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We welcome to Open Book Dr. Bruce Edwards, Associate Professor of English at Bowling Green State University. Please note that this essay is Copyrighted by Dr. Edwards, and may not be reproduced without his permission. Bruce welcomes mail at the English Department, BGSU, Bowling Green, OH 43402.


Born: Savannah, Georgia, March 25, 1925.

Died: Milledgeville, Georgia, August 3, 1964.

Principal Works

NOVELS: Wise Blood, 1952; The Violent Bear it Away,


SHORT FICTION: A Good Man is Hard to Find, 1955;

Everything that Rises Must Converge, 1965; The Com-

plete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, 1971; The Com-

plete Works of Flannery O’Connor, 1988 (This

Library of America volume includes her two novels,

all of her stories, and selected essays and letters).

CORRESPONDENCE: The Habit of Being: Selected

Letters of Flannery O’Connor, 1979. The Correspon-

dence of Flannery O’Connor and Brainard Cheneys,


LITERARY CRITICISM: Mystery and Manners, 1969;

The Presence of Grace, 1983.

Flannery O’Connor’s art combined a disarming Catholic orthodoxy with a Hawthorne-like knowledge of the e_ect of sin on human relationships—both situated within the fundamentalist South. It proved to be an irresistible mix even for secular critics, who found her send ups and celebrations of Bible belt religion compelling and strangely disturbing. Her _ction succeeded not in making Christianity more palatable, but in making its claims unavoidable. Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925, O’Connor was by temperament and faith a devout Roman Catholic, the only child of Edward O’Connor and Regina Cline O’Connor. After her father fell gravely ill in 1938, she moved with her mother to the old Cline farmhouse, "Andalusia," in Milledgeville, Georgia, her mother’s birthplace. Her father died three years later, and Flannery attended Peabody High School with no perceptible sign of the deadly lupus that took her father’s life and would eventually end hers.

By the time O’Connor took her B.A. degree from Women’s College of Georgia in 1945, she knew what she wanted to do: go north to learn the craft of _ction. She was accepted at the prestigious creative writing program at the University of Iowa, earning her M.F.A. in 1947. O’Connor published several stories in prominent literary periodicals during her stay at Iowa, including "The Geranium," in Accent and "The Train" in the Sewanee Review. The latter story, a portion of the novel that would later be published as Wise Blood, won her the Rinehart-Iowa _ction award in 1947. On the strength of this award and her promise as a writer, O’Connor was o_ered a fellowship by the Yaddo Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to supporting the arts. Upon accepting the fellowship, she spent several fruitful months at the Yaddo study center in Saratoga Springs, New York, in early 1949. The young and naive O’Connor returned to Milledgeville soon thereafter, however, because of the turmoil erupting over pro-communist accusations against another Yaddo guest writer.

Her brief stay at Yaddo had, nevertheless, yielded important friendships with some prominent writers and editors, including the poet Robert Lowell, who introduced her to Robert Giroux, an editor-in-chief at Harcourt Brace Publishing in New York—contacts that would be invaluable to her in her career. After spending a few months back at her home, where she continued to work on Wise Blood, she accepted the invitation to move in with the Robert and Sally Fitzgerald family in Ridge_eld, Connecticut, friends of Robert Giroux, who became her uno_cial literary patrons and her surrogate brother and sister.

Upon completion of her manuscript in 1950, Giroux o_ered her a contract. The onset of lupus, a serious and painful blood disorder, during Christmas, 1950, redirected her life back to Andalusia permanently where under her mother’s watchful eye she would do the rest of the editing for the book. Wise Blood was published in 1952 to the applause of astonished critics startled to _nd its initially nihilistic protagonist, Hazel Notes, the creation of a genteel, mild-mannered Southern young woman. Motes, a Christian malgre-lui, i.e., in spite of himself, exempli_es one of O’Connor’s main themes, that the mystery of free will is not the war between one will and another but of many wills con_icting in one character.

From her Milledgeville sanctuary she continued to carry on a lively correspondence with friends, readers, critics, and her editors at Farrar, Giroux in New York. When health permitted, she made trips to colleges and universities to give readings and to lecture on literary craft. After O’Connor won the Kenyon Review fellowship in _ction for 1953, her next project was the series of short stories that would be collected in A Good Man is Hard to Find in 1955. O’Connor _lled this collection with dozens of well-wrought, "Christ-haunted" characters, among them one of her most memorable: Hulga the one-legged doctor of philosophy of "Good Country People," who thinks she has seduced a backwater Bible salesman only to discover his country existentialism out-rationalizes her and has actually made her the fool. An O. Henry _rst prize in short _ction and a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant followed, both in 1957.

