Biographical Essay Regarding the Effects of a Southern Upbringing & Religion on Flannery O’Connor & her Writings

Flannery O’Connor is one of the most influential Southern thinkers and writers, who has had a considerable impact on American literature, who has managed to create the specific atmosphere of her novels and short-stories that convey the authentic spirit of the South. Her characters and setting of her stories reveal authentic values and views of Southerners. At the same time, her works do not only convey the story of Southerners and depict Southern characters, but also they reveal the impact of the Southern culture on her worldview and perception of the world. The impact of Southern culture is particularly obvious in her religious views and beliefs. Her religious and cultural background has a considerable impact on her writing, style and messages she conveyed to her audinece. At the same time, her literary career reveals her criticism of the contemporary religion and her criticism of Christianity and especially Catholicism. Her writing is specific and unique, while themes she raises were very important for American society and Southerners. The development of her unique writing style and themes she raised in her literary works were very important for her and society, like the theme of religion and the decline of Catholic face as well as problems Protestantism and other Christian religious movements in the US. She also raised the problem of racism in her literary works which mirrored the persisting problem of racism and racial biases and prejudices that prevailed in the US in her time, especially in the South. Therefore, Flannery O’Connor, her life and work mirrored her religious and cultural background and her Southern origin but she also raised the problems that were relevant for the South and important for American culture and society of her time.

Flannery O’Connor was born on March 25, 1925 in Savannah, Georgia. She was the only child in her family. She grew up in the strict family, where she absorbed traditional values but learned to stand for her views and beliefs. Since the early childhood, she grew up as a person, who was desperate to stand for her interests. She grew up being certain in the righteousness of her viewі. In a way, she was stubborn but this was the feature that was the characteristic of her cultural environment. She learned rules of her social environment and accepted them but she also learned ideals of her cultural environment. This is why her personal traits of character, her principles and views were, to a significant extent, conditioned by her cultural and social environment.

At the same time, her family education and upbringing also had a considerable impact on her literary work and life. Her father had traditionalist views and beliefs, who was a real estate agent. Her family belong to the middle-class and traditional American values, while the white background also contributed to the existence of certain racial biases in her family and strong religious beliefs and values. This is why religion played an important part in the life of Flannery O’Connor since the early childhood and her later works as an adult, professional writer, mirrored her religious background and revealed the transformation of her views on religion from idealism and faith to criticism and even certain doubt, if not to say disbelief.

When she was a teenage girl, her family moved to Milledgeville, Georgia, where the family lived on Andalusia Farm. The life in the rural area also had had a considerable impact on her views, beliefs and lifestyle. She had got closer to nature, when she was in the new, rural environment. She learned the wild nature and she could observe the life of the rural community, where traditionalist values were particularly strong and influential. The conservatism of the rural community, where she lived, influenced her own ideas and views, but also those views made her think critically of the lifestyle and values of people, whom she lived with. In this regard, her critical thinking, which was her distinct feature that she had developed since the early childhood confronted the traditionalist lifestyle of people in her community, where people just stuck to their traditional values and took many ideas and issues for granted. 

However, her life in Milledgeville involved the great tragedy since she had lost her father. He died in 1941. He was diagnosed with systematic lupus erythematosus in 1937 and, as his illness progressed, he ultimately died. In spite of the death of her father, Flannery O’Connor and her mother continued to live in Milledgeville, although the life of the family after the loss of the father was extremely challenging and difficult both in psychological and financial terms.

She attended Peabody High School, where she has already started to manifest her inclination to literary work. She worked as the art editor of the school newspaper. When she graduated from the high school in 1942, she entered Georgia State College for Women, where she obtained her higher education. At this stage of professional and personal development, she experienced the experience of gender-related biases and differences in the field of education.

At the same time, it was a valuable experience for her personal experience and fruitful period for the development of her creative work.  She acquired new experience. She diversified her views and her system of values had started to change too. She enriched her personal experience that urged her to start writing in her 20s. She had started her writing as short diaries and her early records and writing laid the ground for her later literary works, including her two novels and many short stories.

As Flannery O’Connor completed the accelerated three year program at Georgia State College for Women, she graduated from the college in 1945 with a social sciences degree. She produced a lot of cartoon work for the student newspaper as she studied at the college. Her graduation became the next step in her professional development and stimulated her to continue her education. At this point, it is worth mentioning her inclination to journalism which could be traced since her high school years and college education since she always contributed to the high school and college newspapers. Her experience of work at student newspapers encouraged her to direct her further professional development efforts toward journalism. This is why she entered the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she first went to study journalism. This was at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where Flannery O’Connor had got acquainted with several famous writers and critics, who worked at the University and who contributed to her education and encouraged her further professional development.

The educational experience of Flannery O’Connor along with her experience in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was pivotal for her formation as a writer. Her experience in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was particularly significant because this experienced introduced her into the writer’s world, where she made her first undertakes in her early twenties. The new experience urged her to think over her own values, ideas, and problems that were significant for her. In such a situation, Flannery O’Connor developed her new skills and focused on the enhancement of her new skills as a writer and stimulated the further development of her critical thinking that helped her to overcome the conservatism of the Southern public and of her own background and to have a critical view of the world and American society. The change in her worldview occurred steadily and the writer attempted to record changes she had passed through in her early writing which laid the foundation to her fundamental literary works and most successful short stories and novels.

