It seems I was barely back from India before I was heading back to the airport en route to Savannah to discuss Flannery O’Connor – for the fourth time. You might think that this would be a rather hum drum same old, same old experience for discussion leader Nancy Carr and me. But we both agreed that we love this trip and always come away with new and refreshing insights gleaned from the participants and exposure to O’Connor’s surroundings.
Flannery O’Connor is not a difficult writer in the way of James Joyce – requiring constant deciphering of obscure references. Nor is it necessary to have a dictionary handy. But to the uninitiated, her writing can seem at once cold and dispassionate, as well as almost absurdly stark and violent. Her short stories routinely end in horrendous, freak fatalities or, at the very least, a character’s emotional devastation. It was not surprising to me to learn of the emails and phone calls flying around among fellow travellers who knew one another in advance of the trip. These new readers found O’Connor’s imagination a barren, godless plane of meaninglessness, punctuated by pockets of random, mindless cruelty. They questioned why Nancy and I had chosen this writer and the wisdom of their decision to join us.
Yet what we discovered together is that her writing is filled with meaning and symbolism, hidden in plain sight beneath a seamless narrative style that breathes not a word of agenda, of dogma, or of personal belief. As essayist Patrick Galloway says in “The Dark Side of the Cross: Flannery O’Connor’s Short Fiction, “ Flannery O’Connor is a Christian writer, and her work is message-oriented, yet she is far too brilliant a stylist to tip her hand; like all good writers, crass didacticism is abhorrent to her. Nevertheless, she achieves what few Christian writers have ever achieved: a type of writing that stands up on both literary and the religious grounds, and succeeds in doing justice to both.”
On first perusal, with its horrendous deaths, it’s empty, cruel, narcissistic characters and depressing, seemingly unresolved endings, it is hard to see how O’Connor’s stories could be considered “Christian” or “Catholic” writing. Upon closer reading, we discover that O’Connor suggests we are caught in a supernatural tug-of-war; one end of the rope is good and the other end evil. We seem to be scared that holiness might somehow make us miserable, when in fact the opposite is the case, and inevitably we feel drawn to the evil end of the rope. O’Connor seems to be telling us over and over that grace/revelation/holiness is to arrive in some situation and leave it better than when we entered it.
Nancy and I never tire of this brilliant and outrageously funny writer. We are eager to go back for more. But I thought you might like to hear what several of our group had to say. (Folks often forget to sign their names to the evaluation; ergo, the several Anon.)
The trip left me with the desire to read more O’Connor, see more of Savannah, and most of all – to have ongoing conversation with the people I met.
What I liked best about the trip were the discussions, which were at a very high level. The readings were excellent and the other participants all brought a thoughtful perspective. The hotel was superb — I loved the history, the food, the wine and cheese, the ambiance.
~Elspeth Cameron, St. Catherine’s, ON
I am tired of the cookie cutter type of guided tours. Classical Pursuits participants are mature and all have tons of stories and experience to share. The multi-level perspectives are invaluable. All of the stories we discussed stunned.
Reading the writings of an author is one thing; reading them in her home town, discussing them in the living room of her childhood home, hearing stories from someone who knew her, while sitting on the front porch of her farm – that was “THE EXTRA” for me.
~Terri Feldmayer, Alexandria, VA
I liked the fine balance between discussion and more active experiences. The leaders, Nancy and Ann, were excellent, Ann – always “hands on,” alert, adaptable, enthusiastic.
I really liked the authenticity experienced at the childhood and adult homes of Flannery O’Connor – from the first hand observer, to the Foundation director, to the writer-in-residence. The closer we were to the source, the better.
I really liked the exposure to a writer I would not have found on my own. Nancy’s leadership of the discussions was excellent.
The seminar satisfied on so many levels – intellectual, culinary, social, aesthetic – and filled our days with laughter and delight.
~Catherine Mattingly, Bethesda, MD
Great writing always changes people’s lives and changes them forever. As author Pat Conroy says about Flannery O’Connor, “I consider her the best short story writer in the history of our republic, and I think the day I read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” on a porch in Buford, South Carolina was a turning point in both my reading and my writing life. Her writing hit me like an artillery barrage in the dead centre of my young manhood. I was never the same after I started reading Flannery O’Connor.”
If you have encountered Flannery O’Connor, I invite you to post your personal reflections, either as a novice or a devoted reader.
In closing, something really silly, (Mary) Flannery O’Connor at six. Do you reverse?