Flannery O’Connor died 50 years ago today — a few thoughts

Mary Flannery O’Connor died on August 3, 1964 — 50 years ago today.

What more would Flannery O’Connor have written if she had lived to the age of 89?

What would she not have written in her 20s and 30s absent the diagnosis of lupus — the same condition that killed her father?

As Brad Gooch suggested in his excellent biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, O’Connor lived her life under the gun, aware of the likelihood of early death. The Grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” was transformed in the moment before the Misfit shot her — her mind cleared and all the pettiness was stripped away. Fortunately for all of us, O’Connor didn’t have to wait for the last minute to see the urgency of art and life.

I am a past president of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home in Savannah and have spent countless hours in the modest home where she lived about 1/3rd of her life. Many other O’Connor fans — often, worshippers — refer to her as “Flannery”, but I’ve never felt quite that close, quite that intimate, with her personality. I didn’t and don’t know Mary Flannery the person, and I envy those who did actually spend time with her (although I’ll confess that I wonder how well some of them really knew her).

But I do know Flannery O’Connor, the famed author whose work resonates more with each passing year. O’Connor’s stories, novels, and other writings seem in some respects even more shocking, more relevant, and more artful today than when they were first published.

O’Connor scholarship over the years has understandably and justifiably focused on her literary portrayal of Catholic doctrine, especially the hard concept of Grace, but there is so much more to be said about O’Connor’s work. One of these days I hope to make a few academic contributions to the ongoing legacy.

As Craig Amason (former director of Andalusia, the Milledgeville farm where O’Connor spent her later years) and others have explored, O’Connor’s work sometimes seems a commentary about post-WW II development in the South. The impact of the war itself on O’Connor’s work has certainly been insufficiently discussed. O’Connor’s delving into the psychology of religious fanaticism is obviously worth continued study, and so are the ways in which her work incorporates criminality — especially the threat of sexual assault.

Savannah Bishop Emeritus J. Kevin Boland is conducting a memorial mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist this morning, and there’s a reception immediately following at the Childhood Home across Lafayette Square. If you miss Bishop Boland’s remarks, check out this hourlong talk at Orlando Montoya’s new venture Savannah Podcast.

O’Connor’s Savannah home has become an important literary center, but Milledgeville remains the more important pilgrimage for O’Connor readers. I’ve made multiple trips to Andalusia over the last decade; it’s exciting to see the progress being made in preserving that magnificent landmark, which is now surrounded with ugly commercial sprawl. Walking where O’Connor did and seeing the vistas that spurred her imagination are awe-inspiring experiences. I even had the good fortune, thanks to the generosity of O’Connor cousin Louise Florencourt, to go upstairs in the house on Greene Street where O’Connor and her mother lived for a time after her father’s death.

But when I look out the windows of those homes, or wander along the same old boards that O’Connor did, I see a different world than she saw.

I may not share O’Connor’s religious beliefs, but I find inspiration in everything about O’Connor’s life and work.

Today is certainly a good day to reflect on O’Connor’s remarkable and always-evolving legacy, but I’m guessing that she herself would be cynical about such remembrances. It’s easy to honor the dead on days like this one — a 50th anniversary, even a Sunday.

It’s not quite so easy to keep O’Connor’s demanding beliefs and ideas in mind when our lives are more cluttered and the picayune demands of the world weigh on us.