The mid-1940s became the time, when she started to publish her first short stories with the help of Andrew Lytle, whom she had got acquainted with at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Adrew Lytle was the editor of Sewanee Review, which became the ground for her first short stories. Lytle helped to publish her first short stories that started her early career as a writer. The director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Paul Engle helped Flannery O’Connor with Wise Blood her first novel which became her major success as a writer. She completed her work with the help of Paul Engle, who was the first person to read and comment on the novel. His comments helped Flannery O’Connor to make her first novel better and to make it look professionally. In such a way, the first novel opened the way for the writer to the public approval and attracted the attention of critics and the public to her literary works.

Her major success with her first novel encouraged her further literary works and the publication of two books of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965). The latter was published posthumously. Her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, was published in 1960. The second novel was another success of the writer that contributed to the greater attention of the public and critics. In such a way, the writer had managed to succeed in the development of her literary work and sharing her progressive ideas with the public. The development of her literary works was grounded on her early experience and her background. The mixture of her rich experience and her Southern cultural background created the quintessence of authentic works and writing that helped the author to create effective, original and interesting works that were popular among readers and respected by critics.

One of the major reasons of the success of her career as a writer was the importance of problems raised by the author and her authentic, unique style, which was, to a significant extent, determined by her Southern background and cultural traditions and norms, her education, and her worldview. Her Southern background played the main part in her literary work. In this regard, religion is one of the main themes of her literary work which originated from her Southern background because religion played an important part in the South and her family was religious by its nature, although Flannery O’Connor developed quite a critical view of religion in the time of the upcoming crisis of religion in the US. She focused on religion because this theme affected their life and work.

She developed quite a skeptical view of the church in the US because she stood on the ground that the church is not perfect and often leads to sufferings of believers, while, in some cases, the church may be misleading. She argued that “you have to suffer as much from the church as for it” (Baumgaertner 1173). The development of the church was very important for Southerners, because they were religious and faith was traditionally strong in Southern states. In such a way, religion was an integral part of the life of Southerners. However, Southerners had started to lose confidence in the church. In this regard, Flannery O’Connor offered a critical view on the church as she recognized that the church did not always bring good to believers but also caused substantial troubles. While believers perceived the church as the major institution, which helped them to communicate with God and find their way to God and the word of God, Flannery O’Connor argued that the contemporary church could mislead believers in a way and, thus, cause certain harm to believers.

Flannery O’Connor recognized the evolution of the church and its dynamic development, but she still admitted that there is a fundamental backbone which allowed the church and Christianity to survive. She argued that: “the only thing that makes the church endurable is that somehow it is the body of Christ, and on this we are fed” (Betenbaugh 207). This is a very skeptical perspective on the church, which is viewed by the writer as an institution that had lost its credibility and the only aspect of the church that helped it to survive was the relevance to Christ. The reliance on Christ or even the name of Christ helped the church to stumble through the hardest years. As a person grown up in the religious family, Flannery O’Connor could not ignore the degradation and decline of the church as the major religious institution which had lost its strong religious ground and used the name of Christ just to keep stumbling through the hard time to attract believers.

She recognized that the church went the wrong way and “the operation of the church is entirely set up for the sake of the sinner, which creates much misunderstanding among the smug” (Haddox 412). The focus of the church on the sinner may sound paradoxical for a believer, but Flannery O’Connor has a critical mindset and she is aware that the church aims at the largest target group which consists of sinners. This is why the church attempts to attract sinners.

At the same time, she recognizes that the church is made up of imperfect pilgrims on a long, difficult journey, and O’Connor described them well: “The Catholic Church is composed of those who accept what she teaches, whether they are good or bad, and there is constant struggle through the help of the sacraments to be good” (Hauerwas 71). Therefore, the church is set up for the sake of the sinner because it is set up sinners. Hence, the church becomes the institution full of sinners and set up for sinners and Flannery O’Connor draws the attention of the audience to the fact that such situation is unacceptable.

At the same time, as a religious person herself, Flannery O’Connor realizes that the church needs changes but to change the church one has to change the attitude and view on the church. She argues that believers and other people judge [the church] strictly by its human element, by unimaginative and half-dead Catholics who would be startled to know the nature of what they defend by formula. She points out “the miracle is that the Church’s dogma is kept pure both by and from such people. Nature is not prodigal of genius and the church makes do with what nature gives her. At the age of 11, you encounter some old priest who calls you a heretic for inquiring about evolution; at about the same time Père Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., is in China discovering Peking man (Askin 51).

