2020, Long Distance Productions, 97 minutes
Whenever Flannery O’Connor was asked why her stories and novels were so full of grotesques and freaks, and why this seemed to be pervasive in Southern writing, the sage of Milledgeville, Georgia had a devastating comeback: “because we can still recognize one.” Conan O’Brien, who studied her work while at Harvard, once said that when he first read those dark, disturbing, and wickedly funny stories, he assumed their author must have been some bitter old alcoholic. He was surprised to hear that O’Connor was actually a mild-mannered and deeply Catholic Southern woman. The new documentary film Flannery is the latest installment of PBS’s American Masters series, and gives O’Connor’s writing the respect and appreciation her unique, disturbing, and uniquely disturbing work deserves.
The film does an admirable job of taking us through O’Connor’s tragically short life, cut down in her prime at age 39 by the lupus that had killed her beloved and supportive father. At least externally, the painful details of O’Connor’s life don’t feature many exciting plot twists. Most of the drama is found in her complex inner life, which was haunted by the contradictions of her native South, the cackling humor of a born satirist, and a tough-minded believer’s faith in redemption. A precocious and independent-minded student, she was a Southern woman making her way in the predominantly East Coast gentleman’s world of literature through sheer talent and effort. O’Connor started off as a gifted cartoonist, so it’s fitting that her stories would easily translate into animation sequences, which are used to great effect in the film.
Her masterpiece “A Good Man is Hard to Find” has to be on the list of greatest short stories of all time. It’s deceptively simple, relatable, vivid, and has a philosophical complexity that still hits hard decades later, even for a modern audience that is supposedly less shockable than ever. It still gets to me every time I’ve read it, and it’s frightened and delighted the people who I’ve given it to. The story tells of a feisty old Southern grandmother who insists on having her son’s family drive her to her ancestral home. It might just be the worst road trip in literary history.
Not only do they not get where they are going, but it turns out that her idealized ancestral manse may not even exist. Along the road to nowhere they have a major car accident (delighting the two young children) which causes them to encounter a drifting outlaw known only as The Misfit, whose casual brutality is the natural result of his chilling nihilism, which touches on the possibility of God in a meaningless world, the rare opportunities for sympathy and grace, and the grim but true fact that we would all be good people if there was someone there to shoot us every minute of our life.
The film also leads us through explorations of some of her other masterpieces, such as the surreally cruel courtship in “Good Country People,” the harrowing “The Displaced Person,” and her misunderstood debut novel Wise Blood. I confess that I did not take to the novel at all when I first read it many years ago, but the film convinced me to give it another shot. As one of the film’s interviewees points out, good satire must have a moral center to work, and these twisted tales of human folly and perfidy certainly do. As dark as these stories’ worldview often is, there is a meaning behind the madness that they painstakingly describe. Tobias Wolff refers to their humor as “dire,” which aptly emphasizes O’Connor’s sense of moral urgency in social and spiritual matters.
At one point in the film her lifelong publisher Robert Giroux explains that he knew the moment he met O’Connor what kind of person he was dealing with; he explains that some people are bums, some are liars, but here was an unmistakably honest person. This suggests a way to understand how O’Connor’s devout Catholicism puts the mushy, marketable, feel-good pablum peddled by Rick Warren types to shame. You don’t have to be a believer to see that O’Connor isn’t pussyfooting around with her vision of what true faith means in a bleak world. It’s one thing to have faith in a comfortable and reassuring environment, where everyone agrees and no one challenges you, but it’s another thing to stick to one’s first principles while being denied, as O’Connor’s nearly debilitating illness and deep shyness did, the earthly pleasures most others take for granted—romantic relationships, sociability, public acclaim, and basic health. O’Connor’s devotion to her faith is all the more moving because of how well she understood what Hank Williams (another doom-haunted Southerner) once called “life’s other side.” Every story O’Connor ever wrote is informed by the ironies and the cruelties of the human condition; she serves up the darkness straight, with no chaser, and the result is as bracing and clarifying as it ought to be.