In 1958 she contracted with her publisher, Farrar and Giroux, for a new novel in progress, eventually published in 1960 as The Violent Bear It Away. Praised for its psychological realism, in this work O’Connor returns to the theme of the anti-quest found in Wise Blood, as the protagonist, Francis Marion Tarwater, runs away from a prophetic career ordained by his deceased uncle until, unable to escape the call of God, he succumbs; he ends up drowning a young boy in order to save his soul, the enduring Christian symbol of death in life. O’Connor spent the last months of her life from 1963-1964, completing the stories that eventually were published in her 1965 posthumous collection, Everything that Rises Must Converge, the title derived from a key concept in the work of French Catholic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. These stories, like those of A Good Man is Hard to Find, feature familiar O’Connor protagonists, souls torn between heaven and hell, looking for solace in self-willed religion or high-handed and vain intellectualism.

Since her death, several volumes of her previously unpublished materials have been published that amplify the quality of her _ction and the nature of her achievement, as well as provide insight into her buoyant personality. At her death in 1964 O’Connor left behind a body of unpublished essays and addresses, as well as a number of critical articles that appeared in scattered publications during her lifetime. Mystery and Manners, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, and published in 1969, presents judicious and insightful essays by O’Connor on the role of Christian artist in an increasingly secular culture. The collection, The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, which brings together all of the stories in two her collections and her previously uncollected stories, won the National Book Award for _ction in 1971. The Habit of Being, published in 1979, is a collection of her letters from 1948 until her premature death in 1964 that presents an extraordinary look at O’Connor’s productive years as a writer. Increasingly immobile and con_ned, O’Connor found the mailbox her chief source of recreation and stimulation. Her _nal honor is being included in the venerable Library of America series, The Complete Works of Flannery O’Connor, published in 1988, a volume that includes her two novels, all of her stories, and selected essays and letters.

Few postmodern writers have written with as clear a vision of their audience as O’Connor did. For "the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling _gures," she said, alluding to the grotesque imagery she employed to communicate her Christian orthodoxy to readers no longer conversant with common Christian symbols. Her _ction was calculated to subvert the habitualization of Christian truth, to raise such notions as sin, redemption, and resurrection out of the realm of commonplaces and into the modern consciousness. For her there was no middle ground, no neutral corner, and her most admiring critics were often the irreligious intellectuals she often parodied in her _ction. Attempts have continually been made to categorize her _ction by some convenient pigeonhole: Southern Gothic, Catholic grotesque, the school of Southern degeneracy, and so on. But her work resists such facile generalization in the same way that all skilled artists resist it. Her themes, admittedly repetitious, were best suited to the medium of the short story, where her sharp, shocking characterization could have full impact upon the reader. But her recreations of the Southern disposition—its religiosity and its distinctive orality—was too vivid, her spiritual vision too piercing to be ultimately embodied by a single critical label. She continues to be among the most heavily anthologized women writers, and her reputation remains intact as one of the most important Southern writers of the twentieth century.

BIBLIOGRAPHICAL REFERENCES: O’Connor’s own posthumously published volumes, Mystery and Manners, 1969, and The Habit of Being, 1979, both illuminate her craft and narrative vision and are hard to surpass in giving the new reader of O’Connor insight into her purposes. A thoroughgoing biocritical study remains to be completed, but Harold Fickett’s Flannery O’Connor: Images of Grace, 1986, a brief but fresh overview of her life and work complete with compelling photographs, provides an interim solution. These volumes are especially incisive in interpreting O’Connor’s _ction: Robert Drake, Flannery O’Connor, 1966, an early monograph by a friend and correspondent of O’Connor’s, who makes a preliminary assessment of her place in American letters; John R. May, The Pruning Word, 1976, helpfully examines O’Connor uses of metaphor; Marion Montgomery, Why Flannery O’Connor Stayed Home, 1981, a witty, perceptive treatment of O’Connor’s collected _ction that attempts to place her within the Southern tradition; Frederick Asals, Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity, 1982, an expansive treatment of O’Connor’s use of grotesquery to portray her extreme vision of Christianity in the modern world. For further study, see Peter S. Hawkins, The Language of Grace, 1983 and Edward Kessler, Flannery O’Connor and the Language of Apocalypse, 1986, which both admirably elucidate the "anagogical vision" characteristic O’Connor’s narrative strategies. See also the interpretive insights of these older works: Josephine Hendin, The World of Flannery O’Connor, 1970; and David Eggenschweiler, The Christian Humanism of Flannery O’Connor, 1972.




