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and Beautiful World
A Feature Review of
A Political Companion
to Flannery O’Connor
Edited by Henry T. Edmondson III
Hardback. UPress of Kentucky, 2017
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Reviewed by Todd Edmondson
Upon hearing of Flannery O’Connor’s death in 1964, Thomas Merton famously wrote that when he reflected on her life and work, “I don’t think of Hemingway, or Katherine Ann Porter, or Sartre, but rather of someone like Sophocles.” It is perhaps unsurprising that Merton was compelled to draw connections between the mid-twentieth-century fiction writer from Milledgeville, Georgia and the most-decorated playwright of Greece’s Classical period. Both wrote works that occupied the threshold between violence and the sacred. Both depicted dysfunctional family dynamics and the perennial struggle between parents and children. Both confront and unsettle their audience with the oracular wisdom and obscure utterances of blind prophets, and both, in Merton’s words, show us “man’s fall and dishonor.”
Beyond this, however, as I read this recent collection of essays edited by Henry T. Edmondson and containing work by such well-known O’Connor scholars as Ralph Wood, Gary Ciuba, and Sarah Gordon, my mind continually drifted to Merton’s comparison because, perhaps above all else, Sophocles was a profoundly political artist. This is not to say that he was a dramatist writing about all the hot-button issues of his time, but rather because his work tackled the enduring questions that are bound up with life in the polis: What does it mean to be a part of a community? What is the nature of power, and who should hold it? What role do the gods play in our understanding of temporal authority?
It is in this sense that the essays in this collection address O’Connor as a political writer. O’Connor, as is well known, consciously avoided using what she called “the topical” as fodder for her stories. In a letter to a friend about Eudora Welty’s short story “Where is the Voice Coming From?” written in the wake of Medgar Evers’s assassination, O’Connor remarked that “The topical is poison.” She was a writer who, in her own words, sought to view the human condition in a way that “sees the long run through the short run,” and thus normally resisted the urge to write about the day’s news events. The characters she created obviously did not come from nowhere; they had specific contexts in which they lived and moved. But O’Connor seems to have been averse to using them as mouthpieces through which she could relate her perspective on the pressing matters splashed across the front page of The New York Times, or the Milledgeville Union Recorder, for that matter.
In this spirit, only a few of the essays in this book focus on O’Connor’s “positions” on controversial issues of her time. These include the essays “Desegregation and the Silent Character,” by Michael Schroeder and “The Pivotal Year, 1963,” by Margaret Earley Whitt. In these contributions, O’Connor’s sometimes elusive and (to many readers) frustrating perspectives on race, desegregation, and the Civil Rights Movement are explored. This is to be expected, given the culture in which O’Connor lived for most of her short life and the powerful ways that the struggle for Civil Rights was coming to bear on the South throughout the final years of her short life.
Also featured are two essays that examine O’Connor’s views on eugenics, which might be interesting to readers searching for clues regarding what O’Connor’s views on abortion would be, had she lived to see the space it occupied in our current political imagination. One of these essays, “Future Flannery, or How a Hillbilly Thomist Can Help Us Navigate the Politics of Personhood in the Twenty-First Century,” by Christina Bieber Lake, manages to bring O’Connor into conversation with the controversial ethicist Peter Singer, whose philosophy of “personism” has figured into some of the nastiest debates about the value of human life in the modern world.
Aside from these forays into hot-button issues, the majority of the essays in this collection train their focus on the ways that O’Connor identified with or interacted with a variety of communities in her life, both those that were her contemporaries and those that were influences on her work. John Sykes’ contribution, “Flannery O’Connor and the Agrarians,” in exploring the uneasy relationship between O’Connor and the generation of Southern writers that preceded her, demonstrates that, far from being beholden to the nostalgic mythology of her region—often referred to as the “Lost Cause”—O’Connor’s most significant identity marker, political or otherwise, was her commitment to the Roman Catholic Church. This is a theme continued in Benjamin Alexander’s Essay “These Jesuits Work Fast: O’Connor’s Elusive Politics,” which narrates some of the ways that her relationship to friends within the Church shaped (or, in some cases, didn’t shape) her political views.
A number of the remaining essays place O’Connor in the company of several interesting and diverse conversation partners, from the French Jewish mystic Simone Weil to the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio to the 20th century political theorists Russell Kirk and Eric Voegelin. Each of these essays draws out some perspective on how O’Connor thought about and how she expressed the interactions among those of different races, social classes, and religious backgrounds—this reflection on human community serving as the real work of politics in its broadest sense. While the majority of the essays tend toward biography rather than literary criticism, the stories and novels that serve as O’Connor’s most enduring legacy are well represented throughout.
As a whole, this collection offers a wide-ranging treatment of the life and work of a woman who, while avoiding the topical, has managed to continually challenge readers from her own day to ours. As I read these essays, I couldn’t help but feel a pang as I wondered what O’Connor would have to say about our current political climate, where a larger-than-life blowhard, surrounded by evangelical enablers, occupies the White House, and where divisions and rifts in our communities seem to have almost widened to the point of being irreconcilable. We live in the kind of absurd and grotesque and beautiful world that, if it didn’t exist, O’Connor might have had to invent it. And so I would like to think that a voice like O’Connor’s might compel us to look across the battle lines we have drawn, to lock eyes with our supposed enemies, and to say, as the grandmother says to the murderous Misfit in one of O’Connor’s most famous stories, “Why, you’re one of my own children!”
Todd Edmondson is pastor of First Christian Church of Erwin, Tennessee, and Assistant Professor of Composition and Humanities at Milligan College.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Despite the shared surname, the reviewer is not related to the editor of this volume.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com