Reading Selections From “Flannery” by Brad Gooch
Reading Selections from Flannery by Brad Gooch
At the Writers Workshop
St. Mary’s: A Home
Robert Lowell and Flannery
Flannery in New York
How Flannery Found Out She Had Lupus
Her First Peacocks
The Patterns Of Her Life
Bedtime Habits and Thomas Aquinas
Giroux Visit and Observations
Her Love of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Her Search For Eminent Twentieth-Century Catholic Thinkers
Flannery’s Characterization Of Pierre Teilhard De Chardin
Mary Ann Long Book Project
Everything That Rises Must Converge
Sickness Before Death
Eight reading selections from The Spiritual Writings of Flannery O’Connor here.
Although Beiswanger saw Mary Flannery as confident, behind her poker face she was actually rattled enough to have to think twice about what the instructor was saying. “What kept me a skeptic in college was precisely my Christian faith,” she later confided to the young poet Alfred Corn, going through his own period of doubt as a student at Emory University in 1962. “It always said: wait, don’t bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read.” By the end of the quarter, though, she had emerged from her shell enough to give the professor a hard time. As she relived one exchange with him, in a letter to the Fitzgeralds, in 1952: “[He] is the one that one day in a class says, ‘The Medieval Church was polytheistic.’ I rise and say, ‘The Medieval Church was not polytheistic.’ [He] fixes me very coldly, ‘I am speaking,’ says he, ‘as an anthropologist.’”
Helen Matthews Lewis, a student in the class, remembers a few other charged exchanges between professor and pupil. Once O’Connor went up to the blackboard to diagram, in detail, what she saw as the contrast between Aquinas and modernism. “Philosophy class was early in the morning, and most of us would be pretty sleepy and would have missed breakfast,” says Lewis. “We would run across campus, sometimes trying to hide our pajamas under our raincoats, to get to class. Flannery was always there, bright and ready to go, ready to argue with the professor.” As Beiswanger summed up O’Connor’s position: “It was philosophical modernism that had blinded the Western mind.”
What registered most strongly was the certainty that he had before him no ordinary girl: “She knew Aquinas in detail, was amazingly well read in earlier philosophy, and developed into a first rate intellectual along with her other accomplishments It soon became clear to me that she was a ‘born’ writer and that she was going that way.” A classic example of a teacher making a difference Beiswanger encouraged his A student to apply for graduate school at his alma mater, the University of Iowa. She sent in applications to both Duke University and to the journalism program at Iowa, mulling a possible career in newspaper political cartooning. The professor lobbied his contacts at the school to secure her a scholarship. When offered a journalism scholarship from Iowa, providing full tuition and sixty-five dollars a term, she quickly accepted.
At the Writers Workshop
Sitting in his office early in the fall of 1945, Paul Engle, the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, heard a gentle knock at the door. After he shouted an invitation to enter, a shy, young woman appeared and walked over to his desk without, at first, saying a word. He could not even tell, as she stood before him, whether she was looking in his direction, or out the window at the curling Iowa River below. A hulking six foot four inch poet, in his thirties, with wavy dark hair, alert blue eyes, and expressive eyebrows, Engle quickly took the lead. He introduced himself and offered her a seat, as she tightly held on to what he later claimed was “one of the most beat-up handbags I’ve ever seen.”
When she finally spoke, her Georgia dialect sounded so thick to his Midwestern ear that he asked her to repeat her question. Embarrassed by an inability a second time, to understand, Engle handed her a pad to write what she had said. So in schoolgirl script, she put down three short lines: “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writers’ Workshop?” Engle suggested that she drop off writing samples, and they would consider her, late as it was. The next day a few stories arrived, and to his near disbelief; he found them to be “imaginative, tough, alive.” She was instantly accepted to the Workshop, both the name of Engle’s writing class and of his MFA graduate writing program, the first in the nation, to which she would switch her affiliation from the Graduate School of Journalism by the second semester.
St. Mary’s: A Home
Her home away ‘from home did not turn out to he Currier House — and certainly not the Airliner, a long, narrow tavern, just across from campus, with white tile floors and a jukebox, popular with other students. Instead she found the antidote for her homesickness two blocks away at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, on East Jefferson Street. A modest, brick structure with a clock-tower steeple, built in 1869, St. Mary’s provided a worship experience enriched by seventeen church bells. Its high altar was crowded with Victorian paintings and pastel statues of St. Patrick and St. Boniface, reflecting the mixed demographic of Irish and Germans in the parish. In the fall of 1945, the church pastor, Monsignor Carl Bernstein, offered daily morning masses at six thirty and seven thirty. As O’Connor told Roslyn Barnes, a young woman enrolled in the Workshop, in 1960, “I went to St. Mary’s as it was right around the corner and I could get there practically every morning. I went there three years and never knew a soul in that congregation or any of the priests, but it was not necessary. As soon as I went in the door I was at home.”
Yet mostly Barbara just heard, or sensed, Flannery on the other H side of the closed door, working. “I didn’t bother her when she was doing that,” says Barbara Hamilton. The young writer liked to keep things plain: no curtains on the windows; a bare bulb hanging by a long cord from the center of the ceiling. When she was alone, she would pull down the shades and sit at her typewriter with a pile of yellow paper, writing and rewriting. If she wasn’t writing, she was reading. As there was no food service in “Grad House,” she usually took her breakfast and lunch in the room, often snacking on tins of sardines, or perishables that. she kept cool on the windowsill. When Barbara asked Flannery why she worked so obsessively at her writing, she replied that she “had to.”
