Grace in the grotesque. Flannery O'Connor wrote novels and stories that start from realistic impressions of lives in small-town Georgia and end on an apocalyptic note.
Collected Works, by Flannery O'Connor. New York: The Library of America. 1,281 pp. $30. Handsomely proportioned, bound in a flexible forest green cloth with fine paper and a little silk ribbon for a book marker, this newest volume of the distinguished Library of America looks and feels like a Bible. The irony would not be lost on Flannery O'Connor.
Despite her reputation for black humor, O'Connor's vision is biblical, prophetic. In a letter included in this ``Collected Works,'' she writes:
``The prophets in the Bible are the only great ones but there is doubtless unwritten sacred history like uncanonized saints.'' Her fiction, at its best, comes from the source of ``unwritten sacred history.''
O'Connor wrote novels and stories that start from realistic impressions of lives in small-town Georgia and end on an apocalyptic note. It's tempting to see her as a complex of paradoxes: a Roman Catholic novelist in the Protestant South; a modernist with a distinctly traditional view rooted in the Bible and rural life; a satirist who raged against compassion and taught her readers to love; a raiser of peacocks who felt she could have written a movie script for W.C. Fields; an artist who spent what energy she had on writing fiction (a strict schedule of a few hours a day) and read a bit of St. Thomas Aquinas before turning in; an invalid whose characters are some of the most vivid in American fiction.
O'Connor never preached. In reviews written for Catholic periodicals (unhappily not included here) she spoke as a craftsman. She was one of the best. She agreed with Henry James's statement that the morality of fiction depended on the amount of felt life in it and wrote: ``The limitations that any writer imposes on his work will grow out of the necessities that lie in the material itself and these will generally be more rigorous than any that religion could impose.''
Unlike James, she broadened her field of vision to include revelation. Her fidelity to fact was balanced by her fidelity to the reasons of the heart: Even her most savage portraits of white trash make us almost painfully aware of the moral risk of hypocrisy.
They are also funny. O'Connor's genius was for comedy. When she was 6, she trained a chicken to walk backward. When she was 16, the year her father died, she attracted notice at school by sewing clothes for a bantam hen in the home economics class. Her dialogue, exact as dialect, can make you laugh aloud - but her talent had deep springs in the grotesque.
She wrote, ``The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally.'' Her stories can be hard to stomach. She agreed that her stories were ``hard,'' but added, ``there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism.''
Defending a friend, she wrote that ``she may be basically irreligious but we are not judged by what we are basically. We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given. Success means nothing to the Lord, nor gracefulness.''
The short story ``Revelation'' is O'Connor at her best. Thrown together in a doctor's waiting room, four women - a stylish one; her ugly, brooding daughter (whose name is, ironically, Mary Grace); a bourgeois farmer's wife, Mrs. Turpin; and some ``white trash'' - pass the time by making revealing remarks.
The stylish woman criticizes her daughter for ruining her personality with books (she's a student up north at Wellesley College and sits in the office staring at a textbook titled ``Human Development''), while Mrs. Turpin, the very picture of smugness, thanks Jesus for her own good disposition.
Just when Mrs. Turpin is being grateful for the way things are, Mary Grace hurls the book she has been reading at her, striking her ``directly over her left eye.''
As in other stories, in the midst of explosive violence, O'Connor fixes the moment of truth. As the doctor stands over Mary Grace with a hypodermic needle, ``Mrs. Turpin's head cleared and her power of motion returned. She leaned forward until she was looking directly into the fierce brilliant eyes. There was no doubt in her mind that the girl did know her, knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition. ''
This is ``late'' O'Connor (she corrected the proofs in 1964, the year she died), and she doesn't leave it there. Mrs. Turpin returns home and, unable to sleep, goes out to the pigpen to curse Jesus. But she sees a vision of the procession of humanity marching up to glory. First white trash, then blacks, then freaks and lunatics ``shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs,'' with the bourgeois bringing up the rear.
Mrs. Turpin does not flinch. In her vision, she could see ``by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.'' The end of ``Revelation'' does not seem tacked on but inevitable, not moralistic but revelatory of character and truth. Mrs. Turpin has tragic weight.
And she is redeemed. She recognizes the personal meaning of the phrase ``and the first shall be last.'' She no longer believes her own to be the best of all possible worlds. She knows better now.
Referring to some of her most famous plots, O'Connor wrote that ``I am always having it pointed out to me that life in Georgia is not at all the way I picture it, that escaped criminals do not roam the roads exterminating families, nor Bible salesmen prowl about looking for girls with wooden legs.''
It's these plots, not what is done with them, that provoked a woman from California to write O'Connor complaining that her stories lack ``uplift.'' On the contrary, O'Connor's stories don't underestimate the cost of salvation. If, like many other modern fiction writers, she forces us to experience what she tells about, unlike many, O'Connor includes the experience of what she called grace.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.