If I can’t listen to Flannery O’Connor herself reading her stories, all I ask is for an audio version of Mary Steenburgen reading her stories, as she does throughout the new documentary Flannery (2019; playing now in virtual theaters).
This seems like the perfect time for a documentary on the author, who died 66 years ago this month. She’s been in the news recently, alongside all the other discussions about race, mainly because of some of her correspondence, but also, I think, because of how accurately she recorded the diction of southern whites in the 1950s and ’60s.
It started with a long New Yorker essay by one of her biographers, Paul Elie, asking “how racist” she might have been. Then as the result of a petition, Loyola University Maryland renamed a residence that had been named for her. (It would, perhaps, be telling to poll those petition signers on how many of Flannery’s stories they had actually read.) Rod Dreher, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell (author of a new book on Flannery O’Connor and race), and Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles have weighed in as well.
The documentary (which I assume was completed before the events of 2020) doesn’t shy away from the issue, although its defense “at all costs” of O’Connor is too much in the vein of hagiography for some. I think the best characterization comes from the co-director, Mark Bosco: she was a “walking contradiction” when it came to race. She couldn’t fully escape her situation and place, but she certainly recognized the deficit of both, especially in “Revelation,” her last and maybe her best story. (My top three are “The River,” “Parker’s Back,” and “Revelation;” the order changes based on which one I read last.)
Flannery traces her life from her childhood through her death with many early photographs, as well as video of her with her chickens and on a horse. The interviews are mostly compelling and touch on all aspects of her life and work. The film examines her legacy as a Southern, Roman Catholic who is unsurpassed in her ability to examine the freakish, the distorted, and the unexamined lives of those who live only within the structures of their own assumptions about sin and redemption. She shows, as she says, the “operation of grace” on them, and it operates violently on those who refuse to recognize it. But as she once apparently quipped, “A lot of people die in my stories, but no one ever gets hurt.” The fact that she impacted so many authors, along with people like Conan O’Brien and Tommy Lee Jones (both with brief appearances in the film), is testament to the timeless quality of her work and her characters.
Though I knew many of the events of her life through various biographies, plus her letters, there were moments that stood out. At one point, discussing John Huston’s adaptation of Wise Blood (1979), one of the screenwriters, Benedict Fitzgerald, says that Huston stood up at the end of the production and said, “I think I’ve been had. Jesus wins.” On the other end of that spectrum, discussing her Prayer Journal, Hilton Als says that she was trying to figure out what stories to tell and how to tell them, and “that was the question she was asking God, which is to say, herself.” I can’t imagine Flannery O’Connor taking kindly to that sort of description of what she was doing in prayer, just as she didn’t take kindly to Mary McCarthy at a party saying that she thought of the Eucharist as a symbol, to which Flannery replied “in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it’” (The Habit of Being, 125). I imagine she might say, “If I’m just praying to myself, to hell with it.”
Overall, Flannery, though perhaps a little uneven at times, is a good introduction to one of my favorite writers, and will hopefully drive people unfamiliar with her work to read her stories and novels. And just to reiterate, I will buy the audio book whenever Mary Steenburgen wants to record it.