“She was very serious about her mission in life, and had a sort of sense of destiny,” says Barbara Hamilton. “She knew she was a great writer. She told me so many times. If I would have heard that from other people, I would have laughed up my sleeve, but not with her. We both agreed that she might never be recognized, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to do what she thought she was meant to do.” Another graduate woman in the Workshop, Ruth Sullivan, already looked up to Flannery as a writer, and treated her as an authority. “With the door open between our rooms, I often heard bits of their conversations,” says Hamilton, of Sullivan soliciting Flannery’s opinions. “I remember Ruth once saying she thought maybe she’d better give up trying to write, get married, and have a ‘a pack of kids.’ Flannery seemed always glad to try to help with advice.”
Robert Lowell and Flannery
Lowell’s feelings for Flannery were not romantic, but they were full of excitement for her Roman Catholicism and her rare brand of Southern literary talent: “I think one of the best to be when she isa little older,” he promised the poet Elizabeth Bishop. “Very moral (in your sense) and witty.” Of strong-jawed New England Puritan stock, Lowell had converted to Catholicism during his marriage to his first wife, Jean Stafford, partly from reading Jacques Maritain; when he left the marriage, he left the Church. As O’Connor later put it, “I watched him that winter come back into the Church. I had nothing to do with it but of course it was a great joy to me.” Writing by day of a “Christ-haunted” character, she confronted one at dinner each night. He, in turn, liked the glamour of canonizing a new saint. As late as 1953, Caroline Gordon wrote to friends, “Cal Lowell says she is a saint, but then he is given to extravagance.”
Lowell was extremely tender, and full of elegy and exactitude, when he later wrote Elizabeth Bishop, on hearing of Flannery’s death. Their Yaddo autumn had been a sort of parenthesis in both their lives, as she worked on her novel, and he on his long narrative poem The Mills of the Kavanaughs:
It seems such a short time ago that I met her at Yaddo, 23 or 24, always in a blue Jean suit, working on the last chapters of Wise Blood, suffering from undiagnosed pains, a face formless at times, then very strong and young and right. She had already really mastered and found her themes and style, knew she wouldn’t marry, would be Southern, shocking and disciplined. In a blunt, disdainful yet somehow very unpretentious and modest way, I think she knew how good she was.
Flannery in New York
Her greatest consolation, outside the featureless room where she wrote, was two trips to the medieval collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the Cloisters, the assemblage of monastic chapter house and chapels, imported from France and Spain, and reconstructed stone by stone just a decade before, on a dramatic crest overlooking the Hudson River, at Fort Tryon Park. The Cloisters was a must-see destination for postwar visitors, its energetic curator, James J. Rorimer, excelling at public relations. Shortly after, as Flannery returned from Georgia, the New York Times ran a double-column photograph of a thirteenth-century sculpture of the Virgin from a choir screen of the Cathedral of Strasbourg as “An Easter Attraction at the Cloisters”; in a New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece, James Rorimer, “a pipe smoker, in the best detective and curatorial tradition,” escorted a reporter through the popular Nine Heroes Tapestries exhibition.
But Flannery’s favorite was not the striking statue of the Strasbourg Virgin, celebrated in the daily press. In the soft light of the Early Gothic Hall, illuminated by three thirteenth-century windows carved by stonecutters in Normandy, she was drawn instead to a smaller, four-foot-high statue of Virgin and Child, with both parties “laughing; not smiling, laughing.” She imagined that “the Child had a face very much like the face of a friend of mine, Robert Fitzgerald.” What chiefly pixilated her in the sculpture was its artistic sensibility. As she wrote to a friend, “Back then their religious sense was not cut off from their artistic sense.” Embodying a profound spirituality that could accommodate humor, even outright laughter — a recipe she was working toward in her own novel — the statue, which “wasn’t colored,” was living proof of Maritain’s writings on the breadth of expression possible in religious art.
French Late Gothic Virgin and Child, 14th century, from Cernay-lès-Reims
How Flannery Found Out She Had Lupus
While their time together was chaotic, Sally did use the occasion to share an important truth with Flannery, after uneasily holding back. A few weeks into the visit, they drove to Ridgefield to do household errands. On the way back, on a lovely summer’s afternoon, she. glanced over at her passenger, wondering how she could disturb such peace; but she had made up her mind, following much inner struggle, that Flannery should finally know the true nature of her illness. At that instant, Flannery happened to mention her arthritis. “Flannery, you don’t have arthritis,” Sally said quickly. “You have lupus.” Reacting to the sudden revelation, Flannery slowly moved her arm from the car door down into her lap, her hand visibly trembling. Sally felt her own knee shaking against the clutch, too, as she continued driving along Seventy Acre Road.