Born: Birmingham, Alabama, May 28, 1916.

Died: Covington, Louisiana, May 10, 1990.

Principal Works

NOVELS: The Moviegoer, 1961; The Last Gentleman,

1966; Love in the Ruins, 1971; Lancelot, 1977; The

Second Coming, 1980; The Thanatos Syndrome, 1987.

ESSAYS: The Message in the Bottle, 1975; Lost in the

Cosmos, 1983; Signposts in a Strange Land, 1991.

Walker Percy is arguably the most important American novelist of ideas writing in the latter half of the twentieth century, his only rivals being, perhaps, John Updike or Saul Bellow. A traditionalist who laments the twentieth century’s loss of the perception of sin and its need for grace, Percy creates protagonists who search for the source of their alienation and melancholy in the most prosperous country on earth. Percy was born in Birmingham, Alabama on May 28, 1916, living a basically idyllic Southern childhood until his father’s suicide. Percy eloquently portrays the e_ect of his father’s death upon him in the character of Will Barrett, protagonist of his 1980 novel, The Second Coming. After his widowed mother’s death, the teen-aged Percy and his two brothers moved to Mississippi, where they were subsequently raised to manhood by their father’s _rst cousin, "Uncle Will" Percy, whose autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee (1942), was itself a Southern classic, portraying the proud South emerging from the ravages of the civil war.

Walker Percy had no intention of becoming a writer, making his way instead to Columbia University Medical School in 1938 to become a psychiatrist, after _nishing his B.A. at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Earning the M.D. in 1941, he attempted to complete his internship at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, and there contracted tuberculosis while performing autopsies on cadavers. This became pivotal in his career and in his life; while recovering in a sanatorium in upstate New York, read voraciously, particularly existentialist philosophy, including Søren Kierkegaard. The result was an improbable conversion to Christianity in 1943, and a decision to abandon medicine as a career and seek a vocation as a full-time writer.

Between 1943 and 1946, Percy attempted two forgettable novels, and eventually turned instead to studying and composing expository articles on language and linguistics, developing themes that would later undergird the thematic concerns of his novels. After marrying Mary Townsend in 1946 they both converted to Catholicism, and relocated to the South, near the quintessential southern city of New Orleans, Louisiana, subsisting on his inheritance from his uncle’s estate. During the 1950s, Percy published a number of learned essays in scholarly journals on linguistic theory and psychology, which eventually were gathered in the 1975 collection, The Message in the Bottle. He continued to dabble in _ction, but steered his narrative craft away from the towering _gure of William Faulkner and his convoluted regionalism toward a more direct, post-Southern genre of _ction. The result was Percy’s _rst published novel at age 45, The Moviegoer, a National Book Award winner deliberately patterned after the intense, philosophical novels of ideas by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, which Percy had discovered during his convalescence from tuberculosis. Binx Bolling, a young stockbroker from New Orleans, is the prototypical Percy protagonist: a brooding, alienated thinker, whose despair at the emptiness of modern life sets him on the "search" for God—and true transcendence.

Percy followed The Moviegoer with a longer, even more philosophical novel in 1966, The Last Gentleman, whose plot introduces Will Barrett, a troubled, confused young man in search of himself, who eventually _nds meaning in laying down his life for others. As Percy’s reputation as a formidable novelist of ideas grew, he upset expectations with his third novel, published in 1971, Love in the Ruins: a hilarious satire of modern technological life and the sham of modern psychiatry. Its protagonist, Dr. Tom More, is a thinly disguised recreation of Sir Thomas More and Percy himself, who dutifully skewers the false Utopias of Eastern religion, consumer capitalism, and errant liberal Catholicism.

As Percy continued to reap critical plaudits for his _ction, his non_ction essays were collected and published in The Message in the Bottle in 1975, astonishing his readers with their variety and their expertise in arcane linguistic and psychological theory; one essay in particular, "The Man on the Train," set forth Percy’s diagnosis of the malaise in American culture and the task of the novelist who wishes to restore a moral center. 1977 brought Percy’s fourth novel, the dark, disturbing Lancelot, the story of a vengeful husband, who murders his wife and her lover. Many critics regarded Lancelot as a too pessimistic diatribe against the values of the modern age: a sermon not a novel.

