- Creating Flannery O’Connor: Her Critics, Her Publishers, Her Readers by Daniel Moran
The acclaimed director John Huston may have originally felt that Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (1952) ridiculed Christianity, but before finishing its film adaptation, he conceded that he had “been had” and that his own nihilistic interpretation of the novel had been overpowered by “Flannery O’Connor’s story” in which “Jesus wins” (149–150). The incident is a keystone in Daniel Moran’s survey of O’Connor’s “creation,” meaning her reception by readers and critics as well as the crafting of her reputation by editors, friends, allies, and publishers.
The book begins with baffled reviews of Wise Blood as a satirically Gothic exposé of strange Southern fanatics by a Georgian debutante and concludes in Manhattan’s American Poets Corner with O’Connor’s 2014 commemoration as a Catholic artist of enduring greatness. Both Huston’s “epiphany” and this changed understanding exhibit what Moran terms the “rival audiences” that still contest over O’Connor’s works (43). On the one hand, “ironic” readers see her lambasting, sometimes cruelly, the religious fundamentalism of her backwoods believers like Hazel Motes or Mason Tarwater, while, on the other, her “genuine authorial audience” recognizes her “dramatizing the action of grace and redemption” with forceful reality (56–57, 43). These opposing interpretive poles may persist, but Moran also shows the initial view of O’Connor as a regional writer—dogged by the “watchword” of the “grotesque”—giving way to an appreciation of her universal and theologically complex fiction, epitomized by Thomas Merton’s elegiac ranking of O’Connor alongside Sophocles after her untimely 1964 death [End Page 75] (77). Surprisingly, two of O’Connor’s most salient characteristics—her Catholicism and affliction with lupus—emerge relatively late in her reception history. It took critics some time to “see the Catholic forest for the grotesque and southern trees” (50).
After tracing publicly available reviews, Creating Flannery O’Connor next draws on archival material that shows how her inner circle secured her posthumous literary legacy. Robert and Sally Fitzgerald’s publication of her collected literary essays, Mystery and Manners (1969), further transformed her image from “local oddball to respectable literary oracle” (88). Robert Giroux’s shepherding of The Complete Stories (1971) canonized her as a master of the genre and allowed readers to chart her craft’s development chronologically. Finally, Sally Fitzgerald skillfully negotiated for the publication of O’Connor’s letters, which needed the watchful blessing of O’Connor’s obstinately demure mother Regina. Fitzgerald’s hard-won success yielded Habit of Being (1979), both a remarkably reflective, revealing, and humorous collection of American literary letters and a de facto authorized biography that demonstrably ranged beyond the stereotype of O’Connor as a reclusive “southern Emily Dickinson” (128). In addition to Huston’s film and other adaptations, Moran examines the rise of the watchwords “dark,” “difficult,” and “haunting” among online reviewers. Not all readers will be convinced by the book’s justification for revisiting these posts, but they do record a rising concern over racial representation and rhetoric that warrants the attention of teachers and critics.
While Creating Flannery O’Connor will offer these readers a deepened understanding of her biography and legacy, it does not attempt to challenge or extend recent literary interpretations of her religious meaning by Christina Bieber Lake, Thomas Haddox, Susan Srigley, or Ralph Wood. Moran has a secure sense of “how O’Connor works,” when readers approach her “incorrectly,” and what she “surely” felt about her characters (158, 187, 155). So, when he claims Huston was “of O’Connor’s party without knowing it,” authorial intent is never really in doubt (150). This interpretive stability, however, allows the movements and maneuvering in the background—Moran’s real interest—to become visible. What emerges from Creating Flannery O’Connor is a fascinating picture of allergic reactions to and reevaluations of the place of the South and of Roman Catholicism in American culture; of the care and craft of the varied...