“I first got interested in Flannery O’Connor in 1980 because I started doing work on religion and literature and everyone asked me if I had read O’Connor and I hadn’t,” says Richard Rosengarten—former Dean of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago and now Associate Professor of Religion and Literature. “All I knew of her was that I saw somewhere this book with a big peacock on it.” From a sense of professional obligation, he decided that it was time for him to get acquainted with the twentieth-century Southern Gothic writer.
O’Connor’s stories charmed him. “I couldn’t stop reading them, and I couldn’t make any sense of them. They were disturbing and odd, and I found myself laughing at points when I was uneasy about myself for laughing, and I wondered about that.”
He read everything she wrote, including her letters. “I fell in love with her stories; I fell in love with the woman who wrote those letters.” He was immediately captivated by her odd mix of humor and hard-bitten realism.
Ten years later, he decided he would write a book about her. But when he appraised the field, he realized that there was already a whole “Flannery O’Connor industry” out there, and that she was being used as a “football in the Catholic culture wars.”
“She didn’t deserve to be kicked around in it. I thought, what can I say about O’Connor without getting involved in those wars?”
It was frustrating. He decided to take a different approach—one in which he could debunk the myth that the First Vatican Council was anti-modern, and the Second Vatican Council pro-modern.
In his mind, O’Connor didn’t fit the mold of a person that lived between the Councils. But he felt that to say something substantive, he had to involve O’Connor in a conversation with her contemporaries.
That is why the book he is now working on includes O’Connor, but also two other women—the artist Frida Kahlo and the philosopher Simone Weil—who used Catholicism to mediate a deeply complex engagement with modernity.Rosengarten loves that these women were deeply loyal, but also deeply critical. He calls them “the Teresas of Avila of the twentieth century.” They thought about the tradition in complex ways. They didn’t glibly resort to equating modernity with evil, but neither did they think that modernity was unambiguously good. The book is simply titled Styles of Catholicism: Flannery O’Connor, Frida Kahlo, Simone Weil and should be ready for publication sometimes next year.
After all these years of research and getting to know O’Connor and her work, Rosengarten seems still freshly amazed by her ability to fictionalize the ineffable. Whereas tens years ago he was fascinated by her violent, disturbingly witty prose, he is struck now by the way in which her stories attempt to explore “what a moment of grace would be in a world that is insipiently inattentive to it.”
O’Connor really wanted to understand what grace meant, how it looked in a dark and gritty reality with everyday folk who were blind to it. “O’Connor was interested in the disjunction between the modern world and good news of grace,” Rosengarten explains. “What would it mean for the one to confront the other?” To this end, she brings together violence and humor, very different emotional valiances—all in the service of describing both the world and God’s grace accurately.
Rosengarten points out that O’Connor’s understanding of the faith was a simple yet profound one. Though she read Thomas Aquinas every night before bed, he says that people are stunned to learn that the book that most deeply shaped her understanding of Catholicism was the Baltimore Catechism. “She knew it cold. When asked about the ten most important books she read, she listed it as number one.” While O’Connor was unambiguously orthodox, his favorite line of hers is when she says that in the Church, “it’s always about the wrong man for the wrong job.”
It was as an artist—as well as a woman of profound faith—that Flannery O’Connor engaged with the ambiguities and contradictions of modernity. Through fiction—her local realism, her sense of mystery, her ability to see people the way they are, her deeply spiritual vision—O’Connor created entrancingly gruesome yet ultimately redemptive worlds.
Of all her stories, Rosengarten likes “Revelation” best. She completed the revisions for “Revelation” on her hospital bed, just before she died of lupus in 1964. “I can’t read the end of that story without being moved,” he says. “So many of her stories capture that moment of grace with the death of the protagonist. But Ruby Turpin doesn’t die. In one of her letters, she writes that Ruby Turpin ‘could go on to great things.’ She doesn’t kill Ruby Turpin. She marches out of the story a changed person, changed to the core of her being. I find that extraordinarily moving.”