Among the biggest surprises to come my way in 2019 was an invitation to give a talk and sign copies of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah at the Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home in Savannah, Georgia. Health issues prevented me from accepting the initial invitation but I am now slated to give a presentation in May 2020. The plan is to also have available for signing a forthcoming book in which I recount adventures and misadventures involving three iconic writers: O'Connor, James Alan McPherson, and John Berendt.
Any literary biographer will tell you writing a book of meaningful depth on an influential author requires a ton of research involving what other writers have already said about the subject. The following are reflections on another scribe's brilliantly-informed perspective, first published by AXS Entertainment as: "Events, Books, Highlight Flannery O’Connor’s Legacy."
Regarding a Gifted Child
One of the words most frequently used to describe Flannery O’Connor is “paradoxical.” Exactly why that word is such an appropriate one is demonstrated with informed passion and masterful skill in Brad Gooch’s finely layered biography: Flannery, A Life of Flannery O’Connor.
The fact that the mystery of O’Connor’s life and work continues to draw increasing attention in the twenty-first century is amazing when considering how steeped it is in the language of her times—the very racially-charged South of the mid-1900s–– and when noting her early death from lupus at the age of thirty-nine.
Gooch begins his story by revisiting a moment which would remain a reference point of both humor and symbolism throughout O’Connor’s remarkable life. He takes us to the author’s childhood home in Savannah, just off Lafayette Square, where in 1930 she was visited by a news cameraman “to record her buff Cochin bantam, the chicken she reputedly taught to walk backward.” While a chicken may have been the first bird to enhance her public profile, in her personal essay about the incident, The King of the Birds, O’Connor noted “My quest, whatever it was actually for, ended with peacocks.”
Her childhood penchant for reversing the accepted order of things might be read as nothing more than weird if attributed to another five-year-old. Because it is O’Connor, it may instead be viewed as one early hint of a creative sensibility which in time would create and coax characters into acting out challenging dilemmas of the human condition as she observed it. Biographer Gooch’s narrative is particularly astute when it comes to his evocation of how that sensibility recognized its own value and instinctively preserved itself within “a regulated and meticulously organized world within a world.”
Her tactics included the creation of poems, cartoons, and booklets in which she presented portraits of Edward O’Connor, her adored businessman father, and the resilient Regina Cline O’Connor, her mother. They also included somewhat restrained rebellions against the authority of the nuns, at St. Vincent’s Grammar School for Girls, whose job it was to help shape her character into one reflecting modern Catholic grace and values.
Loss and Suffering
Like nearly all Americans who grew up during the 1930s, Flannery O’Connor’s childhood was marked by the economic ravages of the Great Depression. Her father lost first his real estate business, then a succession of jobs until he was forced to accept a position in Atlanta in 1938 and moved his family to Milledgeville, where in time his daughter would become one of its most famous citizens. Even more notable than the family’s financial up and downs was Edward O’Connor’s death from lupus at the age of forty-five in 1941. His daughter was then fifteen.
Each turn of fate in Flannery O’Connor’s life as recounted by Gooch seems to have reinforced her personality with powerful measures of theological insight, focused creativity, and humor. A couple of years following her father’s death, she noted: “A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with grief, but even above grief, wonder.” Most people stop at the “grief” part and allow themselves to simply wallow in it until ready to move on. The mystery of the “wonder” continuously pushed O’Connor forward.
At the age of twenty-five, in December 1950, she was told she was suffering from a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis, but two years later learned her true condition had been hidden from her. Sally Fitzgerald, one of her closest friends, told her she was suffering from the same disease which had killed her father. By the time she learned her actual condition, she had already distinguished herself as an aspiring writer at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop and as one from whom great things were expected at the renowned Yaddo Artists’ Colony. Her status as a professional author rested mostly on a number of short stories published in prestigious literary journals and on her now classic 1952 novel, Wise Blood, published just a month before learning about her medical fate.
Such “devastating knowledge” might have reduced another sensitive soul to a simmering puddle of depression from which they might never have recovered. As Gooch points out:
“She did not know whether she would be allotted the same three years of borrowed time as her father, following his diagnosis, or if indeed ‘the Scientist’ possessed a miracle cure. She had her doubts.
She also had her faith and intellectual passion, both of which helped her to confront the enemy known as lupus. (Gooch’s report on how doctors treated individuals with the disease in the 1950s is particularly interesting in light of the Food and Drug Administration’s 2011 approval of a drug called Benlysta as a treatment option; the authorization marked the first time in fifty-four years a new drug received such an endorsement.)
