The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South

Image: Bain News Service, Publisher. Women Fencing. 1908. Photograph.
What does O'Connor mean by the grotesque and how does it relate to Catholicism as she understands it?
To what extent are all religious persons "Catholics in the Protestant South" in modern America? (Consider Robinson).

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Fiction writer and essayist Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) took the post-war American literary scene by storm with her engrossing tales of lives lived in the shadow of and in search of the divine. For O’Connor—a “cradle Catholic”—the spiritually significant almost always appeared cloaked in layers of ritual and tradition, and she worried about the cultural cost of a society no longer able to see beyond the dirt and dust of the immanent to the glory of the transcendent beyond. In her fiction, the wonder and mystery of the transcendent break into ordinary life with perhaps surprising regularity and yet, unpredictability.

O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus in 1952 and spent the last twelve years of her life largely in seclusion on her parents’ Georgia farm. Yet she still maintained a robust public speaking schedule, attempting to explain—as she does in the essay excerpted here—the larger redemptive purpose behind her writing.

—Sarah A. Morgan Smith

Source: Excerpts from “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers” and “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South” from MYSTERY AND MANNERS by Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. Copyright © 1969 by the Estate of Mary Flannery O’Connor. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

. . . I’m talking tonight about “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South.”

I have experienced his situation, and I think his situation has particular lessons both for Catholics anywhere who write or read fiction and for those Southerners who feel that the quality of future Southern literature will not hold up unless the best traditions of the South have reinforcement from some stable source of truth. . . . There are certain conditions necessary for the emergence of Catholic literature which are found nowhere else in this country in such abundance as in the South. . . .

The things we see, hear, smell and touch affect us long before we believe anything at all. The South impresses its image on the Southern writer from the moment he is able to distinguish one sound from another. . . . The Southern writer’s greatest tie with the South is through his ear, which is usually sharp but not too versatile outside his own idiom. . . . A distinctive idiom is a powerful instrument for keeping fiction social. When one Southern character speaks, regardless of his station in life, an echo of all Southern life is heard. This helps to keep Southern fiction from being a fiction of purely private experience.

Unless the novelist has gone entirely out of his mind, his aim is still communication and communication suggests, at least to some of us, talking inside a community of which one is a part. One of the reasons Southern fiction thrives is that today a significant number of our best writers are able to do this. They are not alienated from their society. They are not lonely, suffering artists gasping for purer air. . . . The isolated imagination is easily corrupted by theory. Alienation was once a diagnosis, but in much of the fiction of our time it has become an ideal. The modern hero is the outsider. His experience is rootless. He can go anywhere. He belongs nowhere. Being alien to nothing, he ends up alienated from any kind of community based on common tastes and interests. The borders of his country are the sides of his skull. . . .

. . . [A]s far as the creation of a body of fiction is concerned, the social is superior to the purely personal. Somewhere is better than anywhere. . . . The discovery of having his senses respond to particular sounds and a particular idiom, is for the Southern writer the beginning of a recognition that first puts his work in real human perspective for him. He discovers that the imagination is not free, but bound. The energy of the South is so strong in him that it is a force which has to be encountered and engaged, and it is when this is a true engagement that its meaning will lead outward to universal human interest.

The Catholic novel that fails is usually one in which this kind of engagement is absent. . . . The Catholic novel that fails is one in which there is no genuine sense of place and in which feeling is by that much diminished. Its action occurs in an abstracted setting. It could be anywhere or nowhere. This reduces its dimensions drastically and cuts down on those tensions that keep it from being facile and slick. . . . But there are reasons other than merely literary ones why the South is good ground for Catholic fiction. The writer whose themes are religious particularly needs a region where these themes find a response in the life of the people, and this condition is met in the South as nowhere else. A secular society understands the religious mind less and less. It becomes more and more difficult in America to make belief believable, which is what the novelist has to do. It takes less and less belief acted upon to make one appear a fanatic. When you create a character who believes vigorously in Christ, you have to explain his aberration. Here the Southern writer has the greatest possible advantage; he lives in the Bible Belt, where such people, though not as numerous as they used to be, are taken for granted. . . .

It has been suggested, apparently with a straight face, that the Biblical flavor of the South is a hindrance to the Catholic writer because Catholic readers are not accustomed to seeing religion biblically. It is true that if your readers are not well acquainted with the Bible, you don’t have the instrument to plumb meaning—and specifically Christian meaning—that you would have if the Biblical background conditioned everyone’s response to life. Some of the writer’s instruments have, unfortunately, to be shared with his reader. But the fact that Catholics are not accustomed to seeing religion Biblically is a deficiency on the part of Catholics, and, if the Catholic writer tries to accommodate himself to such deficiency, our literature will always be going downhill and ourselves behind it. This is, after all, a correctable deficiency, not invincible ignorance. Nothing, I think, will insure the future of Catholic literature in this country so much as the Biblical revival. Unfortunately, that revival is still the pursuit of the educated, and it is the good which the poor and the ignorant hold in common that is most valuable to the fiction writer. When the poor hold sacred history in common, they have concrete ties to the universal and the holy which allow the meaning of their every action to be heightened and seen under the aspect of eternity. To be great story-tellers, we need something to measure ourselves against, and this is what we conspicuously lack in this age. Men judge themselves now by what they find themselves doing. The Catholic has the teachings of the Church to serve him in this regard. But for the writing of fiction something more is necessary. For the purposes of fiction, these guides have to exist in the form of stories which affect our image and our judgment of ourselves. Abstractions, formulas, laws, will not do here. We have to have stories. It takes a story to make a story. It takes a story of mythic dimensions; one which belongs to everybody; one in which everybody is able to recognize the hand of God and imagine its descent upon himself. In the Protestant South the Scriptures fill this role. The ancient Hebrew genius for making the absolute concrete has conditioned the Southerner’s way of looking at things. . . .

