more tolerable image” (CW 796). In a movement towards theophany, Calhoun sees in Mary Elizabeth’s spectacled eyes the image of his illustrious great-grandfather, the man who founded the very festival which Singleton rejects and has tried to destroy. Allegorically and morally, Mary Elizabeth is Calhoun’s unlikely Beatrice, showing an anagogical glimpse of the divine image, on their allegorical road to Damascus. The story ends, as Irving Malin declares, with “a celebration of earthly (artistic) defeat — and supernatural victory” (“Singular” 185). As Brian Ragen points out, “[I]n O’Connor the anagogical element is what shows the intervention of the Divine in this life. That intervention is often shown in the humblest sorts of people and the most grotesque situations, and it is revealed by the most physical acts” (2). For Calhoun and Mary Elizabeth, out of the pathos of shared sin comes the theophany of shared grace.
In the modern moralities which are her short stories and the modern miracles which are her novels, O’Connor returns to this pattern of pathos, peripety, and theophany as she relates the conversion of the secular humanist, the modern Pharisee, and the harbinger of truth. Although she dramatizes the conversions of all three types of the modern Christian comic hero in her short stories, she reserves to her novels alone the conversion of the harbinger of truth from his modern Pharisaic upbringing and his flirtation with but essential rejection of secular humanism. In many respects, the protagonists of her two novels, Tarwater and Hazel Motes, are permutations of the same type of harbinger of truth. Both are born and raised in the back country, in deeply religious, fundamentalist Christian homes. Both boys’ elder male relatives — Haze’s grandfather and Tarwater’s great-uncle – call them to be preachers in their early years, a call that they both resent. They are both orphans, and their childhood homes are destroyed. They both go to the city to run away from God, but they cannot escape their call. God strikes down their pride through the actions of others: a policeman for Haze and a rapist for Tarwater. Finally, both become witnesses to God’s violent love to the “sleeping children of God” in the infernal city.
At the time of her death, O’Connor was working sporadically on a third novel. Unlike the young backwoods country preachers of Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, the protagonist of Why Do the Heathen Rage? is twenty-eight-year old Walter Tilman, a college-educated secular humanist who, like Asbury Fox in “The Enduring Chill,” has come home to his parents’ farm to live out his days. According to Farrell O’Gorman, “Rather than descending from a line of fundamentalist preachers, [like] Hazel Motes and Francis Marion Tarwater, Walter has been brought up in an affluent and religiously indifferent atmosphere” (152). This was a new direction in the novel for O’Connor, and she was uncertain of its course; in a May 4, 1963, letter to Sister Mariella Gable, O’Connor writes, “I’ve been writing eighteen years and I’ve reached the point where I can’t do again what I know well, and the larger things that I need to do now, I doubt my capacity for doing” (HB 518). Nevertheless, as she declared to Maryat Lee in a letter of May 21, 1964, she was impatient to start on “something new” (HB 581), but unfortunately only a short excerpt of the first chapter was published in Esquire magazine on July 1963 (CW 1255). She set it aside to work on “Revelation,” “Judgment Day” and “Parker’s Back,” the last three stories of her posthumously published collection Everything That Rises Must Converge, thus leaving for posterity the very short excerpt and reams of disjointed prewriting, notes, dead-ends, and tangents “of characters and plots that will become other stories elsewhere” (Drigger 135). The published excerpt itself introduces Walter’s family. Tilman is Walter’s father, an agricultural businessman who has suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving him mute, paralyzed, and “prepared for death” (CW 797). Mrs. Tilman, Walter’s mother, is a modern Pharisee of the same type as Mrs. Cope, Mrs. McIntyre, Mrs. May, and Mrs. Turpin, a woman whose “mouth drew into a tight line of outrage” (CW 799). Mary Maud is Walter’s thirty-year old unmarried sister, a schoolteacher and of the same type as Asbury Fox’s bossy sister. Walter himself is an intellectual who does nothing around the house or the farm except write “letters to people he did not know and to the newspapers” and read “books that had nothing to do with anything that mattered now,” like “a letter from a St. Jerome to a Heliodorus, scolding him for having abandoned the desert” (CW 800).
