Reader's Choice: Flannery O'Connor

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The death of Flannery O’Connor at thirty-eight was a serious loss to American letters. Though she had been ailing for the last thirteen years — crippled by the dread disease of lupus — she managed to carry on her life cheerfully, and to the extent that illness permitted, continue the loved and laborious task of her writing. A posthumous collection of stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $4.95), shows that her unusual talents escaped even the ravages of disease.

Her qualities are unique and quite inimitable. She was a Catholic and a Southerner, and though both of these traditions are alive in her diction, they scarcely define its individuality. Deeply religious, she is never sentimentally pious. Her Catholicism— as that of Francois Mauriac, a writer whom she much admired — emerges in an extraordinary vision of the evil and perversity at work in the heart of fallen mankind. But she is more human than Mauriac, and her vision of evil is complemented by an impish and delightfully absurd humor. Though she is a thoroughly regional writer and all her characters belong to the South, they are nearly always paradigms of mankind at large contending with the ultimate perplexities of life.

The title story deals with a bus ride into town by a young man and his mother, in the course of which they run into the race question. The mother represents the old South and cannot change her patronizing, if kindly, attitude toward the Negro; the son, educated and liberal, wants to acknowledge the Negro's equality and is very much embarrassed by his mother’s conduct. The two generations cannot communicate. But what emerges even from the whole episode is the son’s feeling that his very intelligence and education have doomed him to a feckless existence in the South.

The single moral, indeed, that runs through these stories seems to be that the liberal mind, convinced, of its own rationality and self-righteousness, cannot possibly understand the perverse depths of the than human personality. In "The Lame Shall Enter First," Sheppard, a social worker, tries to befriend a young delinquent, Rufus, by bringing to him to live in his own home. A ewidower, Sheppard is also charged with taking care of a ten-year-old of his own, Norton, whom he nevertheless manages to neglect. Rufus is lame and has had a horrible childhood, having suffered all the deprivations that arouse compassion in any right-thinking social worker. But kindliness and good intentions work no miracle with the boy, and Sheppard desperately begins to suspect that he is confronted with the appalling incarnation of human evil. By the time, however, that he has got rid of Rufus, he has contrived, through his high-minded stupidity, to bring about the death of his own son.

The details are woven together perhaps a little too neatly in order to establish the moral parable. But the power of imagination and the vivid simplicity of language are what make the story live as art, and in the end, what succeed in really getting across its frightening message.

 

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