“Well, that’s not good news,” Flannery said, after a few silent, charged moments. “But I can’t thank you enough for telling me. I thought I had lupus, and I thought I was going crazy. I’d a lot rather be sick than crazy.” Reassured that her friend was not going to fall to pieces, Sally pulled off the hilly road, and up the long driveway. They then walked into the kitchen, where Flannery dutifully drank one of her twelve daily glasses of water, on doctor’s orders, as the sounds of the voices of the children playing in the yard, watched by Maria Ivancic, bounced through the open windows. “There’s not much to say about it,” she went on. “But don’t ever tell Regina you told me, because if you do she will never tell you anything else. I might want to know something else sometime.”
Sally was only too happy to agree, relieved that she would not need to confess to Mrs O’Connor Their intimate conversation was broken, though, as a baby began to wail. “I have to go,” Sally apologized tentatively, unsure about leaving her alone “Well, I think I’ll go take a little rest,” Flannery responded. Before walking out the kitchen door to the inner staircase, she turned back once; using the polite Southern expression, she added, “I’m obliged to you”
“This was devastating knowledge,” Sally Fitzgerald later recalled “That she was going to have to live with uncertainty, that she would not be autonomous and independent. I didn’t minimize what she would have to go through up in her room over the garage when she left that afternoon after I had told her. But I never really regretted it. I knew it was what Flannery wanted. The atmosphere was cleared.
Her First Peacocks
If her old life could fit into a couple of trunks, shipped , as old man Tanner’s body would be transported in a rickety casket from up north in her story “Judgment Day,: Flannery was simultaneously looking forward to another crate arriving by rail from the opposite direction: Eustis, Florida. This crate was charged with a contrary significance, as a beginning rather than a closure. After spending six weeks in bed, following .her “flare,” but avoiding Emory Hospital “a gret place to avoid” Flannery had been reading through the Florida Market Bulletin, when she came across a listing for three-year-old “peafowl,” at sixty-five dollars a pair. Never having seen or heard a peacock, she unhesitatingly circled the ad, seized, as if by instinct, and passed it to her mother. “I’m going to order me those,” she said. “Don’t those things eat flowers?” Regina asked. “They’ll eat Startena like the rest of them,” Flannery answered with fake certitude. On a mild day in October, the shipment finally arrived via Railway Express. Driving up to the station, Regina and Flannery saw that the wooden crate had already been unloaded onto the platform. As O’Connor later remembered, “From one end of it protruded a long royal-blue neck and crested head. A white line above and below each eye gave the investigating head an expression of alert composure.” Flannery jumped out of the car and bounded forward as the bird quickly withdrew its head at her approach. Transporting the box back to Andalusia, mother and daughter, with help, undid the lid, unpacking a peacock, a hen, and four seven-week-old “peabiddies.” Knowing the bird so far only by its literary reputation, as the pet of Hera, the wife of Zeus, Flannery would have to wait for the display of its full complement of tail feathers “a map of the universe” — shed in late summer, and not fully regained until Christmas.
“As soon as the birds were out of the crate, I sat down and began to look at them,” O’Connor remembered nine years later, in her essay “The King of the Birds:”
I have been looking at them ever since, from one station or another, and always with the same awe as on that first occasion; though I have always, Ifeel, been able to keep a balanced view and an impartial attitude. The peacock I had bought had nothing whatsoever in the way of a tail but he carried himself as if he not only had a train behind him but a retinue to attend it. On that first occasion, my problem was so greatly what to look at first that my gaze moved constantly from the cock to the hen to the four young pea chickens, while they, except that they gave me as wide a berth as possible, did nothing to indicate they knew I was in the pen. . . When I first uncrated these birds, in my frenzy I said, “1 want so many of them that every time Igo out the door, I’ll run into one.”
The Patterns Of Her Life
Like all good farm folk, we get up in the morning as soon as the first chicken cackles,” Flannery wrote to her friends Louise and Tom Gossett in 1961. But she could just as easily have written that report during her first few months on the farm, or any time since. Certainly by early 1953 Flannery had settled into a schedule and rhythm that remained unvaried for the rest of her life. The woman who came to believe that “routine is a condition of survival” guarded her daily regimen, with the help of her mother and a self-protective instinct, but also with contentment and joy. As she implied to the Gossetts, each day followed a pattern, begin-fling with her mother, up first, waiting with a thermos of coffee for the two of them to drink at the kitchen table while listening to the local weather report on the radio.
This cycle of hours and days had a religious significance for Flannery, too. As Thomas Merton, a self-described “14th century man,” abandoned New York City for the life of prayer and farming of a contemplative monk in Kentucky, so Flannery, dubbing herself a “thirteenth century” Catholic at Yaddo and, at Andalusia, a “hermit novelist,” framed her new life in religion Immediately on waking, she read the prayers for Prime, prescribed for six in the morning, from her 1949 edition of A Short Breviary. Following coffee, she and her mother then drove into town to atwhd mass at sacred Heart, celebrated most weekday mornings at seven, the priest, for a decade, was the charming, bridge-playing Father John Toomey from Augusta. “Flannery sat in the fifth pew on the rig/it side,” recalled one parishioner. On Sundays, Flannery pulled on her black wool tam-o’-shanter to get to the earliest seven-fifteen mass. As she wrote a friend, in 1953, “I like to go to early mass so I won’t have to dress up — combining the 7th Deadly Sin with the Sunday obligation.”
Not merely a personal peculiarity, regularity was a civic virtue, too. Flannery was surrounded by family, and friends, who arranged their lives like clockwork. Regina was a stickler, and Flannery could chafe at her rules and regulations, but as long as her own writing time and space were kept sacred (of her writing desk, she said to a friend, “Nobody lays a hand on that, boy”) she could accept other impositions. “She didn’t want to come back to Georgia, she had left it,” observed her cousin Margaret, the oldest of the Florencourt sisters. “But she and Regina had formed some kind of agreement that Regina would not interfere with Flannery’s work. I credit them with that détente, if you will, under which they would live. I think that it obviously worked out because each of them was strong, and they knew how it was going to be, and accepted it.”
Appearing most Friday afternoons on his way to the Cline Mansion — following work at King Hardware Company in Atlanta, then driving back to Bell House at the same hour each Sunday evening after supper fl– was Uncle Louis, basically a third member of the household. “My round uncle,” as Flannery described the co-owner of Andalusia, paid special attention to planting fig trees all over the property, as he had an appetite for the sweet fruit. One of his favorites, planted near the back door, was evoked in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”: “A fat yellow moon appeared in the branches of the fig tree as if it were going to roost there with the chickens.” Like Regina, who disliked Flannery’s peacocks for eating her Lady Bankshire and Herbert Hoover roses, Louis balked when he discovered their taste for figs. “Get that scoundrel out of that fig bush!” he would roar, rising out of his chair at the sound of a breaking limb.
Just as regular participants in the life of Andalusia, in the category of “adopted” kin, were Misses White and Thompson. By 1953,. the two women were fixed in their schedule of closing Sanford House on Wednesdays and driving out to Andalusia on Tuesday night, taking one of the upstairs bedrooms and spending the next day. “That was our weekend,” says Mary Jo Thompson. They would join the O’Connors for meals and afternoon car rides “Flannery was the only person I know who liked sharp cheese on 2 her oatmeal,’ recalls Mary Jo While Mary Jo never had literary talks with Flannery, they would chat while washing the dishes (Flannery found the warm water helpful for her aching joints) One of Flannery’s favorite topics was Mrs Weber, a boarder at the 1 Cline Mansion, who likewise helped to clean up after dinner “Flannery said Mrs Weber carried on a two-way conversation the entire time with her deceased husband,” remembers Thompson
The models for many of O’Connor’s observations of the lives of the black tenant farmers as surely as the Stevens family inspired early vignettes of white sharecroppers — were a few longtime African American workers at Andalusia, living in outlying shacks, and eventually in the nearby, darkly weathered clapboard cottage Jack, “the colored milker,” as Flannery called him, worked with Mr. Stevens in the dairy, Louise, his wife, was a domestic, who cooked and cleaned, “blundering around,” as she said, Willie “Shot” Manson, the youngest, performed hard farm labor, such as plowing fields Living by himself in a shanty was Henry, “around here . a kind of institution,” as Flannery described the yardman, in his eighties, who once fertilized her mother’s flower bulbs with the calves’ worm medicine “Wormless they did not come up,” she gleefully reported
Yet Flannery was adept at shutting herself away during her “set time,” between nine and noon, when she applied herself to her writing Averaging three pages a day, she told a reporter from the Atlanta newspaper, “But I may tear it all to pieces the next day” While modest, her desk began to take on the character of a folk sculpture constructed of random parts, utilitarian to her eyes alone “I have a large ugly brown desk, one of those that the typewriter sits in a depression in the middle of and on either side are drawers,” she wrote, producing a mental snapshot of the assemblage for a friend “In front I have a mahogany orange crate with the bottom knocked out and a cartridge shell box that I have sat up there to lend height and hold papers and whatnot and all my paraphernalia is around this vital center and a little rooting produces it. Besides which, I always seize on busy-work.”
Bedtime Habits and Thomas Aquinas
Sundown and bedtime were nearly synonymous for Flannery. “I go to bed at nine and am always glad to get there,” she told a friend. Occasionally she recited Compline, the last office of the day, from her Breviary, set between a Sunday missal and her Bible on a low bedside table. More reliably, her habitual nighttime reading was the lofty, lucent prose of Thomas Aquinas. For just as significant as ordering peacocks as a signal of her intention to settle, was her obtaining her own copy of the seven-hundred-page Modern Library selection Introduction to Saint Thomas Aquinas, which she signed and dated “1953”: “I read it for about twenty minutes every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during this process and say, ‘Turn off that light. It’s late,’ I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, ‘On the contrary, I answer that the light, being external and limitless, cannot be turned off Shut your eyes,’ or some such thing.” Even resting in bed, Flannery was replenishing her writing. “I read a lot of theology because it makes my writing bolder,” she once explained to a friend.
Giroux Visit and Observations
Soon after she returned home in May, Robert Giroux, on a scouting tour, including visiting “all my famous authors,” fittingly stopped at Andalusia after spending time with Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. “Brother Louis,” his Trappist name, had shown great interest in O’Connor, of whose work he later wrote, “When I read Flannery O’Connor, I don’t think of Hemingway, or Katherine Anne Porter, or Sartre, but rather of someone like Sophocles.” He peppered Giroux with questions about her life on the farm, and gave him a beautifully designed presentation copy of his Prometheus: A Meditation to bring to her. “The aura of aloneness surrounding each of them was not an accident,” observed Giroux. “It was their métier, in which they refined and deepened their very different talents in a short span of time.”
Giroux first stopped at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, a daughter house of Gethsemani in Conyers, just outside Atlanta, where, by chance, he met Bill Sessions. Taking a bus from the monastery, he was then picked up at the gate of Andalusia by mother and daughter. “The car was going about five miles an hour up this road,” remembered Giroux. “As we drove in she had about thirty peacocks strutting around. They’re very beautiful, but very stupid, and their trains were trailing. They were so slow that the car would run over their trains.” He immediately went upstairs to change into his loafers and a flannel shirt: “I tried to be as informal and relaxed as possible. I could see this was all of interest to her, how men behaved.” Giroux thought that the O’Connors were “really putting on the dog for the editor from New York,” as he was then a guest at a formal lunch at the Cline Mansion, replete with silverware and crystal, served by a black butler in white cotton gloves.
A tense moment occurred at breakfast the next morning when Mrs. O’Connor asked, over cornflakes, “Mister Giroux, can’t you get Flannery to write about nice people?” Giroux said, “I started to laugh. But Flannery was sitting utterly deadpan. I thought, ‘Uh, oh. This is serious to her.’ Flannery never smiled, or raised her eyebrow, or gave me any clue.” On his return to New York he told Lowell of the trip and the poet passed on the news, adding an even sharper edge. “Her life is what you might guess,” he wrote Elizabeth Bishop. “A small, managing indomitable mother, complaining that no one helps her, more or less detesting Flannery’s work, impressed however, wishing she would marry — Flannery silent in her presence. A tall ancient Aunt living next to the old State Capitol, the unwanted peacocks . . . her Mother forcing her to bathe at Lourdes, an improvement, announced as a miracle by the Mother, Plannery silent. Battles between the Mother and the Catholic priest about an unwished.-for altar tapestry.”
Her Love of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
WHEN Robert Giroux had visited the previous spring, Flannery was most excited to hear him speak of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit priest and philosopher, as well as a paleontologist, present at the discovery of Peking Man, in 1929, whose philosophical writings were denied publication by the Roman Holy Office during his lifetime. The inventor of such science-fictiony terms as “noosphere” and “omega point,” to describe phases of a cosmos he theorized as evolving both materially and spiritually toward a culminating Body of Christ, Teilhard had died in 1955 at the age of seventy-three in New York City. An “omnivorous reader,” as Giroux described her, Flannery was now anticipating the appearance of Teilhard’s books in English translation, and this personal connection only redoubled her interest. As she reported to Ted Spivey, “My editor from Farrar, Straus was down here to visit me last week and I was asking him about Chardin and it turned out he knew him for about a month in New York before he died. He said he was very impressive.”
Giroux recalled, “I said I met Father de Chardin, and she said, ‘You did, where? I didn’t know that he was ever in America.” Flannery’s editor went on to recount,
I explained that Roger Straus’s uncle, a Guggenheim,funded some research. She said, “What was he like?” I said he was very handsome in a masculine way, and he had asked me about Merton, and whether I thought both his fret were firmly planted on the ground. I said, “Yes they are, “and he said, “I’m glad to hear that.” I told her of remarking to Roger that I had a vague feeling I had seen that face before in Houdin’s bust of Voltaire in the Metropolitan Museum. Roger said, “Of course, Voltaire’s name was Arouet, and Chart/in belongs to the Arouet family.” Well she loved that.
Bust of Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 1694–1778), 18th century (1778)
Jean-Antoine Houdon (French, 1741–1828)
H. 18 7/8 in. (47.9 cm)
Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, 1972 (1972.61)
Voltaire was renowned throughout Europe for an unceasing stream of brilliant polemics mocking organized religion and other institutions that suppressed personal freedom. Although this included most national governments of the time, he was courted by “enlightened monarchs” such as Frederick the Great of Prussia and Empress Catherine of Russia, each of whom acquired versions of this bust. Repeatedly banished from Paris for his many offending publications, Voltaire spent the last decades of his life in Ferney, on the Swiss border. Houdon modeled Voltaire’s portrait shortly after the celebrated exile’s triumphant return to Paris in early 1778, a few months before his death. Immortalizing the aged Voltaire’s physical frailty and sardonic expression, the bust was widely acclaimed as the closest likeness ever made of him. Crowds thronged Houdon’s studio to view the work and the entrepreneurial sculptor soon began to produce the portrait in a variety of formats (different hairstyles and dress) and a wide range of materials (marble, bronze, plaster, and terracotta). Several examples in this particularly classical format (which parallels that of the Diderot bust, 1974.291) are known. With its bald bony skull, bare chest, and simple truncation, it is clearly meant to emulate portraits of Roman antiquity.
The present bust was one of several Houdon portraits acquired in Paris by Count Alexander Stroganov. The Russian expatriate had visited Voltaire in Ferney in 1770, en route to Paris, and once in the capital he soon became acquainted with Houdon. They were both affiliated with the Masonic lodge of the Nine Sisters (to which Houdon donated another copy of the Voltaire). Stroganov had already commissioned Houdon’s portrait of the empress Catherine (now in the Hermitage), which, along with the present bust and that of Diderot (1974.291), was for many years displayed in the Stroganov Palace Museum in Saint Petersburg.
Giroux also told of attending Teilhard’s funeral at St. Ignatius Church on Park Avenue, with the Straus family and “about twenty or thirty Jesuits at the altar.”
The publication of Teilhard’s writings in America, beginning in 1959 with The Phenomenon of Man — his 1938 manuscript attempting to reconcile Christian faith with evolutionary theory — was perfectly timed to answer a burning intellectual need of Flannery’s, In November 1958, she already longed for “a new synthesis,” and complained to Betty Hester, “This is not an age of great Catholic theology. . . . What St. Thomas did for the new learning of the 13th century we are in bad need of someone to do for the 20th.” Her immediate provocation was the feeling that she was at a disadvantage in theological debates with Ted Spivey. “Only crisis theologians seem to excite him,” she told Betty; yet she had to con~ 11 cede that the “greatest of the Protestant theologians writing to- / day . . . are much more alert and creative than their Catholic counterparts. We have very few thinkers to equal Barth and Tillich, perhaps none.”
Her Search For Eminent Twentieth-Century Catholic Thinkers
Her search for eminent twentieth-century Catholic thinkers had begun a few years earlier when she started reviewing for the Bulletin in 1956 The local Episcopal rector and Andalusia reading-group cofounder, William Kirkland, said that his friend-ship with Flannery was sealed in the midfifties, when she discovered that they both owned well-worn copies of Letters to a Niece, by Baron Friedrich von Hugel, a turn-of-the-century Catholic humanist whose support of Darwinian science drew him dangerously close to the “Modernists” who had been excommunicated by Pope•• Pius X O’Connor admiringly quoted in the Bulletin Hugel’s advice to his niece not to be “churchy” Likewise her beloved Guardim, a friend of Buber’s, was developing a fluid and dialectical theology considered a departure from absolute Thomism, which i she praised for its “total absence of pious cliche”
But these near-contemporary theologians, along with William Lynch, Erik Langkjaer’s teacher at Fordham, whose concept of a “theology of creativity” O’Connor singled out in a review in the .summer of 1959, or the neo-Thomism of Etienne Gilson, in Painting and Reality, were just bits and pieces of a vision she finally saw synthesized in the writings of Teilhard de Chardin. In her first mention of Teilhard, in a February 1960 review of The Phenomenon of Man, O’Connor announced to the small circulation of readers of the Bulletin that the name, which she spelled out phonetically for them, “Tay-ahr,” was one that “future generations will know better than we do.” She went on, “The scientist and the theologian will perhaps require a long time to sift his thought and accept it, but the poet, whose sight is essentially prophetic, will at once recognize in this immense vision his own.” At the center of this vision, she explained, was “convergence.”
Flannery’s Characterization Of Pierre Teilhard De Chardin
A careful reviewer, O’Connor quickly and intuitively hit on a characterization of Teilbard as poet and visionary that kept her in good stead as his posthumous writings were attacked by both scientists, for ascribing consciousness to matter, and theologians, for ignoring original sin, or contradicting the creation story in Genesis. But at Christmastime 1959, she had come across a “lucky find” in a commentary on a passage of St. Thomas Aquinas. “St. T. says that prophetic vision is dependent on the imagination of the prophet, not his moral life,” she wrote Betty. Not only did this discovery make official her own kinship with Tarwater, but she could apply these same terms to Teilhard, Like her, he was a writer tilling the fields of language and imagination, meant to be judged by the power of his “prophetic” vision, rather than specific moral or scientific ideas.
At the heart of Teilhard’s vision were formulations that obviously spoke to Flannery and created a strong resonance for her with the content as well as the poetic style of his writings. Particularly appealing was The Divine Milieu, an intimate, personal meditation, the second of his books, published in America in 1960 and described by her in the Bulletin as “giving a new face to Christian spirituality.” She drew marginal lines in her copy next to Teilhard’s concept of the Incarnation as “a single event . . developing in the world”; a cosmic presence in local material lay behind her own arguing for regional writing. But the quieter concept that she kept mulling and returning to privately was “passive diminishments,” Teilhard’s unusual term for significant suffering, which she obviously applied to her own disease. As she wrote a friend: “Pere Teilhard talks about ‘passive diminishments’ in The Divine Milieu. He means those afflictions that you can’t get rid of and have to bear. Those that you can get rid of he believes you must bend every effort to get rid of. I think he was a very great man.”
Flannery proselytized avidly for this “great mystic . . if there were errors in his thought, there were none in his heart,” recommending him to a long list of friends, including Ted Spivey, Betty Hester, the Cheneys, Cecil Dawkins, Robert Fitzgerald, and Father McCown. Spivey’s response disappointed her, as he found in Teilhard merely a “Jesuit mind.” She shot back, “Some of the severest criticism I have read about it has come from other Jesuits,” and she even pandered to Spivey a bit, by detecting in their evolutionary views “parallels between Jung and Teilhard that are striking.” More to her liking was Brainard Cheney’s confirmation that “his work is, I think, the most important philosophical statement for Christianity since the Summa,” When the American Scholar, a periodical of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, canvassed leading authors on the most important book published between 1931 and 1961, Gore Vidal chose Doctor Faustus; Alfred Kazin, Finnegans Wake. O’Connor’s selection was The Phenomenon of Man.
In opening up to Teilhard, and moving beyond while never abandoning an absolute Thomism that some felt “too straitjacket,” or old-fashioned, Flannery was aligning herself, as well, with a more general mood shift in the Church, signaled by the papacy of John XXIII, who had succeeded Pius XII in October 1958, five months after her audience with the ailing pope. In 1957, the Vatican banned Teilbard’s works from Catholic bookstores. But John XXIII was more encouraging, saying, when asked about Teilhard’s books, “I am here to bless, not to condemn.” When a 1962 monitum, or formal warning, was issued, which the pope later deemed “regrettable” and Flannery found “depressing at first,” she did draw back, suggesting that the Bulletin find a clergyman to review Teilhard’s subsequent books. But she never lost her conviction that the Frenchman might be “canonized yet.” She assured Father McCown, “If they are good, they are dangerous.”
Certainly, throughout the spring and summer of 1960, visitors to Andalusia and a wide range of friends received copies of or were encouraged to read Teilhard’s books.
Mary Ann Long Book Project
On that Monday in July the abbot — a giggler — had driven the Atlanta sisters in a station wagon to discuss their request for help on a book project. Their subject was Mary Ann Long, a twelve-year-old girl with a cancerous tumor growing on one side of her face, whom they cared for until her death. Whet-i they first contacted her, Flannery’s reaction was a visceral “no” to the notion of writing a novel about the saintly girl, but the photographs they sent haunted her. “What interests me in it is simply the mystery,” she wrote Betty, “the agony that is given in strange ways to children.” So she agreed to help edit a book and write an introduction, half hoping a finished manuscript would never arrive. Paul Bourne jokingly wondered which of her “murder stories” had prompted them to approach her.
What Flannery carried away from these first letters and meetings was not yet a sense of kinship with Mary Ann so much as with the founder of the Dominican order, Rose Hawthorne, and, by extension, her father, the New England author of dark, gothic, moral tales. She went to her bookshelf and took down Nathaniel Hawthorne’s” The Birthmark,” which was included in her college Understanding Fiction anthology, and drew a connection between the beautiful Georgiana, subjected by her scientist-husband to a vicious precursor of cosmetic surgery to make her even marc perfect, and Mary Ann’s “plainly grotesque” tumor. But she also made a connection between the author and his saintly Catholic-convert daughter. Ever anxious about covering any tracks of Faulkner, by September she could easily write Bill Sessions advertising her newly adopted literary stepfather: “Hawthorne said he didn’t write novels, he wrote romances; I am one of his descendants.” …
Soon afterward, Flannery discovered that she had lost a bet with the nuns. She had wagered a pair of peacocks that they would never find a publisher for their memoir. Robert Giroux was interested, though he admitted that his author’s “Introduction” to A Memoir of Mary Ann, not the nuns’ writing, finally swayed him. In this eloquent essay, as fine as her best stories, dated December 8, she seized an opportunity to weave together her feelings about the girl forever fixed at the age of twelve; the “mystery” of disease, hers and Mary Ann’s; the long shadow of Hawthorne, to whose memory the book was dedicated; and the hope for meaning that she found spelled out so compellingly in Teilhard. Indeed she made Mary Ann a human face for Teilhard’s meditation on illness: “She and the Sisters who had taught her had fashioned from her unfinished face the material of her death. The creative action of the Christian’s life is to prepare his death in Christ. It is a continuous action in which this world’s goods are utilized to the fullest, both positive gifts and what Pére Teilhard de Chardin calls ‘passive diminishments.’”
Everything That Rises Must Converge
By the beginning of 1961, Flannery was at work on a new story for which she was using as a title yet another popular phrase of Teilhard’s, “everything that rises must converge,” which summed up the priest’s notion of all life, from the geological to the human, converging toward an integration of the material and the spiritual, not to mention an integration of the scientific theory of evolution and the theological dogma of Incarnation, of God made man. Giroux remembered sending her a French anthology of Teilhard’s writings, with a section titled “Tout Ce Qui Monte Converge.” After Teilhard’s death, the French mint struck a medallion in his honor, stamped with his aristocratic profile and this mystical axiom. Writing to Roslyn Barnes, a young Catholic convert at Iowa, to whom she sent a copy of Teilhard’s Divine Milieu, Flannery mentioned her “story called ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge,’ which is a physical proposition that I found in Père Teilhard and am applying to a certain situation in the Southern States & indeed in all the world.”
Sickness Before Death
Although Flannery was now devoting twenty-two hours a day to resting up for writing, over the last two weeks in July she was forced to return to the doctor’s office and the Baldwin County Hospital several times. Having suffered three coronary arrests, Dr. Fuighum was no longer making house calls. When Flannery’s symptoms of kidney infection returned, he put her on a double dose of antibiotics again and withdrew the cortisone. Bring– ing along a Günter Grass novel, The Tin Drum, sent by Maryat, O’Connor went once more to the hospital for a blood transfusion to lift her hemoglobin count, again below eight. “It’s six of one and a half dozen of the other,” she decided. As she had once written, “Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.” Among those mercies was evidently acceptance. “They expect me to improve,” she had written Cecil Dawkins. “I expect anything that happens.”
A Coded Spiritual Biography
When Flannery O’Connor was five years old, the Pathe newsreel company dispatched a cameraman from its main offices in New York City to the backyard of the O’Connor family home in Savannah, Georgia. The event, as O’Connor wryly confessed in an essay in Holiday magazine in September 1961, almost three decades later, “marked me for life.” Yet the purpose of the visit from “the New Yorker,” as she labeled him, wasn’t entirely to film her, outfitted as she was in her best double-breasted dark coat and light wool knit beret, but rather to record her buff Cochin bantam, the chicken she reputedly taught to walk backward.
How a Yankee photographer wound up for a memorable half day at the bottom of the O’Connors’ steep back stairs isn’t entirely clear. One rumor ascribes the connections of Katie Semmes, a well-to-do dowager cousin who lived in the grander house next door, and whose tall windows looked down on the yard where the filming took place. According to a girlhood playmate of O’Connor’s, “Miss Katie brought them down here to do it.” O’Connor simply credits an item on her celebrity chicken in the local papers: “Her fame had spread through the press and by the time she reached the attention of Pathe News, I suppose there was nowhere left for her to go — forward or backward. Shortly after that she died, as now seems fitting.”
The shoot did not go smoothly. O’Connor was certainly prepared. Whenever the cumbersome camera on its tripod began to grind, she adopted a fierce, dignified expression — the one she used if she felt she was being watched. The problem was her uncooperative tan “frizzled” chicken, with its backward-growing feathers, spending hours scratching obliviously in the yard white the cameraman fidgeted. Finally, as the afternoon wore on, the bird began to back up. O’Connor, a natural mimic, jumped next to her and began to walk backward as well. The operator stuck his head under his tent. A few seconds later, the hen hit a bush and abruptly sat down. Exasperated, “the Pathé man” gathered his equipment and made a quick exit, refusing even to enjoy a dish of ice cream.
O’Connor’s screen debut exists in all its fragility in a Pathe film archive. The brief stretch of scratchy footage opens with a title card announcing in italic script: “Odd fowl walks backward to go forward so she can look back to see where she went.” For all of four seconds, O’Connor, a self-possessed little girl, is glimpsed in glaring afternoon light, a wisp of curls peeking from beneath her cap, calmly coping with three chickens fluttering in her face. In closeup, the biggest of her bantams then jerks backward a half-dozen times on a short stretch of pavement, supporting the skeptical theory of one relative that it was merely suffering from a cognitive skip. Some obvious gimmickry aids the brief stunt: with the help of a reverse-feed technique, the chicken as welt as lines of barnyard cows, mares, and ducks comically parade backward. The End.
O’Connor never had the pleasure of seeing the tandem performance on-screen. The short never came to a Savannah movie theater, though “Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse” was released as a one-minute, twenty-seven-second, vignette in March 1932, a week shy of her seventh birthday. Its cute subject matter was the sort that appealed to Depression–era audiences in other lighthearted spoofs that played on seven-to-eight-minute reels along with current events and sports news before the main feature. Among other whimsical topics treated by Pathe that year in its animal “gag reels” were Florida sportsmen feeding crackers to turtles; Boston kids showing off their pet tabby cats; a girl at the Westminster Kennel Club Exhibition in New York City producing a tiny dog out of her satchel.
While O’Connor’s star turn is brief, its afterimage still flickered in her mind years later. Even though she was not a woman, or author, overly given to delving into childhood memories to unlock her identity, something about that afternoon’s performance stayed with her. Certainly the obdurate refusal of her bird to be easily seduced by the ambassador from klieg-lit culture kept her giggling. But so did its pratfall, and, by association, hers. O’Connor loved to make fun of her own diminutive stature in popular culture. When a friend accused her of “celebrity” after the publication of her first book of stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, she gleefully wrote back that her fame was “a comic distinction shared with Roy Rogers’s horse and Miss Watermelon of 1955.”
She also enjoyed the attention. O’Connor dates her lifelong passion for raising exotic birds to the rush she at least pretended to have gotten from the noisy movie camera. “From that day with the Pathé man I began to collect chickens,” she writes in “The King of the Birds,” her Holiday magazine article. As a Catholic schoolgirl trying to re-create her winning formula, she began to collect other birds with freakish traits: one green eye and one orange, an overly long neck, a comb askew. She searched in vain for a one of a kind with three legs or three wings, and pondered a picture in Robert Ripley’s Believe It or Not! of a rooster that survived thirty days without its head. “Apparently Pathé News never heard of any of these other chickens of mine,” O’Connor writes, with a stage sigh. “It never sent another photographer.” …
Flannery had spent her life making literary chickens walk backward. But she had also spent much of her adult writing life looking down the barrel of the Misfit’s shotgun. Just as her friends had to discern the contours of true suffering between the lines of her funny vignettes of invalidism, so her stories included a coded spiritual biography. In her front room at Andalusia, rewriting some final words while “the grim reaper” waited, she stuck in a last wink and a smirk, not just to Caroline Gordon and Robert Giroux, but to that one reader she claimed she would be happy with “in a hundred years.” After old Tanner’s daughter fulfills her father’s wish to ship his body home to Georgia, Flannery — in the story’s closing line, written mostly in quavering blue ink endowed her with the hint of a resurrected body:
Now she rests well at night and her
good looks have mostly returned.