An article about a new documentary about her—she is surely one of America’s greatest Catholic writers, a lot of social teaching in her work—from Catholic World Report.
I just bought the film from Amazon and you should also consider it.
The question sometimes comes up: “Where should I start with Flannery O’Connor?”
Perhaps the person posing the question has never read O’Connor at all. Or he might have encountered one of her widely anthologized stories in high school or college—probably “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or “Revelation”—and wanted to revisit her work.
That’s a good and important question, because if you start reading O’Connor—who died on August 3, 1964—in the wrong place or the wrong frame of mind, you won’t get her now or maybe even ever. There are lots of people who have read O’Connor and just don’t like her writing, and don’t see what in the world the rest of us are raving about. Which is fine, because, you know—to each his own.
And not to be too didactic about the whole thing—if you’re serious about trying to read O’Connor intelligently, I really think you need to have, besides the fiction (and I’d start with, perhaps, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “Revelation,” and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost), two other works at your side: Mystery and Manners, a collection of her thoughts on writing and faith, and her letters, collected in The Habit of Being.
Now, there is always the danger of over-analysis coming between the reader and author, a danger of which O’Connor was keenly aware.
In a letter of March 28, 1961, to a professor of English who shared with O’Connor his students’ interpretation of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” she began: “The interpretation of your ninety students and three teachers is fantastic and about as far from my intentions as it could get to be.” She finishes her note off with: “Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it. My tone is not meant to be obnoxious. I am in a state of shock.”
But the idea of reading a bit of Mystery and Manners—even what might be available here and there online—and having the letters close by is not for the purpose of “correct” interpretation, but merely to understand what O’Connor herself was trying to do. I can’t tell you how many people I have met who have said to me either that after reading a couple of O’Connor stories they were shocked to find out she was Catholic or that they knew she was Catholic and they knew her faith was important to her—but they just couldn’t see it. They saw blood and rudeness and ignorance, certainly—but they just couldn’t see the “Catholic” part.
Thanks to documentarian Bridget Kurt, we now have another tool for introducing the world and work of Flannery O’Connor to the curious and confused: a one-hour documentary called Uncommon Grace.
Using photographs and the testimony of eminent O’Connor scholars like William Sessions and Brad Gooch, Kurt tells the story of O’Connor’s life from her birth in Savannah in 1925 to her death just 39 years later a couple of hundred miles away in Milledgeville, Georgia. Along the way Kurt also intelligently unpacks the story of the bigger story O’Connor was trying to tell: the true story of human beings, created for one thing, but hell-bent on the road for another, unless they can open up to grace, grace which enters in the most unexpected ways.
Mary Flannery O’Connor was an only child from a Catholic family, born in Savannah. The childhood home, now renovated and open for tours, is located across the street from St. John the Baptist Cathedral on one of those iconic Savannah squares. Uncommon Grace does a lovely job with O’Connor’s childhood, letting us peak into the world of a singular child who wrote as a teenager, “I am only 14 years old, but I feel I need to bring literature into being.” Singular, indeed.
Uncommon Grace takes us with the O’Connors as they move from Savannah, first to Atlanta for a time (which Flannery hated) and then to her mother’s hometown of Milledgeville, a bit northeast of Macon. In her teens, Flannery flourished both as a writer for her school newspaper and as an artist. She was a witty cartoonist, and in fact, had thought for a time—even through college at the Georgia State College for Women—that would be her career path.
But writing it was to be, and writing took her, after graduation, up north to the renowned Iowa Writer’s Workshop. The documentary offers a good look into O’Connor’s participation in this lively period of mid-century American letters and the transitions in her life over the next few years: her deepening commitment to fiction, her self-understanding, her move from Iowa to New York, and, tragically, her health problems.
For O’Connor, like her father, suffered from lupus. The diagnosis was initially kept from Flannery herself, her mother being the one to receive the news after Flannery had an episode in New York that required her to return to Georgia for help.
And it was in Georgia that lupus forced her to stay for the rest of her life. She lived with her mother on their working dairy farm called Andalusia, went to daily Mass, wrote for two hours a day, read, corresponded, interacted with the locals, and ended her day with a dose of the Summa.