With the published excerpt and unpublished manuscript pages, critics speculate that O’Connor was attempting to dramatize the conversion of a secular humanist into a new kind of harbinger of truth: the Christian monk. According to Marian Burns, “O’Connor’s hero — while superficially a disaffected Southerner and an atheist — is in essence a European medieval Catholic” (76). Similarly, Margaret Whitt observes, “In the four-page published fragment, O’Connor is well on her way to depicting Walter Tilman as a monk” (799). While Grimshaw points out Walter’s intellectualism as the stumbling block in his conversion (62), Burns, in looking at the manuscript pages, notes that “Walter’s reading matter is exclusively and orthodoxly pre-Reformation, as if, like St. Jerome, he had made a vow never to read or possess ‘pagan’ literature” (78). But Walter the medieval monk would still be, within the limits of his chosen confinement, an active participant in his community. Stephen Driggers declares that “the protagonist, Walter Tilman, has precipitated an impending visit to the Tilman farm of a young woman who, in many drafts is his cousin” (Drigger et al xv). Adds Susan Srigley, “[I]ts main character an ascetic monklike figure . . . carried on a correspondence with a woman living on a commune involved in a radical social activism . . . a mutually enriching dialogue between the active and contemplative lives” (165). Thus, with one foot in the Middle Ages (his monastic life on the family farm) and one foot in Modernity (his correspondence and face-to-face visitors), Walter Tilman, the fictional character, would perhaps echo Flannery O’Connor, the Catholic apologist and correspondent. One could speculate that this autobiographical strain might have been one of the reasons why O’Connor worked on Why Do the Heathen Rage? fitfully and why she doubted her “capacity for doing” it. But if she had completed it, then today’s audience would have a novel that clearly pays homage to the medieval sensibility informing O’Connor’s artistic vision, a vision that looks upon nature as the medieval biblical exegetes did. As O’Connor says, “Saint Gregory wrote that every time the sacred text describes a fact, it reveals a mystery. And this is what the fiction writer, on his lower level, attempts to do also” (CW 863).
When O’Connor wrote, she saw her audience as blind to this vision: “We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions” (MM 49). Forty-two years since O’Connor’s death, one could argue that the intellectual and moral relativism which she saw in Modernity and which came to full flourish in Postmodernity has perhaps given way to a renewed popular desire for stable, absolute convictions, so that expressions of faith are not met with mockery, condescension, or sentimentality, but rather with a robust assent. In an era after September 11, 2001, O’Connor’s observation that the “reader of today [has a] sense of evil [that] is diluted or lacking altogether and so he has forgotten the price of restoration” (MM 48) no longer seems to apply. Pathos, peripety, theophany — suffering, reversal, joy — are movements of the pattern of Christian comedy that members of a medieval audience recognize in medieval drama because they recognize the pattern in their own personal drama. Likewise, O’Connor herself felt these movements of the pattern of Christian comedy in her own life. Speaking of her father’s death, the young O’Connor wrote, “The reality of death has come upon us and a consciousness of the power of God has broken our complacency like a bullet in the side” (qtd. in O’Gorman 33). After 9/11, perhaps some members of the twenty-first century audience can recognize these movements of the pattern of Christian comedy in their own personal drama and in those around them. Like Calhoun and Mary Elizabeth, they have encountered their devils, have their shared sin, and have come together as a community, in suffering, in reversal, and in joy, even as they are surrounded by moral failure. Like those living during the Middle Ages, some may find themselves amidst wars in the name of faith (Pharisaic or otherwise), but as O’Connor dramatizes in her fiction, great joy can arise from great evil, “a violence that is also an act of love” (Lake 17).