. . . The Catholic novelist in the South is forced to follow the spirit into strange places and to recognize it in many forms not totally congenial to him. His interests and sympathies may very well go, as I find my own do, directly to those aspects of Southern life where the religious feeling is most intense and where its outward forms are farthest from the Catholic and most revealing of a need that only the Church can fill. The Catholic novelist in the South will see many distorted images of Christ, but he will certainly feel that a distorted image of Christ is better than no image at all. I think he will feel a good deal more kinship with backwoods prophets and shouting fundamentalists than he will with those politer elements for whom the supernatural is an embarrassment and for whom religion has become a department of sociology or culture or personality development.

A few years ago a preacher in Tennessee attracted considerable attention when he sacrificed a live lamb chained to a cross at his Lenten revival service. It is possible that this was simple showmanship, but I doubt it. I presume that this was as close to the Mass as that man could come. The Catholic writer may at first feel that the kind of religious enthusiasm that has influenced Southern life has run hand in hand with extreme individualism for so long that there is nothing left of it that he can recognize. But when he penetrates to the human aspiration beneath it, he sees not only what has been lost to the life he observes, but more the terrible loss to us in the Church of human faith and passion. The result of these underground religious affinities will be a strange and, to many, perverse fiction—one which serves no felt need, which gives us no picture of Catholic life or the religious experiences that are usual with us. But I believe it will be Catholic fiction. There is one Holy Spirit, and He is no respecter of persons. These people in the invisible Church make discoveries that have meaning for us who are better protected from the vicissitudes of our own natures and who are often too dead to the world to make any discoveries at all. These people in the invisible Church may be grotesque, but their grotesque-ness has a significance and a value which the Catholic should be in a better position than the others to assess. . . .

. . . The word “grotesque” should not necessarily be used as a pejorative term. . . . [O]ur present grotesque heroes . . . seem to carry an invisible burden and to fix us with eyes that remind us that we all bear some heavy responsibility whose nature we have forgotten. They are prophetic figures. In the novelist’s case, prophecy is a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up. The prophet is a realist of distances, distances in the qualitative sense, and it is this kind of realism that you find in the modern instances of the grotesque. But to the eye of the general reader, these prophet-heroes are freaks. The public invariably approaches them from the standpoint of abnormal psychology.

Whenever I am asked why Southern writers particularly have this penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man. And in the south, the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. Of course, the South is changing so rapidly that almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. It is interesting that as belief in the divinity of Christ decreases, there seems to be a preoccupation with Christ-figures in our fiction. What is pushed to the pack of the mind makes its way forward somehow. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They can cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature, for it is the business of the artist to reveal what haunts us. . . .

The South is struggling mightily to retain her identity against great odds and without knowing always, I believe, quite in what her identity lies. An identity is not made from what passes, from slavery or from segregation, but from those qualities that endure because they are related to truth. It is not made from the mean average or the typical but often from the hidden and most extreme. I think that Catholic novelists in the future will be able to reinforce the vital strength of Southern literature, for they will know that what has given the South her identity are those beliefs and qualities which she has absorbed from the Scriptures and from her own history of defeat and violation: a distrust of the abstract, a sense of human dependence on the grace of God, and a knowledge that evil is not simply a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured. It is to be hoped that Catholics will look deeper into Southern literature and the subject of the grotesque and learn to see there more than what appears on the surface. . . .

Not long ago I received a letter from an old lady in California who informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will “lift up his heart.” And it seems that her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine she had read. I wrote her back that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up. You may say that the serious writer doesn’t have to bother about the tired reader, but he does, because they are all tired. One old lady who wants her heart lifted up wouldn’t be so bad, but you multiply her 250,000 times and what you get is a book club.

The writer, without softening his vision, is obliged to capture or conjure readers. And this means any kind of reader. . . . There is something in us as story-tellers, and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance of restoration. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but he has forgotten the cost of it. His sense of evil is deluded or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. He has forgotten the cost of truth, even in fiction.

I don’t believe that you can impose orthodoxy on fiction. I do believe that you can deepen your own orthodoxy by reading if you are not afraid of strange visions. Our sense of what is contained in our faith is deepened less by abstractions than by an encounter with mystery in what is human and often perverse. We Catholics are much given to the instant answer. Fiction doesn’t have any. Saint Gregory wrote that every time the sacred text describes a fact, it reveals a mystery. And this is what the fiction writer, on his lower level, attempts to do also.

The danger for the writer who is spurred by the religious view of the world is that he will consider this two operations instead of one. He will lift up the old lady’s heart without cost to himself or to her. He will forget that the devil is still at his task of winning souls and that grace cuts with the sword Christ said he came to bring. He will try to enshrine the mystery without the fact, and there will follow further set of separations which are inimical to art. Judgment will be separated from vision; nature from grace; and reason from the imagination. These are separations which are very apparent today in American life and in American writing. I believe they are less true of the South, in spite of her well-publicized sins, than of any other section of the country, and in this I believe that the South is the place where a Catholic literature can thrive. The Catholic novelist in the South will bolster the South’s best traditions, for they are the same as his own. And the South will perhaps lead him to be less timid as a novelist, more respectful of the concrete, more trustful of the blind imagination.

The poet is traditionally a blind man. But the Christian poet, and the story-teller as well, is like the blind man Christ touched, who looked then and saw men as if they were trees—but walking. Christ touched him again, and he saw clearly. We will not see clearly until Christ touches us in death, but this first touch is the beginning of vision, and it is an invitation to deeper and stranger visions that we shall have to accept if we want to realize a Catholic literature.

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