A Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor. Henry T. Edmondson, ed. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2017.
Readers familiar with The Habit of Being, the collected correspondence of Flannery O’Connor, no doubt smile every time they see a new book about the life of the famous Georgia author who predicted in a 1958 letter to a friend that “there won’t be any biographies of me because . . . lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make for exiting copy.” The prediction was wrong, though O’Connor knew at the time she was exaggerating the simplicity of her life. The hundreds of other letters in The Habit of Being are evidence enough of a life worthy of biographical efforts, from her ongoing debates with critics, to her colorful and diverse friendships including her complex though loving relationship with her mother. We also see from her letters that her daily existence entailed far more than writing shocking fiction and feeding her exotic birds—she was an avid reader of theology, philosophy, political commentaries, psychology, literature, and history. From her small farm in Milledgeville she was as engaged in the intellectual currents of the mid-twentieth century as anyone in the ivory tower.
The latest addition of the University of Kentucky’s Political Companions to Great American Authors series is a volume that offers, in the words of its editor Henry Edmondson, “essays to help the reader appreciate Flannery O’Connor’s brilliance as a short story writer, novelist, essayist, and correspondent; and, her importance as a political philosopher.” The book easily succeeds in the first of these purposes, displaying O’Connor’s brilliance, but given the number of contributors—fifteen in total—we are given at best a jagged outline of O’Connor’s contribution to political philosophy. The essays generally do not do the work of interpreting her stories, but are better described as providing a much needed intellectual biography of the author. Many of the chapters deal with O’Connor’s relationship to or reading of some important thinker; readers of this review will be happy to learn that the book ends with two essays that heavily involve Eric Voegelin.
The fifteen essays are divided into four parts, the first of which is entitled “O’Connor’s Politics” and consists of essays by John Sykes, Benjamin Alexander, Michael Schroeder, and Margaret Earley Whitt. When boiled down—and each gets more specific in this regard—these chapters focus on Southern politics and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Sykes’s chapter is the most general, astutely separating O’Connor from the Southern Agrarians with whom she is too often associated. Sykes persuasively argues that O’Connor judged cultures, including her own, by the standards of Catholicism, whereas the Agrarians tended to welcome religion to the extent that it defended their culture. O’Connor’s politics were more eschatological, as Sykes puts it, than local. From Alexander’s essay readers will learn much about O’Connor’s friend and correspondent, the Jesuit priest Fr. James H. McCown, who became more politically aggressive in his defense of such things as civil rights after Vatican II, a path O’Connor probably would not have followed had she lived beyond 1964. Nonetheless, Alexander’s essay provides helpful context for understanding one of the most prominent of O’Connor’s correspondents in The Habit of Being.
Schroeder and Whitt would agree with the above remark that O’Connor would not have followed Fr. McCown down the activist road, though they have different levels of comfort with this admission. Schroeder looks to the silent character in “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” to draw out how O’Connor approaches social issues such as desegregation, arguing that O’Connor favored the dignified but not self-righteous demeanor of the silent black man who sat where he wished on the city bus but kept his focus on his newspaper. In the related but more negative interpretation of O’Connor’s stance on civil rights, Whitt argues that O’Connor’s own public silence regarding the race question, especially in 1963, is troubling. Whitt hopes that had she lived longer she might have followed Eudora Welty in lending her literary credentials to the Civil Rights movement. In the eyes of this reviewer, however, O’Connor would have been no more likely to follow Welty’s example than she would have Fr. McCown’s.
Part Two, entitled “Kindred Spirits” consists of essays by George Piggford, Sarah Gordon, Ralph Wood, and Mark Bosco. Piggford’s chapter is a much welcomed overview of O’Connor’s reading of Friedrich von Hügel, one of her favorite authors, liking especially von Hügel’s “Thomistic reading of nature and grace, his exploration of history in relation to God’s involvement in creation, his attention to human freedom, and his emphasis on the costliness of the Christian life” (102). Those who have read The Habit of Being will recall O’Connor’s frequent recommendation of von Hügel to her friends; Fr. Piggford’s chapter will help those unfamiliar with von Hügel better see why she valued his work so highly. Similarly, Gordon’s chapter, which looks at O’Connor’s admiration of the French mystic Simone Weil, who never could quite embrace Christianity, and the Jewish convert to Catholicism Edith Stein, provides helpful insight into O’Connor’s reading of two of the twentieth century’s most important female writers. While there is much to gain from Gordon’s essay, she joins Whitt in wishing that O’Connor would have spoken out against clear human injustices, in this case the Holocaust of six million Jews.
Wood’s chapter examines the friendship between O’Connor and Betty Hester, and his essay will be of interest to anyone fascinated by O’Connor’s letters to “A” in The Habit of Being. We know now that the recipient of those letters, who at the time of the collection, wished to remain anonymous, was the reclusive Hester, whose tragic life became entwined to O’Connor’s after sending her a perceptive reading of Wise Blood, one of the first O’Connor had read after the book’s initial publication. Wood looks at the most strained point of their relationship, when Hester became fascinated with another author, Iris Murdoch, whose views were very different from O’Connor’s Thomistic Catholicism. Like Murdoch, Hester wanted to exit the Western tradition—to move beyond Aquinas and other philosophic thinkers all the way back to Plato. Fr. Bosco’s essay shows the extent to which O’Connor was thoroughly grounded in that tradition. He does not focus on the books she read, but rather on parallels between her fiction and the Baroque artists in the Counter-Reformation. One will learn much about Caravaggio’s work in particular from this chapter, and see more clearly why O’Connor often thought of herself as a medieval.
