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  • Catholic Minds of the South:A New Concert
  • Bryan Giemza
Flannery O'Connor's Sacramental Art. By Susan Srigley. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 2004. xii + 195 pages. $42.00 cloth, $20.00 paper.
Peculiar Crossroads: Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and Catholic Vision in Postwar Southern Fiction. By Farrell O'Gorman. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2004. ix + 259 pages. $44.95 cloth.

It's no secret that the "three R's" defining the South's sense of difference—race, rurality, and religion—have largely given way to modernity, at least on the surface. Race relations have improved to the extent that the region now benefits from net in-migration of blacks, and the majority of southerners live in urban centers in what has become the most industrialized region of the country. A recent A.P. headline served up a kind of clichéd eulogy in suggesting that the South's identity is "gone like the wind." The article reports that Martha Stewart has designs to build a simulacrum of a New England neighborhood in Cary, North Carolina—reason enough, perhaps, to wear black—but it doesn't note that Faulkner archly observed the same sort of thing happening many decades ago, or that Walker Percy coined a term for such a space (a "non-place"), or that a generation of southern writers responded to the ensuing malaise. This could be counted "blandification" (the supercilious catchphrase that has sprung up to describe the newest South) or a simple blessing or perhaps both. But the part that has changed least in southern identity is that third differentiae, religion, and so it is intuitive that the [End Page 133] region's heart-and-soul remain distinctive and that religion offers perhaps the most durable pathway to authenticity in southern literature.

Within this latter-day tradition, two of the South's pacesetting writers were not mainline Protestants, notwithstanding that they hailed from a section so homogeneous that it was dubbed a "WASP's nest." Rather, they were Roman Catholics keenly aware of modern (a word with a special register in Catholic thinking) incursions on their culture. Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor pair well together in their preoccupations and, indeed, in their biographies, and a pair of gifted scholars brings new vitality to their work. Farrell O'Gorman's Peculiar Crossroads: Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and Catholic Vision in Postwar Southern Fiction offers a seamless and shining study of the genuine character of the two writers and the currents in which they thrived, struggled, and created. Susan Srigley's Flannery O'Connor's Sacramental Art brings forth a wonderfully sensible new framework for viewing O'Connor's fiction.

If Percy and O'Connor's writings reach their highest energy when considered together, the same might fairly be said of Srigley's and O'Gorman's. Both agree in taking the sacramental quality of the writers as a baseline, yet both work to rearticulate the terms of the critical debate. And both of these scholars evince such encyclopedic knowledge of their subjects that they make their efforts, in effect, effortless for the reader; one soon forgets all the heavy lifting that they are doing. It takes an intrepid scholar to traverse intellectual terrain as varied and difficult as the intellectual landscape and patrimony of the Catholic intelligentsia at mid-twentieth century, or to unravel the skein of nature-and-grace in Catholic fiction, but Srigley and O'Gorman prove equal to the task. Taken together, these two studies offer an indispensable education on the deep theological strain of southern literature and the Catholic contribution to the mind (or minds, if you like) of the South.

O'Gorman's Peculiar Crossroads reveals the electricity that Percy and O'Connor, considered singly and together, generated in the context of the South and in the circles of Catholic movers-and-shakers. His meticulous tracing of the cultural moment offers a valuable portrait of an era when a smart-and-hip Catholic in-crowd kept Maritain, Marcel, and Kierkegaard prominently on their bookshelves. O'Gorman shows how his subjects could be counted luminaries, in the truest sense, for a generation of writers. Walker...


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