Southern Exposure: Reading Flannery O’Connor in Savannah

The 2019 Travel Pursuits season opens with one of our most popular trips, Mystery and Manners: Flannery O’Connor in Savannah. Mystery and manners—that’s a funny kind of name for a trip, you may be thinking. Maybe you’re envisioning genteel lady detectives, or lighthearted satire set in elegant Southern drawing rooms. But the works of Flannery O’Connor promise an entirely different type of experience. The trip takes its name from a collection of essays and lectures by O’Connor that were published after her death by her friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. For O’Connor, mystery and manners were the two most important qualities of fiction; they make fiction what it is.

A scene from “The Displaced Person”

Mystery, in our everyday sense, is something that is not understood or is even beyond understanding. Mystery also has an older and important religious meaning that would have been top of mind for O’Connor, a devout Catholic. From the Greek root mýstēs, a person initiated into a religious cult, “mystery” came to mean a religious truth that one can know only through revelation and cannot fully understand. For O’Connor there was also the mystery of personality, which she explains as “showing how some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything.” The words and actions of her characters often puzzle and even shock—the Bible salesman takes the wooden leg of the physically and spiritually crippled Hulga in “Good Country People;” Mrs. McIntyre remains silent as Mr. Shortley lets the tractor brake slip in “The Displaced Person;” perhaps most famously, the grandmother recognizes and proclaims the connection between her and the man who is about to murder her in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

In “The Aim and Nature of Fiction,” one of the essays in the Fitzgerald collection, O’Connor writes that “the type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery. Fiction should be both canny and uncanny. In a good deal of popular criticism, there is the notion operating that all fiction … has to depict average ordinary everyday life, that every fiction writer must produce what used to be called ‘a slice of life.’ But if life, in that sense, satisfied us, there would be no sense in producing literature at all.”

O’Connor’s stories don’t satisfy in this shallower sense; their gifts are much more precious. Her characters show us our own darkest tendencies to hypocrisy, selfishness, racism, violence, and above all unseeing—being so blinded by our own egos that we remain oblivious to both mystery and reality. She shakes them—and us—out of blindness by putting them in situations that are both extreme and ambiguous. At each reading her stories offer new layers of meaning, new questions about the meaning of our lives and deaths that demand to be answered.

And they do so in a way thick with the “texture of experience,” or manners. O’Connor recognized the South as a “society that is rich in contradiction, rich in irony, rich in contrast, and particularly rich in its speech.” She mines this richness to take us into the minds and worlds of her characters, into the essence of the South. This essence was not found in local-color clichés such as “mocking-birds and beaten biscuits and white columns” or “hookworm and bare feet and muddy clay roads.” Rather, it was a sense of identity made from “the hidden and often the most extreme … from those qualities that endure, regardless of what passes, because they are related to truth.”

Through her work O’Connor looks right at this identity, and at life itself, unflinchingly, in all its grace and beauty, depravity and ugliness, comedy and tragedy. We will look with her. Join me for what promises to be a uniquely rewarding Travel Pursuit as we visit the beautiful city of Savannah and lush central Georgia, home to the newly refurbished O’Connor farm and museum.


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