For Flannery O’Connor enthusiasts and critics alike: PBS’s next episode in their American Masters biographical series focuses on Flannery O’Connor. The episode premieres on March 23rd and, as per PBS, features never-before-seen archival footage and newly discovered journals of O’Connor’s. The episode also features interviews with Hilton Als, Mary Karr, Alice McDermot, Tobias Wolff, and others. Viewers will likely have Paul Elie’s investigation of O’Connor’s racism on their minds as they watch the episode.
The interviews with writers who deeply engage with O’Connor will be particularly interesting. Hilton Als has meditated on O’Connor in NYRB and The New Yorker; Mary Karr chose a quote from “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” as an epigraph for a chapter of her memoir Lit. Here are a few excerpts on O’Connor from interviewees’ previous work, to give us a taste of what the documentary might provide.
O’Connor’s brilliant mature work showed . . . how divine intervention—the hand of God—looked on the map of a civil rights era world. No one was safe there, least of all those whites who tried to blindly uphold the old order with mean, red-faced grit.
But O’Connor’s themes and interests—redemption, mystery, transcendence, bigotry, all depicted in a hard, ecclesiastical light—had only the crudest relationship to the work she would produce in graduate school. When she arrived in Iowa City, escorted by her widowed mother and lugging a fifteen-pound muskrat coat to ward off the impending winter chill, she did not know what she wanted to say except that she needed to say it.
Readings of this American master often overlook the originality and honesty of her portrayal of Southern whiteness. Or, rather, Southern whiteness as it chafed under its biggest cultural influence—Southern blackness. It’s remarkable to consider that O’Connor started writing less than a hundred years after Harriet Beecher Stowe published “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and just a decade after Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind,” two books whose imagined black worlds had more to do with their authors’ patronizing sentimentality than with the complicated intertwining of black and white, rich and poor, mundane and sublime which characterized real Southern life—and O’Connor’s portrait of it. Her black characters are not symbols defined in opposition to whiteness; they are the living people who were, physically at least, on the periphery of O’Connor’s own world. She was not romantic enough to take Faulkner’s Dilsey view of blacks—as the fulcrum of integrity and compassion. She didn’t use them as vessels of sympathy or scorn; she simply—and complexly—drew from life.
Mary Karr, in a By The Book interview in the New York Times:
[Who are the best memoirists ever] . . . do Flannery O’Connor’s letters count?
Alice McDermott, in her Art of Fiction interview in the Paris Review:
What I find oppressive is the implication that a “Catholic writer” writes from certainty. I have no such certainty. Oppressive, too, is the notion that a “Catholic writer” must be out to convince or to convert, to define or to defend. And then there’s just the “no fun here” aspect of it all. A Catholic novel just sounds so damn boring. Stale doughnuts and weak coffee in the watery light of the church hall after Sunday mass. Of course, to read any one of the Catholic writers you mention is to discover something else entirely—I remember being hard-pressed to figure out how O’Connor’s brutal stories were those of a Catholic writer—but the “branding” itself offers little promise to the uninitiated, not to mention the anti-religionists.
Tobias Wolff, in an interview in Contemporary Literature:
I’ve learned from her stories. They concern moral choice. Choices between good and evil. I think of my own stories as leading up to such a point. The difference is, the choice O’Connor’s characters are presented with—or have forced on them—is an irrevocable one, a choice between salvation and damnation . . . O’Connor’s not really a realistic writer. She’s a writer of fables.