Attempting to write his _rst "nonalienated," or optimistic novel, Percy revived the character of Will Barrett for his 1980 book, The Second Coming. The now widowed Barrett _nds true love—and God—in a densely plotted, comic work that revealed a new emphasis of a_rmation in Percy that earned him back the critical respect he had lost with Lancelot. The critical and _nancial success of The Second Coming was rewarded by Percy’s publisher by bringing out his quirky, non_ction book, Lost in the Cosmos, or The Last Self-Help Book in 1983. Lost in the Cosmos was at once a satire of television talk-show hosts, a serious monograph on language and semiotics, and a brief for Christianity—delighting some critics and readers and confusing others.

In 1987, Percy published what many regard as his greatest achievement, The Thanatos Syndrome. This novel also revives a past Percy character, Dr. Tom More; fresh from a prison sentence for selling drugs to truck drivers, he discovers a _endish plot to anesthetize the populace by drugging the drinking water of Feliciana Parish in Louisiana. Set in the 1990s, The Thanatos Syndrome represents Percy’s strongest warning yet against a potential holocaust in Western culture because of its creeping acceptance of situational ethics at the expense of eternal moral standards that regard human life as meaningful and precious. Percy’s last work, published posthumously, Signposts in a Strange Land, is a compendium of his non_ction essays, talks, and some letters to the editor that capture the _avor of his public persona, and con_rm his commitment to an ethics of _ction that sets him apart from most of his contemporaries.

In his _ction Percy has attempted to place the mystery of mankind’s origin and the place of language in solving it—speci_cally, man’s ability to make symbol and metaphor—at the center of his male protagonists’ search for ful_llment and meaning. What separates Percy from other, more pretentious writers of philosophical _ction is his keen sense of everydayness, the vivid capturing of the details of modern life. Readers recognize—and are embarrassed by—the familiar icons Percy trots out to underscore the a_uent, unburdened life most Americans lead when compared with the less fortunate. His protagonists are inevitably forced to "_nd themselves" by supplanting the status quo, shattering the illusions of goodness and mercy built into the twentieth century’s worship of self. And Percy’s uncompromising boldness in proclaiming the lost values of loyalty to one’s family and one’s native land—Percy refuses to countenance the blanket charges of racism and sexism consistently brought against the South—strikes many readers as refreshing and liberating in a time of doctrinaire liberal posturing. Percy has thus become the most widely admired and critically acclaimed Christian writer of last decades of this century, sharing with such notables as Flannery O’Connor, Shusaku Endo, and Graham Greene, the mantle of orthodox Catholic novelist.

BIBLIOGRAPHICAL REFERENCES: The best single biographical resource on Percy’s life and work is Jay Tolson’s new biography of Percy, Pilgrim in the Ruins, 1992. Also notable is the contribution of his friend, Robert Coles’s Walker Percy: An American Search, 1978, and the collection of Percy interviews, Lewis Lawson and Victor A. Kramer, eds., Conversations with Walker Percy, 1985. Likewise, Percy’s The Message in the Bottle, 1975, provides uncanny insights into his view of the would-be Christian novelist’s responsibility. In the interim, while Percy scholars await a full-scale critical biography, the following studies will prove valuable and insightful: Jerome Taylor, In Search of Self: Life and Death and Walker Percy, 1986, is perhaps the single best expository introduction to Percy’s _ction and main themes; Martin Luschei, The Sovereign Wayfarer: Walker Percy’s Diagnosis of the Malaise, 1972, an early critical study, and William Rodney Allen, Walker Percy: A Southern Wayfarer, 1986, a more recent one, both focus on Percy’s use of the "wayfarer" theme in his novels; Panthea Reid Broughton, ed., The Art of Walker Percy: Stratagems for Being, 1979, a compendium of rich, informed criticism on Percy’s _ction. For further study consult Patricia L. Poteat, Walker Percy and the Old Modern Age, 1985, a _awed but provocative inquiry into the alleged "dualism" operating between Percy’s _ction and his linguistic theories; Peter S. Hawkins, The Language of Grace, 1983, o_ers a lucid discussion of Percy’s narrative strategies in presenting grace to a secular audience; "Special Issue on Walker Percy," Renascence, XL (Winter, 1988), containing six important essays on Percy’s later _ction and his language theorizing, including my "The Linguist as Castaway: Walker Percy’s Semiotic Apologetics."