The Southern Literary Journal 37.1 (2004) 179-181
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Two on Flannery O'Connor
Joseph M. Flora
Although Flannery O'Connor's life was short, her art is long— as is attested by the outpouring of critical studies on her work.
In Flannery O'Connor: The Obedient Imagination,Sarah Gordon accounts for the tension in O'Connor's work by seeing her art as a result of her rejection of the "matrilineal" in favor of the "patrilineal." After graduating from the college in her hometown, then Georgia State College for Women, O'Connor, seeking independence and a broader world, earned a Master's degree from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. She then proceeded to the artist's colony Yadoo and then New York City. But as every student of her work knows, her health would mandate that she leave the North and return to rural Georgia to live with her mother. There she continued to write a fiction that did not wince at the unsightly, a fiction that some deemed inappropriate for a woman writer.
O'Connor has been problematic for many feminists, one going so far as to recommend that we not read O'Connor's fiction, but only her letters. Such readers judge that O'Connor habitually provides negative portraits of women. At the base of her work was a firm belief in the theology and structure of the Roman Catholic Church—a theology and church structure at odds with demands for female equality. Gordon laments that for O'Connor, "woman's spiritual journey did not have the significance of the man's journey." O'Connor would, I think, refute that claim.
Well-versed in feminist criticism and responsive to its valid core, Gordon is nevertheless more admiring of O'Connor than are many feminists. She has been reading and pondering O'Connor for three decades. [End Page 179] Her study is in some ways a study of her own journey with O'Connor and with the profession of letters. Mindful of her own training, she understands the New Critical training that influenced O'Connor—such male masters as T. S. Eliot, Nathaniel West, and James Joyce. Gordon's analyses, by the way, of influences and possible influences, e.g., James Thurber and Dorothy Parker, make a major contribution to her book. For Gordon, O'Connor may even have been victimized by the New Critics, who encouraged "unsentimental and impersonal art." Gordon wishes for more of Gerard Manley Hopkins' perspective in O'Connor's work—a perspective that rejoiced in God's presence in the world and empathized with human suffering.
The tension that Gordon finds in O'Connor's work is not, finally, the controlling tension of her book. Rather, that force stems from Gordon's debate with O'Connor. From the perspective of O'Connor's orthodoxy, Gordon's subtitle is entirely positive. But Gordon distances herself from that orthodoxy. The "obedient imagination" becomes qualified praise. Obedient to what? The New Critical fathers? In addition to more of the spirit of Gerard Hopkins than O'Connor shows, the artist Gordon prefers would have more affinity with Prometheus.
The case is otherwise with Richard Giannone. His Flannery O'Connor: Hermit Novelist downplays his own experience, but the reader quickly discovers Giannone's profound sympathy with O'Connor's goals and methods. That sympathy frees him to pursue a thesis that he considers prevailing in O'Connor's art—a thesis he keeps ever before him. He is not interested in skirmishes with critics who have preceded him. Any tensions he treats are not found in O'Connor's psyche or in any reservations he has about her work but in the characters of her fiction. A reader fresh from Gordon's book will find that Giannone holds positions often quite different from hers, most noticeably on gender issues. In contrast to...