Flannery O’Connor: anything but hard to find

| June 3, 2015 | 0 Comments
The U.S. Postal Service will issue a three-ounce stamp in honor of Flannery O’Connor June 5. Courtesy the U.S. Postal Service

The U.S. Postal Service will issue a three-ounce stamp in honor of Flannery O’Connor June 5. Courtesy the U.S. Postal Service

Flannery O’Connor has been dead for five decades, but her influence is very much alive, as an honor from the U.S. Postal Service this week recognizes. The nod comes in the form of a three-ounce stamp with her portrait framed by the feathers of her beloved peacocks, the 30th in a series of literary arts stamps to be released June 5.

Meanwhile, the Soap Factory in Minneapolis is collaborating with the Walker Art Center for performances of her novel “Wise Blood” opening June 4, billed as a “wild and immersive opera-exhibition.” Recently, O’Connor also got a tip of the hat from fellow southerner and Catholic Stephen Colbert, who read “The Enduring Chill” April 22 before a live audience in Manhattan.

This, for an author who in her short lifetime had to defend her work, especially to fellow Catholics. The U.S. Postal Service described O’Connor as an author “who crafted unsettling and darkly comic stories and novels about the potential for enlightenment and grace in what seem like the worst possible moments.”

Those familiar with O’Connor’s work such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find” know those moments include a grandmother’s encounter with a serial killer in the woods, a woman’s death after being slugged with a purse, or a storm threatening an abandoning husband after his appeal to God “to wash the slime from this earth.”

“She’s an iconoclast, a truly unique voice,” said Mary Reichardt, coordinator of faculty writing services at the University of St. Thomas who, during the 12 years she was part of the department of Catholic Studies faculty, taught O’Connor in a Catholic literature course.

Born in 1925, O’Connor grew up Catholic in the Protestant South, her writing shaped by faith, her father’s death from lupus when she was 13 and her own diagnosis with the disease at age 25. A graduate of the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa and fresh to New York City, O’Connor was forced by her declining heath to return to Milledgeville, Georgia, where she lived with her mother, wrote industriously and tended to flocks of birds.

She authored 31 short stories and two novels, earning a smattering of awards before dying at age 39.

In her 2003 book “Exploring Catholic Literature” published by Sheed & Ward, Reichardt wrote that “all of O’Connor’s protagonists suffer from a grossly distorted perception of who they really are” and that a “reversal occurs with the sudden, violent influx of God’s grace.”

“Her faith is integral to her works, yet she’s never dogmatic. She never preaches. She’s never sentimental. She rarely, if ever, uses Catholic characters or recognizable things like rosaries, or going to Mass,” Reichardt told The Catholic Spirit. “It’s the overarching faith that infuses her work deeply, well beyond the trappings of the obvious. She’s always dealing with fallen man, and what will redeem him or her.”

With a Ph.D. in early American literature, Reichardt didn’t discover O’Connor until she began teaching in Catholic Studies, not because of O’Connor’s ardent Catholicity, but because of the modernity of her literature. O’Connor is revered far beyond Catholic literary circles; meanwhile, some Catholics — including students Reichardt recalls — find her work distasteful, violent and un-Catholic, echoing criticism O’Connor received while she was alive.

“By and large, she was met by bafflement,” Reichardt said. “She got hostile letters from Catholics saying, ‘Your stories aren’t uplifting.’”

Although she wanted to reach Catholics, O’Connor wasn’t interested in writing happy endings, Reichardt said.

“What people don’t realize is how much religion costs,” O’Connor wrote in a letter. “They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”

Reichardt suggested readers seeking an introduction to O’Connor’s work start with “Revelation,” published in her short story collection “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (1965). She also recommended “Mystery and Manners,” a collection of O’Connor’s essays and speeches that shed light on her vision.

“She badly wanted to touch a Catholic audience, she thought she had that mission in life, and to get all of these rejection letters back from hostile Catholics, it’s tough,” Reichardt said, adding that O’Connor’s work — as with any art — must be studied to be appreciated fully. “For educated Catholics who read her today, she’s marvelous.”

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