Bosco’s chapter provides a nice transition to Part Three, “O’Connor and Modernity,” which includes essays by Farrell O’Gorman, Gary Ciuba, Henry Edmondson, John Roos, and Christina Bieber Lake. O’Gorman’s essay looks at several O’Connor stories in the context of early-twentieth century justifications of eugenics, the enthusiasm for which died after the Second World War. Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, O’Gorman argues, is consistent with the eugenics mentality, but O’Connor’s works consistently show the immorality and potential blindness to evil that is inevitable with eugenics. More than most of the essays in the volume, O’Gorman bases his claims on O’Connor’s published works, drawing from several of her stories and the introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann in order to find a theme that runs throughout her fiction.
Less successful, though still very useful, is Ciuba’s essay, which tries to draw parallels between O’Connor’s fiction and the missionary training of Msgr. Ivan Illich of the Center for Intercultural Formation, an organization familiar to O’Connor because her friend Roslyn Barnes received training from Illich after joining the Papal Auxiliary Volunteers for Latin America (PAVLA). Illich was critical PAVLA and other missionary programs for attracting young missionaries whose benevolence is guided more by Western values than a concern for the poor. He thought that by establishing such things as universities and radio stations they ended up imposing Western institutions upon foreign peoples, and that groups like PAVLA were therefore pursuing a modern form of colonialism. It is hard to imagine O’Connor agreeing with this view. Ciuba uses characters such as Manly Pointer and Lucette Carmody to argue that O’Connor’s fiction shares the vision of Illich. The problem is that to make this case he treats Pointer as someone with missionary zeal and Lucette as an exploited child, whereas Pointer is a liar with no real intention of becoming a missionary and Lucette is a genuine believer who is no more a victim of adult propaganda than the real-life Mary Ann whose story was told by the Dominican sisters who cared for her.
Edmondson and Roos, the only political scientists to contribute to the volume, provide essays that accurately show O’Connor’s Thomistic political vision. Edmonson’s essay compares O’Connor’s political thought to that of Russell Kirk, one of the twentieth century’s most influential contributors to American conservatism. O’Connor and Kirk met once at the home of their common friends, Brainard and Frances Cheney, and both admitted afterwards that they had difficulty making conversation. Nevertheless, they admired each other’s work and were similarly concerned with secular humanitarianism which sought, to paraphrase O’Connor’s words from her introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann, to separate tenderness from the source of tenderness. Roos’s chapter takes its bearings from Aristotle, just as Thomas does. He examines the political community as it is depicted in “The Displaced Person,” and his reading of this story is illuminating—not to be missed by anyone interested in better understanding one of O’Connor’s most important short stories.
Christina Bieber Lake’s contribution likewise draws from the Thomistic character of O’Connor’s fiction. Literature, such as that of O’Connor’s, has much to contribute to our understanding of human nature and is a necessary corrective to instrumental views of the person so common in Western culture today. Whereas Edmondson had shown similarities between O’Connor and the conservative thinker Russell Kirk, Lake draws parallels between the O’Connor and recent liberal thinkers such as Martha Nussbaum and Jürgen Habermas. Nussbaum argues that literature should play a greater role in public policy debates, and Habermas worries about the West’s understanding of personhood. So long as literature does not become simply useful to policymakers and that contemplation of personhood includes our relationship to Christ, Lake’s presentation is persuasive.
Readers of Voegelin will find the final section of the book, “Beyond Politics,” much to their liking. In the first of the two essays John Desmond shows that, like Voegelin, O’Connor understands politics in the classical sense, that best represented by Plato and Aristotle. He goes on to show how several of O’Connor’s characters have embraced the gnostic ideas that close the individual off from transcendent reality and isolate them in the political communities in which they live. Onnie Jay Holy, Mr. Shiftlet, Hulga Hopewell, and Julian are all examples of characters blinded by their Gnosticism. Montgomery’s essay, originally published in a 1978 edition of Modern Age, shows that though there are many points of connection between O’Connor and Voegelin, they differ in their understanding of the relationship between faith and reason. Voegelin the philosopher relies on reason and follows it as far as it leads, right up to the beginning of mystery. Being a Thomist, O’Connor agrees in reason’s importance, but that same Thomism teachers her that reason must give way to faith—reason at times can only teach us that the tenets of faith are not unreasonable. O’Connor and Voegelin see similar problems in modernity even though they approach the issue from slightly different, although clearly related, points of view.
The volume as a whole is to be praised for its broad understanding of political life. As several of the essays indicate, O’Connor’s Aristotelian-Thomistic orientation led her to view politics as concerned with human virtue and the good life. Theology, philosophy, politics, drama, rhetoric, history, art, literature, and science are all interrelated even if it is helpful at times to study them individually. Insofar as they point upward toward truth, they converge.
Anyone interested in her fiction and the intellectual life that informed her stories will not be disappointed by the essays in The Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor.
 The Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being, Sally Fitzgerald, ed. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 290-291.