Matt Forney
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The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor

complete-storiesFlannery O’Connor is another great writer who’s been sidelined by the Western literary establishment for the dumbest of reasons. Unlike Céline, she hasn’t been totally written out of the history books; because O’Connor had the good fortune to be born with a vagina, the Beigeists begrudgingly include a couple of her short stories in the college English curriculum. But I guarantee that most of the non-humanities-majoring public has never heard her name.

All of the attention goes to O’Connor’s pious fraud contemporary Harper Lee.

Part of it is because O’Connor died young, wasting away from lupus not long after her 39th birthday. O’Connor was also a devout Catholic, which has been a death sentence in English-speaking countries ever since the days of Henry VIII. But the main reason why Lee is worshipped and O’Connor is ignored is because once again, Lee was an entrepreneur masquerading as a social critic. Where O’Connor was a low-key figure who spent most of her life in the rural Georgia town where she grew up, Lee moved to New York and schmoozed her way into the nation’s literary elite. Her To Kill a Mockingbird is popular and beloved because it caters to the Northern left-wing establishment’s self-congratulatory view of not only the South, but themselves.

Blogger Thrasymachus wrote the ultimate takedown of Mockingbird here, but I’ll sum it up for you. Mockingbird is garbage because it absolves Lee’s social class—the wealthy, upper-class elite—of their responsibility in fostering the culture of racism in the Jim Crow South. In the novel, all of Maycomb’s racism emanates from the Ewells, a despised and ostracized clan of white trash who live in a tin shack behind the town dump. Atticus Finch, the town lawyer (and by extension one of the most powerful and respected men in Maycomb) is not hostile to blacks; neither is the town sheriff or the other middle-class families in town. Even the working-class families such as the Cunninghams aren’t overtly and violently racist.

And yet despite being the only racists in town, the poor and hated Ewells somehow wield enough influence to get a black man convicted of a crime he clearly did not commit.

That’s why Mockingbird is part of every high school curriculum in America and why Wise Blood is read only by disaffected intellectual arsonists like myself; it’s libelous, self-serving and reaffirms the prejudices of its leftist readers. Black people are good, middle-class white people are good, poor white people are the root of all evil, and “the loss of innocence” is a real tragedy. That’s a great metric for determining whether something’s worth your time; if a book or movie is described as being about “the loss of innocence,” run the hell away like you’re being accosted by a lesion-covered junkie wielding a syringe.

Flannery O’Connor didn’t have time to tickle the fancies of Northern Puritans; she was too busy sketching the most realistic and gripping portrait of her native land since Mark Twain passed. Like Twain, O’Connor eschewed piety and sentimentality and depicted Southerners—white or black, rich or poor, man or woman—as they were: wretched, stupid, and corrupt. In her world, no one is innocent and everyone has the blood of classism and racism on their hands, including blacks themselves.

She also didn’t mince words, using “nigger” frequently (see: “The Artificial Nigger”), which to liberals is like garlic to a vampire.

O’Connor’s writing is also informed by her Catholic beliefs; many of her protagonists mirror the alienation she felt growing up in a strongly Protestant land:

It was the first hand that had been extended to Enoch since he had come to the city. It was warm and soft.

For a second he only stood there, clasping it. Then he began to stammer. “My name is Enoch Emery,” he mumbled. “I attended the Rodemill Boys’ Bible Academy. I work at the city zoo. I seen two of your pictures. I’m only eighteen years old but I already work for the city. My daddy made me come…” and his voice cracked.

The star leaned slightly forward and a change came in his eyes: an ugly pair of human ones moved closer and squinted at Enoch from behind the celluloid pair. “You go to hell,” a surly voice inside the ape-suit said, low but distinctly, and the hand was jerked away.

Informed by her Catholicism, O’Connor also wrote her characters with the promise of redemption. Not unlike Andy Nowicki (another Southern Catholic), O’Connor knew that even the most degenerate man or woman carried with them the possibility of repentance. It’s this cocktail of wisdom and observation that makes Flannery O’Connor not only a standout in American and Western literature, but a standout among women writers period.

The Complete Stories, as the title implies, is a volume containing every short story that O’Connor ever wrote, combining all the stories from her two previous collections, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge, along with several unpublished works. Her stories dovetail into every aspect of mid-20th century Southern life, from racism to classism to politics and love. No one is safe from her gaze, whether it’s Old Dudley, the bitter old protagonist of “The Geranium,” grumbling about his educated Northern black neighbor or Mrs. Willerton, the vapid housewife heroine of “The Crop,” repeatedly trying to write a novel and failing miserably:

Social problem. Social problem. Hmmm. Sharecroppers! Miss Willerton had never been intimately connected with sharecroppers but, she reflected, they would make as arty a subject as any, and they would give her that air of social concern which was so valuable to have in the circles she was hoping to travel! “I can always capitalize,” she muttered, “on the hookworm.” It was coming to her now! Certainly! Her fingers plinked excitedly over the keys, never touching them. Then suddenly she began typing at great speed.

If you’re looking for an introduction to Flannery O’Connor’s work, The Complete Stories is by far your best bet. The biggest criticism I have of the collection is that several of the previously unpublished stories are redundant; O’Connor later reworked them into the plot of her first novel, Wise Blood. Nonetheless, The Complete Stories is a great read for those interested in truly talented writers.

Click here to buy The Complete Stories.

Read Next: The Doctor and the Heretic and Other Stories by Andy Nowicki

  • I first learned of O’Conner through the TV show Lost. During an extremely pivotal sequence in the season 5 finale, we see that possibly the most important, God-like character in the story is holding a copy of “Everything That Rises Must Converge” as he pretends to be a stranger, and nonchalantly resurrects a character who has fallen out of a window and died moments earlier.

    Lost’s literary references were always extremely relevant to the story, so Flannery O’Connor immediately took on a legitimacy in my mind, and I became intrigued to learn more about her and her work.

  • An excellent review, and a great little bio as well. She was one of my favourite authors as a kid. I wrote a sorta scatterbrained response on my own blog yesterday.

    I think, for a guy who tries to be as subversive as possible, you’d have had a lot in common with the author. In a world where the trashiest possible behaviour is normative, the exponent of decency is a dangerous (wo)man. Too bad she didn’t live to see the turn of the 21st century. I’m sure she’d have had plenty to say about it, for the same reasons you do.

  • Pat Hannagan

    I bought that book after being sent this quote and recommendation of O’Connor in an email:

    “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

    ― Flannery O’Connor

    Words to write by.

  • I have translated into Spanish part of your gripping text.

    http://flanneryoc.blogspot.com.es/2013/07/por-que-matar-un-ruisenor-es-un-anti.html

  • Joe

    The father of my best friend of over 20-years is a professor at O’Connor’s alma mater, and a world-renowned scholar on her works. He travels a lot, lecturing on her literature, and I emphatically recommend the book he wrote specifically on her works: Return To Good And Evil by Henry T Edmondson.

    The title is a reference to Nietzsche’s Beyond Good And Evil, as O’Connor’s literature was the antithesis of nihilism, as virtually all of her stories demonstrate in her charmingly grotesque fashion.

    My personal favorite is The Lame Shall Enter First. The final paragraph in general, after all of the buildup, and the final sentence in particular is pure genius. It’s probably my second favorite work of literature, right after Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

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