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Flannery O’Connor’s Good Things

One of her collections of letters sheds light on Catholicism's influence on modern American literature.

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Good Things Out of Nazareth—a volume of Flannery O’Connor’s previously uncollected letters to friends—tells us an important American literary tale, interesting in itself, that also sets the record straight on Catholicism’s influence on modern American literature.

The Catholic Church underwent a great, international renaissance in the early 20th century—stimulated by the revival of Scholastic philosophy and, later, by the rumblings of a new theology seeking a return to the patristic writings of the early Church. At the same time, Catholic writers in England and France were doing some of their best work. Paul Claudel published The Satin Slipper in 1931 and was elected to the Académie française in 1946. Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory won Hawthornden Prize in 1941, and Evelyn Waugh published Brideshead Revisited in 1945, followed by his Sword of Honor trilogy.

Catholic colleges and universities in America enthusiastically endorsed an “apostolate of the pen” by assigning modern Catholic writers in their classrooms, and by mid-century, American literature itself found a genuinely Catholic expression, mostly in the work of intellectuals who had been converted to the faith—such as Thomas Merton, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Dorothy Day, and Robert Lowell. Between 1945 and 1965, Dana Gioia observes in The Catholic Writer Today and Other Essays, “Catholic novelists and poets received 11 Pulitzer Prizes and 5 National Book Awards.” In retrospect, this seems almost the inevitable outcome of a program that had been both consciously and patiently undertaken. 

This volume’s letters and the commentary that accompany them add a fascinating twist to the story: what may seem to us inevitable at first appeared totally improbable. When the Southern novelist Gordon, herself a recent convert to the faith, reads two unpublished novels in manuscript, she is totally taken aback. Most American Catholic literature of the age was more notable for its piety than its technique. The American literary landscape, as Gordon saw it, seemed securely dominated by a desiccated, sterile Protestantism that had found classic expression in Henry James, but had now lapsed into what she and Senator Eugene McCarthy denounced as a largely “homosexual” culture of decadence.

But there, at her writing desk, she reviews the work of two young Catholic novelists—one a recent convert and one reared in the faith—and is astonished at the soundness of the “technique.” Amid the dead land, there is new life, but not just that; it strikes her as coming from a totally unanticipated source:

Speaking of novels, strange things are happening. Twice in the last month I have seen the novel of the future—the novel they will all be trying to write—right here in this study. The two best first novels I have ever read have come to me last month. One is by Flannery O’Connor of Milledgeville, Georgia . . .

The other novel is by Walker Percy, who was living in Sewanee, Tennessee at the time. Gordon writes: “good things come out of Nazareth.” 

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Gordon herself had been converted only in late middle age. She understood the American novel as wholly formed within her old dispensation, the secularized, moral Protestantism of Henry James. Percy writes her, however, to announce the age of James is dead, dead with the Victorians and their unbelief, dead with the German rationalist and liberal theology whose tomes lined the walls of Percy’s father’s library. Every civil edifice has collapsed under the weight of unbelief except “the Dome of St. Peter’s.” The American Catholic literary revival was thus totally unanticipated, beggaring belief, and yet, its victory, like that of the Messiah, must for all that be no less total and awe-inspiring.

The letters of O’Connor and Percy show that they well know America has entered a new age. The old establishments of manners and morals have dropped away, leaving only the great mystery of the Church, yes, but also a new intellectual culture. In the 19th century, reason had seemed the servant of unbelief and left religion to serve as a mere outlying remainder, a residue of morals and sentiments. Thanks largely to the rise of the new scholasticism, Catholicism now seemed to have the clear eye of reason for the light of being, and the new Catholic literature had no less an unsparing vision for sin and damnation, grace and salvation. O’Connor read Aquinas’s Summa in bed each night and returned to her writing desk in the morning.

In the second part of this volume, the subject-matter turns from Gordon’s astonishment at the new age in which she has emerged, a bit sun-blind like Lazarus, to O’Connor’s efforts to clarify and protect the vocation of her art in a Catholic culture ready to capitalize on her success but confused by the grotesquery of the “freaks” about whom she writes. In letters to the Jesuit priest, James H. McCown—most of which are published here for the first time and are, in fact, the explicit justification for the volume as a whole—we find O’Connor invited to bend her art to the service of the Church and nimbly and sharply replying that she can do so only insofar as she respects the vocation of the artist.

Aquinas, the new Scholasticism, and its most celebrated advocate, Jacques Maritain, provide her the fundamental law of the virtue of art, which she lays down in some memorable passages:

. . . you must first anyway rely on the virtue of art. Pornography and sentimentality and anything else in excess are all sins against form and I think they ought to be approached as sins against art rather than as sins against morality . . . The pious style is a great stumbling block to Catholics who want to talk to the modern world . . .

