A slighted writer's new label: genius

The works of the Southern writer have become so well-loved that her Georgia alma mater is naming this 'The Year of Flannery O'Connor.

Ideas: The Academy

April 30, 2000|By Cox News Service

MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. -- She likely would have thought it silly, but they're naming a year after her, anyway.

In Milledgeville, where she grew up, studied and wrote many of her most enduring works, 2000 is "The Year of Flannery O'Connor."

The declaration was made by Georgia College & State University, O'Connor's alma mater. Throughout this year, the school is sponsoring a variety of events celebrating the life and themes of the famous writer.

On March 25, which would have been O'Connor's 75th birthday (she died in 1964 at the age of 39), there was a party to mark both her memory and the release of a new book, "Flannery O'Connor: In Celebration of Genius." The book is a compilation of tributes to O'Connor by writers influenced by her works or by her personally.

The university also has sponsored a series of seminars, "Southern Cultures," in which nationally recognized experts have spoken about the region upon which O'Connor drew so heavily.

This month, an exhibit sponsored by the university's art department went up featuring paintings by California artist Laura Lasworth, whose works were inspired by O'Connor's writings. This fall, O'Connor's works will be celebrated in the annual Arts and Letters Festival sponsored by the university's English department.

All the fuss is further evidence of O'Connor's enduring and increasingly prominent place in American literature, says English professor Sarah Gordon, an O'Connor scholar.

"The increase in her popularity has amazed us," Gordon says. "She's become almost a cult figure."

In academia, it is becoming common to find one or more of O'Connor's stories among the required readings in basic literature courses, Gordon says. She is the editor of The Flannery O'Connor Bulletin, a 26-year-old literary journal published at the Milledgeville college, and this fall, her study of O'Connor's works will be published in a book, "Flannery O'Connor: The Obedient Imagination."

The O'Connor boom has spread far beyond the literary world, Gordon says. Celebrities including Bruce Springsteen, Tommy Lee Jones, Holly Hunter, the rock group U2 and avant-garde film director John Waters all have commented in recent years on how they've been influenced by O'Connor's works. O'Connor also has legions of intensely devoted fans in Europe and especially in Japan, Gordon says.

"It's the greatest tribute a writer can have, that people see the world the way she saw it," Gordon says.

Many of O'Connor's characters were rural Southerners, and her plots sometimes included twists of violence or bizarre humor. Gordon said that led some to dismiss her writing as Southern Gothic and her characters as "grotesques."

That frustrated O'Connor, who said such labeling made her feel "like Tar Baby stuck to Br'er Rabbit," Gordon says. But her enduring popularity indicates that most readers find something much deeper in her work, Gordon added.

"The majority of people find something spiritually compelling about her work," she said. "She deals with issues people know they need to think about. She jolts them back into a sense of their own dependence on God."

Gordon edited "Flannery O'Connor: In Celebration of Genius." Some of the contributing authors knew O'Connor, while others wrote of how her life and work helped shape theirs.

Brett Lott, South Carolina-based author of "Jewel" and other novels and stories, wrote that O'Connor's essay "The Nature and Aim of Fiction" became for him "the cornerstone for my writing life."

O'Connor said writers needed to have "a grain of stupidity," or something that caused them to stare at life. Such observations, Lott wrote, have "taught me to battle the sad and blinded belief that at times I knew what I was doing."

Robert Coles, a Harvard University medical school professor of psychiatry and medical humanities, wrote about how and why he teaches O'Connor to medical students.

Coles quoted one of his students who was deeply touched by O'Connor: "You read her, and she won't let go of you! She has you thinking of your real rock-bottom self -- who you are and what you believe."

Nancy Mairs, whose autobiography, "Waist-High in the World: A Life Among the Nondisabled," describes her struggle with multiple sclerosis, writes of how she was inspired by O'Connor, who was stricken with lupus for her last 14 years. "You got on with the life your illness shaped for you," Mairs wrote.

Mairs, who never met O'Connor, quoted a line of a poem that the deeply religious O'Connor sent to a friend about a month before she died: "Raphael, Angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for." And in a postscript, Mairs added, "And so I close this letter in the hope that you and I will meet, happily and soon."

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