NEXT: The N-Word Factor: Exploring the Wonder and Enigma of Flannery O'Connor (part 2)
Aberjhani is the author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savanna and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. He is also an accomplished artist & photographer.
Among the many literary marvels for which the world can be grateful to Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison are the numerous interviews she’s given over the years. Her inspiring genius sparkles as brilliantly in conversation as it does in her novels, librettos, children’s books, and lectures. In one such interview conversation, she expressed as her biggest fear that of being stranded somewhere without a book of some substance to keep her company. That makes flawless sense to those of us addicted to books at an early age.
I would not go so far as to call myself an abibliophobe but I am far more comfortable in spaces and places that accommodate books with some degree of delight than in those which ban them from the premises. To avoid such a potentially traumatizing condition, I try to stay as well-supplied with more books than I am likely to read––for pleasure that is––in a month, as a Beverly Hills fashionista remains stocked up on shiny shoes, bags, and credit cards.
El Nino on the Way
So with meteorologists predicting a 2015 - 2016 winter El Niño that could make some of us spend more time indoors than usual, lining up reads for the chilly wet days and evenings ahead is not a bad idea. My own mixed bag of pages includes biography, literary fiction, history, poetry, and social criticism. A couple of the titles I’ve already read once or twice but feel the need to revisit; several have been on the bookshelf for several months and patiently awaiting my attention. They now have it.
The list, which features a comment or two on why I chose a given title, could change over the next month or so. But, for now, you might call those already on it my literati posse for the duration of the 2015-2016 winter El Niño. The numbers are not to imply any kind of ranking but may say something about how my cerebral passions and priorities tend to cross-pollinate:
MY 2015-2016 EL NINO WINTER READING LIST
1. Tiny Windows (poetry) by Duncan McNaughton. One of the founders of San Francisco’s New College of California Poetics Program, McNaughton’s work as an educator and poet has long captivated and empowered many. Tiny Windows is his latest and to me that makes contemporary poetry a lot more interesting than before its publication.
2. Black Prophetic Fire (history and social criticism) by Cornel West and Christa Buschendorf. This book follows the same tradition as the great volume of dialogue between James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (as well as those with Baldwin and other profound thinkers). It’s also reminiscent of the excellent Literary Conversations series, but with the dialogue centered by Cornel West’s expansive brilliance it obviously reaches beyond literary concerns.
3. Jean-Paul Sartre: A Life (biography) by Annie Cohen-Solal. I’ve read novels, plays and essay on philosophy by Sartre but this will be my first time reading a full-length comprehensive biography on him. As it happens, Cornel West wrote the foreword for this “Sartre Centennial” edition so that had some influence on my decision to buy this specific title.
4. The State of the World Atlas (globalization reference) by Dan Smith. This is the ninth edition of Smith’s book. He finished it in London in 2012 and it was published in 2013, which means significant changes have already occurred since it the last printing. It makes a good comparative reference though for helping to place current events in a developing historical context.
5. God Help the Child (novel) by Toni Morrison. I actually started reading this before the official publication date earlier this year. Because it is Morrison I chose to save it for a special occasion and El Niño popped up it so here we are.
6. Life of William Blake with Selections from His Poems & Other Writings (biography plus) by Alexander and Anne Gilchrist. This was the first major biography on Blake and is still considered among the best because the Gilchrist husband and wife literary duo met with contemporaries of Blake to complete it.
7. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (philosophy of education & social criticism) by Paulo Freire. This modern classic by a highly-revered author has been recommended to me many times over the years. With the various demographic shifts and cultural migrations currently taking place, now seems like a good time to give it some serious attention.
8. Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling (criminal justice, comics, graphic novel) by Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer with a foreword by Michelle Alexander. There’s no such thing as overstating the crisis of oppressive human rights violations represented by the so-called “high school to prison pipeline” in the United States and its devastating impact upon African-American communities. The modern industrial prison complex is dangerously emblematic of apartheid-like practices. Dismantling it means coming to terms with how it came to be and why it continues to expand.
9. American Poets: The Journal of the Academy of American Poets (Vol. 49). True, this is not an actual book in the literal sense but it just arrived in the mail so feels right to place on the list. A quick peep inside indicates an interesting interview with U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, some new poems by Joy Harjo and Yusef Komunyakaa, and notes on some older ones by Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, Sylvia Plath, and W.B. Yeats. There’s a big announcement also from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation regarding their acquisition of Mark Strand’s personal library.
10. Dark Faith: New Essays on Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away edited by Susan Srigley. That title kind of says it all doesn’t it. Reading of course is not the only way to stay pleasurably engaged during cold soggy El Nino days and nights. It is, however, for this author one of the most sweetly enduring and warmly compatible.
