From the time when her first short stories and novel were published, O’Connor was identified as a writer with a rare kind of gift. Her specific brand of genius allowed her to adapt powerful religious principles, aesthetic technique, and social observances to create highly original and often shocking literary art which leaned heavily toward the Gothic and grotesque.
She painted with words in the same manner she painted with colors. Stroke by carefully-rendered stroke, she created broken-soul characters who were oddly warped by the jarring impulses of their own scarred personalities, a condition which could make them as misplaced within the confines of their own skin as it could within society.
The Church of Hazel Motes’ Truth
One archetypal example is Hazel Motes, the anti-hero main character in Wise Blood described by Gooch as “a slightly demented saint in the making.” Motes could also be described as a prototype for any number of O’Connor’s characters driven by pain and confusion to rage against their perception of divine, or human, authority over their lives. Hazel Motes is bold enough to propose starting “the Church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified.” His own ambitiousness and the ambiguities of human mortality inherent in anyone’s life defeat his intentions and ultimately lead to his destruction.
It is not only the daring with which O’Connor wrote such tales as Wise Blood that made her an exceptional writer but an ear for true-to-life dialect and a command of language that enabled her to bend narrative prose into lyrical poetry like this:
“The smokestacks and square tops of buildings made a black uneven wall against the lighter sky and here and there a steeple cut a sharp wedge out of a cloud.” Or the following: “The outline of a skull was plain under his skin and the deep burned eye sockets seemed to lead into the dark tunnel where he had disappeared.”
Such statements, beaded as they were with strong philosophical nuances, would make any writer in any language an exceptional one.
The N-Word Factor
For many African Americans, O’Connor is not an easy read because her fiction is very true to the Southern rural language of her times. That means the word “nigger” tends to flow like breath out of many of her characters’ mouths with such a total disregard for its social, political, or spiritual implications that their use of the word might prompt many a hardcore rapper to reconsider his or her fondness for it.
The degree to which O’Connor herself may have been racist is an issue biographer Brad Gooch does periodically address: “She had returned to settle in a society predicated on segregation and had taken on its charged voices and manners as the setting of her fiction.”
In short, from O’Connor’s perspective as a literary artist, to avoid racially derisive language, and in some cases customs, would have meant dodging an ugly truth rather than confronting it head-on. Moreover, readers should note she was far from being alone in this regard among white and black American writers in the previous century.
NEXT: Exploring the Wonder and Enigma of Flannery O'Connor (final part 3)
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Aberjhani is a multi-genre author of history, memoirs, poetry, fiction, and journalism. His most recent book is Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah.
Members of the U.S. Congress rarely make it a point to enter an acknowledgment of a writer’s birthday into the official Congressional Record. Why should they? Writers have birthdays, get stomach aches, laugh through good days, and moan through bad days just everybody else. No big deal.
But author, poet, playwright, and social activist Miriam K. Center is far from typical and U.S. Representative Earl L. “Buddy” Carter felt her 90th birthday, on August 10, was worth officially noting during the second session of the 114th Congress on July 18, 2016 (See complete statement below).
While I may not see eye-to-eye with Congressman Carter when it comes to political matters (I admit to being challenged that way when it comes to Republicans) I do appreciate his cultural instincts where Miriam K. Center is concerned.
Literary Adventures in 1990s Savannah
It was my blessed good fortune to befriend Ms. Center during the mid-1990s in Savannah, Georgia. We shared a lot of good classically-themed literary adventures together, including, as members of the Savannah Writers’ Workshop, organizing and producing the city first literary festival in 1998. Participants on that notable occasion included authors Terry Kay, Rosemary Daniell, Bruce Feiler, Iris Formey Dawson, and Michael Porter.
We were also fortunate to still have with us at the time: the late Margaret Wayt DeBolt (1930-2009), Arthur Gordon (1912-2002), Ja A. Jahannes (1942-2015), and Tom Coffey (1923-2015).
Center also served with Robert Keber, Carolyn Siefferman, and me on the editorial board for the 1999 Savannah Literary Journal. In 2000, I had the honor (some might say “nerve to”) of publishing her boldly-titled maybe-or-maybe-not autobiographical novel Scarlett O’Hara Can Go to Hell as part of the developing Black Skylark Singing imprint. One has to give Rep. Carter kudos for mentioning the book in his birthday acknowledgement and resisting any urge to modify the title:
RECOGNIZING MIRIAM CENTER'S 90TH BIRTHDAY
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.