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.
The original subject scheduled for this post was the 100th anniversary of the "Harlem Hellfighter's" celebratory parade through New York City in February, 1919, following the United States' and allies' successful campaign to end World War I in Europe. For the African Americans who comprised the unit, participation had meant another step toward gaining racial equality and ending unwarranted violence against them at home. With Black History Month only a couple of weeks away and commemorations of the Harlem Renaissance Centennial now kicking off around the globe, the subject would have been timely and appropriate.
However: just as humanity had to address the impact of various forms of violence--such as war, lynching, and race riots--during the Jazz Age Harlem Renaissance, we find ourselves doing the same in 2019, an entire century later. Too often, the casualties you might anticipate hearing about are not the military personnel or police officers who confront danger as part of their profession. They tend to be children in school classrooms, at parties, attending concerts, playing in front yards, immigrating from one oppressive situation to another, or just nestled at home among family members assumed to be dedicated to their safety and wellness.
The beauty of all they were or may have become is gone in the flash of one horrific moment. Rather than revisit yet again the question of why so many of us exercise so little compassion toward children and disregard the potential inherent in every child, I launched the Kaleidoscope Moons Art Series as one way to reclaim with compassion the beauty of lives lost too soon.
A New Perspective on an Old Wound
How to survive and cope with grief over the loss of an offspring is a dilemma I began exploring as a writer through poems in my first book, I Made My Boy Out of Poetry, and then later in essays in The American Poet Who Went Home Again. As the year 2019 slowly gains momentum, I am viewing the subject through a distinctly 21st century lens and re-engaging it as a visual artist via the Kaleidoscope Moons series. Why at this precise time? Largely because of what I expressed in these notes on the series:
STORY BEHIND THE SERIES
The American media has proclaimed the heroics of 13-year-old Jayme Closs for managing after three months to escape her kidnapper. However, she lost her parents to the abductor's shotgun blasts and in that instant experienced the destruction of her childhood. Clearly the concept of compassion held no meaning for him and a civilized society is obligated to reflect on possible reasons why.
What roles, for example, might the glamorization of hatred and sustained monetization of war play in Closs's abductor's choice to ignore the excruciating pain he would cause a child and her family? How did institutionalized practices which place the well-being of children toward the lower end of any list of priorities possibly intensify his nihilism? When reflecting on likely answers, this much becomes clear: the degree to which any given individual might be held accountable for helping maintain a culture of indifference and, by doing so, contribute to the malevolent destruction of human life is a consideration which can no longer be avoided.
NEXT: Kaleidoscope Moons Reclaim with Compassion the Beauty of Lives Lost Too Soon Part 2
Founder of the 100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance Initiative and creator of the Silk-Featherbrush Art Style, Aberjhani's work as both an author & an artist have been acclaimed by critics, readers, and cultural arts supporters around the world.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.