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Any attempt to write a biographical essay about someone as multi-talented and prolific as the late Ja A. Jahannes would be incomplete without immersion––or re-immersion––into a comprehensive sample of his works. In Jahannes’ case that would mean listening to diverse genres of music, going through numerous powerful poems, revisiting provocative essays, and revisiting intensely-original memoirs, novels, and plays.
Getting it all done in the short amount of time allotted by deadlines would not be possible but enjoying the challenge would be. In the course of rising to meet that challenge by penning the essay 5 Ways to be Geniuses Together, Celebrating Ja Jahannes, I naturally looked for suitable quotes to include with the essay. Upon finding more than I could use, I was inspired to create the three quotation graphics posted with the article.
From that point, it wasn’t much of a leap to realize that our modern shell-shocked world could possibly benefit tremendously from a collection of quips and witticisms distilled from the glittering torrent of fiction, sermons, librettos, stories, papers, etc., that seemed to flow with such ceaseless determination from Jahannes’ inspired soul. A good title for the collection might be The Wit, Wisdom, and Genius of Ja A. Jahannes. Moreover, if I were a traditional publisher taking on such a project I would push for both an illustrated hardback edition and a primarily text paperback edition.
The Notion of Being Geniuses Together
The first part of the 5 Ways to be Geniuses Together essay contains a short discussion on my allusion to the notion of collective genius. Specifically, I identity the following as a central theme binding the larger body of multi-discipline works by Jahannes:
Being geniuses together (to borrow the phrase from Kay Boyle’s and Robert McAlmon’s classic memoir) makes it possible for human beings to serve as each other’s heroes rather than simply function as each other’s antagonistic nemeses. (from 5 Ways to be Geniuses Together)
I was fortunate enough to experience Jahannes’ application of that concept through a number of shared projects. We first met when he visited a Waldenbooks store I managed in the Savannah Mall (Savannah, Georgia) during the early 1990s. His careful study of the New York Times bestselling titles on the shelves and the sustained attention he gave to the African-American Studies section told me he was someone of rare intellectual sensibilities. I was not offended when he gently waved me away after I offered my assistance but let him know I was there if he should need it.
The Black Writers Project: Something Magical
The first time we actually worked together on a cultural arts project was probably in 1996 when he was one of the authors profiled in the stage production debut of 4 Native Voices. The play was produced by the Savannah Writers Workshop, with which I worked for a decade to help produce literary events and co-edit the Savannah Literary Journal. The next year his long poem “Communion,” dedicated to photographer Roland L. Freeman, was published in the Journal.
In 1998, 4 Native Voices was revived for the first Savannah Literary Festival, coordinated by Miriam K. Center. As part of that same festival, Jahannes joined Word Sculptor Iris Formey Dawson and me as part of a panel discussion on “Southern People of Color Write about the South.” With our more formal introduction via 4 Native Voices and the literary festival behind us, I accepted invitations in 1999 to join him, author Michael Porter, and Formey Dawson at different venues to share our individual brands of poetry with the community. Jahannes named “our little group” The Black Writers Project.
The group might not have been as large or dynamic as the throngs of authors, poets, painters, and musicians who flooded New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, but as black literary artists sharing our works in public spaces we were doing something new. We were helping create what eventually would evolve into the modern spoken word movement.
One of the group’s first assignments was undertaken in March when we joined him at Abyssinia Baptist Church where he served as pastor. For another, we went to the Hitch Village Library and read to a group of excited children. Jahannes knew I had lived in Hitch Village myself until the age of 10 and had often spent time reading and playing in that very same library. He therefore introduced me as one of their own who was now a bookseller and a writer who had returned to them after having lived and written in other parts of the world.
Something magical happened when I passed out copies of a poem called Black Then as I Am Black Now so the children would be able to follow along as I read. I had written it specifically for the occasion to emphasize that being black meant more than the reports about gun violence and drug-busts taking place in their neighborhood and which they saw on the news almost every evening. Halfway through the poem, they picked up on one particular phrase and turned it into a repeating refrain after each remaining stanza:
“…I was black back then
They had added their genius for rhythm to the poem and made it their own. Each time they repeated the lines following my recital of a new stanza I was nearly overcome with emotion. That kind of transference of creative catalyst from one generation to another gave meaning to a way of being geniuses together that Jahannes seemed to appreciate the most. He was, after all, an exceptional educator who made it his mission to not only inform young people but empower them. In this instance, the children had given me as much through their voices as I had hoped to give them through mine.
Further Adventures in Literary Savannah
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.