The “human element” in the church was a frequent target of O’Connor’s wit, as when she proposed this motto for the Catholic press of her day: “We guarantee to corrupt nothing but your taste.” More seriously, she quoted St. Augustine’s advice to the “wheat” in the church not to leave the threshing floor of life before the harvest is complete, just because there is so much of that disgusting chaff around! In this connection, she slyly suggested what the difficulty may be for more sensitive Catholics (referring to one young woman in particular): “She probably sees more stupidity and vulgarity than she does sin and these are harder to put up with than sin, harder on the nerves” (Bieber Lake 184). Therefore, Flannery O’Connor reveals the determinant role of human factor in the decline of the church as well as its failure to perform its functions properly.

At the same time, Flannery O’Connor reminds of forgiveness as the key feature of the Christian teaching and she argues that people should be forgiving in relation to representatives of the church. It is easy for any child to find out the faults in the sermon on his way home from church every Sunday. It is impossible to find out the hidden love that makes a man, in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God’s people, however bumblingly he may go about it (Askin 60). Therefore, she leads her audience to the conclusion that people are imperfect by their nature and they are imperfect regardless, whether they are priests or believers. This is why she implies that people should not have too high expectations with regard to the church and view it through its representatives.

As Flannery O’Connor became aware of the necessity of reforming the church, she developed the idea of taking the proactive stand in reforming the church. To put it more precisely, she believed it was the responsibility of each person to undertake steps toward reforming the church. The writer argued that “it’s our business to change the external faults of the church — the vulgarity, the lack of scholarship, the lack of intellectual honesty — wherever we find them and however we can” (Hauerwas 75). In this regard, her religious views and her view on reforming the church were probably driven by the rise of civil rights activism which preceded the large scale Civil Rights Movement. Flannery O’Connor attempted to encourage believers to change the church, instead of waiting, when the church changes itself.

At the same time, the writer believed that changes were urgent for the church to introduce. O’Connor expressed impatience with the kind of Catholicism — and Catholic fiction — that kept everything nice, shallow, cute and safe. She described what she called “A nice vapid-Catholic distrust of finding God in action of any range and depth. This is not the kind of Catholicism that has saved me so many years in learning to write, but then this is not Catholicism at all” (Hauerwas 81). Genuine Catholicism, she felt, must be as radical and demanding as its founder’s teaching (Baumgaertner 1174). Such radicalism of her views on Catholicism emerged from her Southern background which determined her boldness and determination as well as radicalism in her views and principles.

She was radical not only in her views on the church but also in her attitude to pseudo-faith and pseudo-believers. Of the pseudo-faith of such persons she said: “I know what you mean about being repulsed by the church when you have only the Mechanical-Jansenist Catholic to judge it by. I think that the reason such Catholics are so repulsive is that they don’t really have faith but a kind of false certainty. They operate by the slide rule and the Church for them is not the body of Christ but the poor man’s insurance system. It’s never hard for them to believe because actually they never think about it. Faith has to take in all the other possibilities it can”. (Askin 61)

One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is our own sweet invention (Haddox 415). Such attitude to religion and believers and pseudo-believers reveals the radicalism of a true Southerner, who stuck to her values and will stand for them whatever is the cost.

Thus, Flannery O’Connor emerged as an influential writer, who raised important problems and offered solutions which were not always acceptable for the average person because of their radicalism. In this regard, her view on religion and the church and her solution of the problem the contemporary church suffered from was quite radical but this issue revealed her Southern background to the full extent. She realized the necessity of reforming the church to restore the true faith and make the church the institution that enhances the faith rather than ruins it. She suggested starting reforming the church by changing the attitude to the church and by starting the action by believers rather than by priests or church leaders. At this point, Flannery O’Connor had managed to overcome her biases and traditional Southern stereotypes. Her critical thinking helped her to find the way to save the church from the complete degradation. However, she needed her Southern stubbornness and radicalism to overcome biases and stereotypes in her views on the church. She conveyed her ideas to the broad audience and the popularity of her books among readers proved the innovativeness and attractiveness of her ideas. The popularity of her books reveals the extensive support of ideas by the audience. At the same time, it is important to place emphasis on the fact that the Southern background and her religious background became the major drivers of her literary work and the major factors that determined her worldview and her writings. She had managed to create authentic works which mirrored problems that disturbed her as the Christian and as a believer. She apparently had faith and could not afford the degradation of the church and decline of Christian values in the society, where she lived. This is why she was so radical in her strive for reform and perfection.

Works Cited:

Askin, Denise. “Anagogical Vision and Comedic Form in Flannery O’Connor: The Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable.” Renascence 57, no. 1, 2004, 47–62.

Baumgaertner, Jill. “‘The Meaning Is in You’: Flannery O’Connor in Her Letters.” Christian Century 104, no. 39, 1987, 1172–76.

Betenbaugh, Helen. “Disability: A Lived Theology.” Theology Today 57, no. 2, 2000, 203–10.

Bieber Lake, Christina. The Incarnational Art of Flannery O’Connor. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2005.

Haddox, Thomas. “‘Something Haphazard and Botched’: Flannery O’Connor’s Critique of the Visual in ‘Parker’s Back.’” Mississippi Quarterly 57, no. 3, 2004, 407–21.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986. 

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