PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly dedicated a healthy portion of its latest episode to Flannery O’Connor, interviewing biographer Brad Gooch, religious scholar Ralph Wood, and others about her Catholicism and how it manifested itself in her work. Or, to be more precise, whether it did. To its credit, the show invited Religion News Service’s David E. Anderson to question how much worth O’Connor’s work has five decades since it was first published. “It can even be argued that the signature elements of her style—character as grotesque, gratuitous violence as the bearer of meaning—no longer shock, no longer convince,” Anderson writes.
True enough, I wasn’t shocked by Wise Blood when I read it this year, but O’Connor would have written a different, more lurid novel if she simply intended to shock; and if Hazel Motes isn’t convincing as a realistic character, he succeeds as an outlet for O’Connor’s concerns about faith, outsiderness, and our expectations of preachers. Grotesques, practically by definition, aren’t meant to convince in any realistic sense. But Anderson is on sturdier ground when it comes to O’Connor going AWOL during the civil rights movement, and he closes his piece on a harshly (but not undeservedly) critical note:
“The South is traditionally hostile to outsiders, except on her own terms,’’ O’Connor wrote in “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South.’’ “She is traditionally against intruders, foreigners from Chicago or New Jersey, all those who come from afar with moral energy that increases in direct proportion to the distance from home.’’ Apparently O’Connor feared that “moral energy’’ might dilute or undo the racial status quo on which Southern identity depended, believing that only time and history would resolve the race issue. In Wood’s view, racism and segregation were, for O’Connor, “a species belonging to a much deeper and more pernicious genus of evil.’’ If so, it is nowhere evident in her work.