March 25, 2010
FLANNERY O’CONNOR (1925-64) reigns as the best American short story writer of the second half of the twentieth century, but her ascendancy — over, for example, Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, her fellow heirs to Faulkner’s Southern Gothic — was by no means a given. Contemporary critics were flummoxed by such intelligence and talent coupled to such lurid tales. Unlike McCullers and Capote, she wasn’t cosmopolitan; the only makeup she wore was red lipstick, and because she didn’t smoke she nibbled Nilla Wafers at the typewriter. In fact, she never escaped Georgia, except for a brief interlude during which she practically inaugurated the Iowa Writer’s Conference, before spending time in residence at Yaddo (Argonaut Folly alert: Patricia Highsmith was there, too, writing Strangers on a Train). And then there’s the theologically stringent nature of her fiction: O’Connor liked to joke that she wasn’t just Catholic, but a 13th-century one. Her grotesques, sketched with dry-point irony, are often heresies made flesh: white trash Jansenists struggling against the author’s religious orthodoxy. Though a comic writer, her purpose was deadly serious: nothing less than the human soul was at stake, and grace was like to make you burn out your eyes with lye.
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