The novel is an art form and when you use it for anything other than art you pervert it. I didn’t make this up. I got it from St. Thomas (via Maritain) who allows that art is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made; it has no utilitarian end.

Maritain had taught that the fine arts were ordered to beauty, which was a “divine name” and a “transcendental property of being.” Works of art provided, therefore, an avenue by which the intellectual could approach the most sacred mysteries of the faith—but, and here was the whole point, only through one’s strict submission to art’s own internal laws. O’Connor attempts to school McCown’s literary tastes away from sentimental piety and triumphalist didacticism to an appreciation of art’s integral vision, while also refusing every invitation to become an apologist for any cause, whether that of her native South or the universal Church.

This guardianship of artistic integrity was made possible, but also became necessary, precisely because O’Connor’s imagination was wholly founded on a vision of Christ’s Incarnation and aimed at startling the reader into an encounter with that mystery. She pursued sanctity in her own eccentric way and, as her correspondence shows, she felt profoundly what was at stake in the salvation and holiness of both her friends and her readers. Art’s integrity must be respected, not because she thought art an autonomous or secular concern, but because it rightly played its own, specific role in the salvation of the world. Catholic literature had emerged out of the ferment of the Church’s intellectual life more generally, but it still had its own proper rule and scope.

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Another, related story unfolds in the letters collected here. O’Connor drew early critical attention not only from Catholics but the wider literary world, where the new criticism’s alacrity for sniffing out Freudian symbols of sexual repression made it hard for her stories to be seen for what they were. She expended a great deal of energy cultivating a more satisfactory reception for her work, including its translation into French and adaptation for American television. 

We see also that Percy had to fight a difficult battle to get his account of the formless existential wanderings of Binx Bolling into print. His publisher considered the book—The Moviegoer—a brilliant failure and would have allowed it to sink into obscurity had it not unexpectedly won the 1962 National Book Award.

The last letters collected here show that the unexpected moment of Catholic triumph did not last. The events of the ’60s, including the Second Vatican Council and the radicalized domestic politics fueled by the Vietnam war, tore asunder the short-lived synthesis of Thomism, artistic discipline, and Catholic cultural confidence. Alexander vividly renders these chapters of literary history and adds a generous handful of new letters to the already massive published O’Connor correspondence.

 But a serious complaint must still be registered. Open up Valdimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire and you will find, first, “John Shade’s” poem in four cantos of heroic couplets, followed by an extensive commentary authored by his neighbor and colleague Charles Kinbote. The commentary, however, is no such thing. What purport to be glosses on the lines of the poem turn out to be eccentric and pretentious flourishes intermingled with autobiographical indulgences such that Shade’s poem becomes little more than a coat rack from which to hang Kimbote’s crazed story.

Good Things Out of Nazareth comes irritatingly close to realizing Nabokov’s playful fiction as a reality. Alexander’s commentary and footnotes are often useful but frequently divagate on such matters as the contemporary Democratic Party and Trump’s election, the poet Allen Tate’s performance in the college classroom, the “good libations” had at Notre Dame literature conferences, and even the irrelevant detail that Catholic theologian Teilhard de Chardin was mentioned at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Page-long—and inaccurate—summaries of Orestes Brownson’s theory of territorial democracy and Russell Kirk’s description of the conservative tradition are given, simply because the two figures are mentioned for reasons unconnected to those matters. None of this belongs.

The editor of a volume of correspondence has one duty: to provide just those materials necessary for the obscure details of history found in the letters to remain intelligible for readers ever after. The apparatus must include brief factual notes, a clear statement of editorial principles, and an account of the archival materials used. The letters themselves should be presented in chronological order, not parsed into thematic collages. All this is a kind of preparation for eternity from which every evanescent concern must be excluded.

The performance of this function is all the more important in O’Connor’s case, because her letters, first collected as The Habit of Being (1979), stand alongside her novels, stories, and essays as classics of modern literature. Habit is a perfect work; if uncollected letters are to be published, the business should be done in such a way that they quietly, unobtrusively, enter into the established canon. That, alas, is not the job that has been attempted here. What we require has been only haphazardly and partially achieved and lies obscured amid a superabundance of superfluous dross. Alexander has given us material of great literary and historical value, mishandling them into print with a reckless, zealous, ill-focused love.  

James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. His most recent books are The Hanging God (Angelico, 2018) and the poetic sequence, The River of the Immaculate Conception (Wiseblood, 2018).

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