The film sensitively addresses the difficult but crucial issue of race in O’Connor’s work. O’Connor lived most of her life around people whose faults and pathologies she knew intimately, and which clearly drove her quietly crazy most of the time, but she also knew that her artistic vision was profoundly informed by that deep immersion in small-town Southern life. In a rare television interview she explained that as a writer “to know yourself is to know your region and it’s also to know the world, but paradoxically it’s also to be in exile from that world.” A writer needs inspiration to keep going, and sometimes that spark comes from the constant friction that arises from knowing the people around you better than they know themselves, their myopia, delusions, and self-satisfactions.
This is where the recent critique of her use of certain racial language in her letters misses the mark. O’Connor knew perfectly well that she was a product of her environment, which was the rural South in a time of particularly heated racial tension. People in her social milieu wouldn’t talk in public the way they did in private. Especially in O’Connor’s schizophrenic postwar time period, Southern notions of gentility and manners were clashing daily with the brutal reality of oppressive social structures inherited over generations. After her daily attending of morning mass, the only one available in her predominantly Protestant community, O’Connor spent the majority of every day obsessively skewering those hypocrisies in story after masterful story.
Having tilled the same patch of dry earth for most of her adult life, the perceptive and witty O’Connor knew perfectly well what made the different kinds of hypocrisy thrive all around her. A story like the awkwardly titled “The Artificial Nigger” startles plenty of readers from first blush, which is exactly what it’s supposed to do. Part of her literary skill was to present her often outrageous subject matter in such a way as to make it undeniable and unavoidable. As the film elegantly explains, that story demonstrates how a certain form of bigotry gets inculcated from one generation to the next, and how even such a vicious cycle can be broken by a sudden interruption of grace. The fact of race as a vicious construct, at least for the racist mentality that perpetuates it, is something O’Connor diagnosed years before it became widely accepted as theory.
When the possibility of meeting James Baldwin during his tour of Georgia came up, O’Connor demurred, but not out of disrespect. Inviting him over for tea on the front porch in the house in Milledgeville would, so to speak, blow her cover as an undetected observer. She explained that she would be glad to meet him in New York, but not on her home turf since “I observe the traditions of the society I feed on—it’s only fair. Might as well expect a mule to fly as me to see James Baldwin in Georgia.” This would sound like a cop-out were it not for the fact that O’Connor made a habit of spitting on those exalted traditions literally up to her last breath: she was writing “Revelation,” a savage indictment of the segregationist mentality, during her final hospital stay. That she signed one of her last letters “Mrs. Turpin” (after the foolish, bigoted old lady in the story who gets screamed at as an “old wart hog” by her fed-up daughter) is a final self-deprecating crack at having been a part of a world she’d openly criticized her whole life, which was still her home turf, whether she liked it or not.
In O’Connor’s cosmology, the flagrant wretchedness of her characters’ lives and thoughts serves as a bleak but necessary backdrop for the sudden emergence of redemption and grace. Nothing worthwhile in these parables ever comes easy, if it comes at all. The ominous clarity of her style etches the moral in the reader’s mind like an engraving on a tombstone. O’Connor’s vision was too relentlessly penetrating to let anyone off the hook, least of all herself. That’s its enduring value. It’s quite something for a lifelong devout Catholic in the throes of a major illness to finally make a pilgrimage to the healing waters of the holy site of Lourdes and still not be convinced that it did her any good.
In a wised-up, know-it-all age like ours, casual cynicism and ironic disaffection often provide the easy way out to avoiding larger questions. O’Connor’s existentially rigorous stories show the hip sophisticates and false prophets of today what true nihilism really looks like, and the price we pay for succumbing to it. Their disturbing and still-controversial qualities still retain the power to shock us out of our comfortable stupors of self-righteousness and complacency. We should heed them. The lives we save in the process, to borrow the title of one of her stories, may very well be our own.