I haven’t read everything that Flannery O’Connor ever wrote — I haven’t yet tackled the recently released A Prayer Journal, for example.
But I’ve been immersed to varying degrees in O’Connor’s life and work for I guess about a decade now, maybe longer. I’m still on the board of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home in Savannah (please like the Home on Facebook) and was president of the board for three years just after a major restoration of the museum house on Lafayette Square. My personal thanks to Linda Bruckheimer, Rena Patton, and others who were critical in making that restoration happen.
While I was president, we also hired our first — and still only — employee, launched the Ursrey Memorial Lecture Series (Alan Gurganus, Michael Cunningham, Jaimy Gordon, and Robert Olen Butler have appeared), and helped with the local launch of Brad Gooch’s biography Flannery, which was published by Little Brown.
And I’ve routinely taught O’Connor’s stories in my intro lit classes at Armstrong and presented a paper on criminality in her stories at a literary conference here a couple of years ago. I’ve given at least a couple of talks at the Childhood Home in the ongoing series of free Sunday lectures.
I was also involved a couple of years ago in launching Southern Discomfort, an exhibition and silent auction of works — almost all by Savannah area artists — inspired by Flannery O’Connor. I wrote about that first exhibit here, and Southern Discomfort 2 is now hanging at ThincSavannah at 35 Barnard St., just south of Ellis Square. The free reception and silent auction is Friday, Jan. 31 from 6 to 9 p.m. (silent auction ends at 8:30). Click here for the Facebook invitation.
I’ve worked on both Southern Discomfort shows with my Armstrong colleague Beth Howells, but the real work has been done by the artists. We’re offering all the invited artists a 50/50 split of the proceeds, by the way. That was something I insisted on from the very beginning; artists in Savannah are far too often asked to donate works in their entirety to nonprofit organizations, which can have the effect of devaluing the work.
But our offer to share the proceeds is only a small part of the reason that virtually everyone we ask decides to take part in the exhibit.
For many artists in this area, and around the world, O’Connor is a constant source of inspiration. Some find images in her short, intense life — her battle with lupus, the easy satire and irony of both her fiction and her early cartoons, the worlds of the farm and of the mind so fully chronicled in her letters, her love of peacocks and other fowl. Other artists turn to the stories themselves — the details of the hat in “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, a particular line in “The River”, the eerie presence of the hogs in “Revelation”.
Still other artists consider their creations so influenced by O’Connor that they’ve submitted pieces that are part of ongoing bodies of work.
Have any of these dealings with O’Connor’s legacy brought me closer to O’Connor herself? I don’t know.
On the one hand, I’d have to say no. Given the complexities of her fiction and her mind, and the simple fact that she died before I was born, I can never be sure that I know anything about her definitively.
But part of me desires to say yes. And I find myself looking past the easy interpretations of her work that rely so heavily on the concept of grace. Increasingly, I find myself fascinated by some of the darkest elements in O’Connor’s fiction — the tension between spirituality and sexuality, the omnipresence of criminals and the looming threat of sexual violence, the abyss of nihilism that her characters are so often on verge of falling into.
Of course, it is cheery stuff. There’s nothing that can brighten a day more than O’Connor’s incisive wit.
The works in Southern Discomfort 2 encompass all those elements. Here’s a sampling: