A little knowledge of Flannery O’Connor could be a dangerous thing. To only know that this writer’s most famous story involves a gunman killing a grandmother is disturbing. There are plenty of other unsettling elements in O’Connor’s fiction. There are evil Bible salesmen, dysfunctional families, ungrateful children, and lots of cases of pride leading to destruction.
A little knowledge of O’Connor might lead one to say, “That sounds like a sick person.” That was exactly the case. As her literary career was just beginning, she learned that she was dying of lupus, the same disease that had taken her father’s life at age forty. Miss O’Connor would die at age thirty-nine. All fiction writers weave their stories out of experiences, but it was Southernness even more than illness that shaped O’Connor’s fictional vision.
Flannery O’Connor saw, heard, and experienced the same things as others around her. It was out of those ordinary daily happenings that she saw extraordinary stories. The stories were not just journalistic reports of the life of common folks. Instead, O’Connor sharpened the edges and intensified the experiences with unusual twists and unexpected turns in human experience. The excessively proud woman, and many of her stories contained such women, would not simply stumble but rather fall and fall hard. The intellectually arrogant person—and again, she had quite a few in her stories—was left looking foolish.
In a letter, O’Connor wrote, “You have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and to the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.” Sometimes readers, both Southern and non-Southern, wonder if the more troubling features of Southern fiction are autobiographical. That is, do such grotesque tales reveal Southern life? The answer is yes, but more.
The South is the locale of the story. Southern folks are the characters. Their speech, manners, and basic assumptions are those that truly define Southern life. But like the morality plays of medieval Europe, Southern stories are about Everyman. The South was and is a real world that opens the door to a fictional world. Ironically, in good fiction, the world of the writer’s imagination reveals universal truth.
Just as C.S. Lewis created the world of Narnia and William Faulkner created the world of Yoknapatawpha County, Flannery O’Connor created a fictional world, although it was never given a special name or entered into magically. It was most often in the South and among rural people. Her characters were also almost always Southerners, particularly working class people, farmers, and plain common folks.
Anyone who grew up with friends and relatives in a Southern town would swear that O’Connor was writing about their own family and neighbors. The descriptions, the conversations, the folkways, and thoughts from the people who lived in O’Connor’s fictional world show that she had a true ear and eye for Southern life.
Consider such phrases as “Go bring these people their Co’-Colas” or “That car ain’t run in fifteen year” or “I will’ve already been there twict. “ And consider this description: “He was a bald headed except for a little fringe of rust-colored hair and his face was nearly the same color as the unpaved roads and washed like them with ruts and gulleys.”
A writer, especially one connected to a region like the South, has to have eyes to see and ears to hear what surrounds them but often escapes notice. O’Connor said, “The things we see, hear, smell and touch affect us long before we believe anything at all. The South impresses its image on the Southern writer from the moment he is able to distinguish one sound from another.”
She went on to say, “The Southern writer’s greatest tie with the South is through his ear, which is usually sharp. . . .” It is O’Connor’s artistic rendering of the Southerner that makes her fiction powerful. Just as certain piano players can hit the right keys but miss the feel of a piece of music, so a writer can miss the feel of a culture. Even worse is when someone outside the South attempts to have their characters speak with a Southern accent.
Those who know the real thing recognize the failed poser. O’Connor knew the world her characters lived in. She knew it from her years of growing up in that defining Southern town of Savannah; she knew from the years her family lived in Milledgeville, Georgia; she knew it from her later years living on a dairy farm and raising chickens, ducks, and peafowl.
Flannery O’Connor said, “The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.” She solved that problem and found that location in the South.