Writing in a January 1, 1955, letter to Beverly Brunson, O’Connor states,
Naw, I don’t think life a tragedy. Tragedy is something that can be explained by the professors. Life is the will of God and this cannot be defined by the professors; for which all thanksgiving. I think it is impossible to live and not to grieve but I am always suspicious of my own grief lest it be self-pity in sheeps [sic] clothing. And the worst thing is to grieve for the wrong reason, for the wrong loss. Altogether it is better to pray than to grieve; and it is greater to be joyful than to grieve. But it takes more grace to be joyful than any but the greatest have. (CW 928-29)
Perhaps, in looking at the post 9/11 world, O’Connor would say it needs “more grace” than ever before. Yet her works emphasize that out of suffering and reversal comes joy because, fallen as humanity is, God created humanity for joy. This constitutes her faith in Creation and serves as the basis of her anagogical vision. And this is the meaning of the beautiful strangeness of her “kind of comedy.”
In the summer of 2006, my Flannery O’Connor dissertation was already written, accepted, and defended when, hard-earned PhD in hand, I made my maiden pilgrimage to the mecca of all O’Connor scholars and admirers: Milledgeville, Georgia.
Since my research was essentially done, seeing the O’Connor collection at Georgia College and State University was an exercise in thoroughness. (It was there, however, that I realized just how much work still needed to be done, work that was beyond the scope of my thesis but, perhaps, my thesis could open the way for others. But I am getting ahead of myself.)
Walking around O’Connor’s hometown, the antebellum capital of Georgia, wasn’t as breathtaking as seeing her bedroom at Andalusia, her family farm. The room was actually the parlor, but because of O’Connor’s difficulty in climbing the stairs to the second story, the parlor was turned into her bedroom. Through her bedroom, one could see the world; and she wrote of that world from her writing table, just within arm’s reach of her narrow bed. So when I saw her gravesite, next to her mother, who was next to her father, I was both saddened to see how quickly that family line ended and appreciative to know what O’Connor left behind.
Leaving Milledgeville well before sunrise, I saw the fog rising along Lake Sinclair, twisting among the kudzu-laden trees standing sentinel along the lonely highway. There, I could see the Misfit shooting the Grandmother. There, I could see young Tarwater waking up from his rape. There, I could see Tom Shiftlet racing away from his wife. There, on that lonely road, I could feel the presence of God – spooky yet comforting, at the same time.
I did not know then, but that summer of 2006 was when I ceased to be an O’Connor scholar but just an O’Connor admirer. I made a donation to the Flannery O’Connor/ Andalusia Foundation, returned home to Texas, and began my post-PhD career as a community college professor, teaching mostly freshman rhetoric and composition to non-traditional students. Sometimes I taught an O’Connor short story here and there in my classes, but mostly it was my dissertation itself that I often referred to, as an example of what a research project looked like, of all things.
But then I was inspired to write a novel in 2011 – and I would not have been able to write it, if I had not already written a dissertation.
As I mentioned in an article on my blog, written 1 January 2012, a dissertation is as not a novel as a written work can possibly be. But the process of planning, researching, and writing the whole thing was an excellent apprenticeship to planning out a novel. I knew what my main thesis was in my dissertation — that is, I knew what the ending was before I even started writing. So the whole dissertation planning was “simply” explaining how to get there.
Once I saw that I could write something that was unified and was longer than thirty pages — my dissertation final draft ended up being 271 pages long, with fourteen pages of bibliography — I had actually broken through a psychological obstacle in my fiction-writer mind. For, up to that point, I actually believed I could not write fiction any longer than the short story form.
It was then when I realized that what I learned most about Flannery O’Connor was not the literary scholarship, not the theological underpinnings of her literary creation, not even the “medieval-ness” of her Christian comedy. No, what O’Connor most taught me was how to be a writer – how to get the fiction written, how to get it done. Thanks to her, my not-religious-but-it-has-angels novel, Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones, was born. For that, I am indescribably grateful.
It has been seven years* since that pilgrimage to Milledgeville. Life has taken me very far from O’Connor’s world. Yet I only have to close my eyes, and I can see those simple grave markers, her spare parlor bedroom, and that country road, the fog enveloping everything in silent theophany.
* thirteen years, as of 2019.
ABBREVIATIONS FOR O’CONNOR TEXTS
HB Habit of Being (collected letters)
CW Collected Works (fiction, non HB letters, non MM essays)
MM Mystery and Manners (collected essays)
PG Presence of Grace (collected reviews)