Reflections on Modesty

By Donald DeMarco

    Flannery O'Connor is acknowledged as one of the most original and provocative writers of our time. She has been ranked with Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald among America's finest prose stylists. Given her literary accomplishments, it was once suggested to her that someone would write her biography. O'Connor dismissed the notion. "There won't be any biographies of me", she said, "for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy." (1)

    She was alluding to the illness that confined her to her mother's chicken farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, a few miles outside of Atlanta. Lupus erythematosus, a devastating and incurable neurological disorder that can be kept at bay only with drugs and a highly disciplined existence, had claimed her father. It ended O'Connor's life when she was thirty-nine. She gave herself daily injections, hobbled around on aluminum crutches, and could write for no more than two hours a day.

    What she was able to accomplish, given her infirmity, was remarkable. But she did not complain. In fact, she regarded sickness before death a very appropriate occurence that allowed her to receive special mercies from God. "to expect too much", she held, "is to have a sentimental view of life." (2)

    She was wrong about the literary world's interest in her. Her letters, published under the title A Habit of Being, brought her added fame after she died. The collection made the best-seller list and established Flannery O'Connor as the most memorable character she ever transcribed to paper. (3)

    Throughout the 617 pages of correspondence, she either ignored her deteriorating health or mentioned it offhandedly. In one letter she wrote: "I owe my existence to the pituitary glands of thousands of pigs butchered daily in Chicago, Illinois, at the Armour packing plant. If pigs wore garments, I wouldn't be worthy to kiss the hems of them." She saw even her use of crutches as an occasion to laugh at herself: "My greatest exertion and pleasure these last years has been throwing the garbage to the chickens and I can still do this, though I am in danger of going with it." (4)

    She abhorred pomposity of any stripe and sprinkled her letters with plenty of "ain'ts" and "naws". She also expressed wariness of "innerleckchuls". (5) To a correspondent who had expressed uneasiness in writing to a celebrity, she pointed out that fame is "a comic distinction shared with Roy Rogers' horse and Miss Watermelon of 1955". Her letter-writing was unimpeachably democratic. "Mail is very eventful to me", she said, "I never mind writing anybody." (6)

    Etienne Gilson said that Thomas Aquinas possessed two virtues to an exceptional degree: a perfect intellectual modesty and an almost reckless intellectual audacity. (7) Much the same could be said of O'Connor. There was not the slightest hint of sentimentality in her view of life. Her intellectual modesty allowed her to see things as they really are, and her intellectual audacity gave her the nerve to be painfully candid. "If you live today you breathe in nihilism", she said. "In or out of the Church,
it's the gas you breathe." (8)

    O'Connor audaciously tackled the nihilistic assumptions of modern philosophy with stories about ordinary people from her own backyard. The culture of O'Connor's South was shaped, in part, by class-conscious social behavior, sentimentalized reminiscences of the antebellum golden age, and rationalizations of the injustices that remained from the legacy of slavery.

    Understanding the smugness of the Southern middle class, O'Connor saw, perhaps more plainly than most, the self-satisfaction that was spreading throughout the country during the postwar prosperity of the 1950s. Her characters, like herself, inhabit a narrow world, but their relevance reaches far beyond it.

    O'Connor used her art to shake and sharpen the sensibilities of an American society that had grown morally soft and philosophically unfocused. She created shocking characters and narrated their misdeeds with graphic grotesqueness in order to jolt people back to an awareness of reality. The unvarnished truth her stories expose is that we are all grotesque, in some way or another. But there is hope, even for the grotesque.

    O'Connor's realism was informed by her Catholic faith. "For I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy.This means for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption in Christ and what I see in the world I see in relation to that. I don't think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction." (9)

    Her modesty allowed her to realize the difficulty of her task, and it protected her from discouragement when her art was misunderstood by both critics and the general public. Unintimidated by popular trends or prominent people, she remained faithful to her vision to the end.

1) Paul Gray, "Letters of Flannery O'Connor", Time, March 5, 1979, p. 69.
2) Cecelia McGowan, "The Faith of Flannery O'Connor", The Catholic Digest, February 1983, p. 78.
3) Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979).
4) Gray, loc. cit. p. 69.
5) Marion Montgomery, The Trouble with You Innerleckchuls (Front Royal, Vir.: Christendom, 1988), p. 10.
6) Gray, loc. cit. p. 68.
7) Etienne Gilson, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1938), p. 71.
8) O'Connor, loc. cit. p. 97.
9) Bruce Edwards, "Flannery O'Connor and the Literary Temple", New Oxford Review, April 1984, p. 18.

Used with permission from Ignatius Press, publishers of The Heart of Virtue by Donald DeMarco.

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