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Flannery O'Connor is unique. There is no one like her. You can't lump her with Faulkner, you can't lump her with Walker Percy, you can't lump her with anyone." So proclaims novelist Alice McDermott about Flannery O'Connor's place in the American canon of literature. Her statement echoes many of the novelists, artists, and literary critics who were asked the same question, all part of a feature length documentary called Flannery O'Connor. Higher Mathematics. Part biography and part an exploration of some of O'Connor's stories, the film offers a glimpse of her remarkable achievement in American arts and letters. My colleague, Elizabeth Coffman, and I, along with many collaborators along the way, began what turned out to be a six-year project to create a film biography which we hoped would be worthy of O'Connor's singular life. Four aspects of her life converge in the film: faith, race, gender, and disability. O'Connor was a devout and intellectually formed Roman Catholic; a person of white privilege during the dismantling of the Jim Crow South; a serious fiction writer in a predominantly male world of writers and publishers; and a person challenged by the autoimmune disease lupus erythematosus. Our film places her amidst the social changes that happened during and following World War II, especially as women entered the workforce and the civil rights movement came to dominate the nation's conscience. Her work vividly portrays narratives of cultural conflict in a nation "haunted" by religious belief.

This film project, funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, is distilled from interviews, ranging from O'Connor's family and close friends, to contemporary American writers and critics inspired by her work. Now in postproduction, the documentary will premiere in the coming year. It is an honor to present a rough cut of the film as part of this year's Schwartz Lecture at Marquette University. I would like to share a bit of the genesis of making the documentary, and then reflect on some of the discoveries from the many interviews and archival work we did. Having started this as a labor of love many years ago, we are now struck with how timely and relevant O'Connor's fiction is in the context of our twenty-first century cultural conflicts. The rise of white supremacy movements in America suggests that her work is even more important now than perhaps at any other time since her untimely death in 1964.

Like many creative endeavors, the film's inspiration came from friends talking about their love for Flannery O'Connor, how both her fiction and her life--particularly as revealed through her letters collected by Sally Fitzgerald in The Habit of Being--had a transformative effect on many of us. In the late 1990s, my friend, the film and television producer Christopher O'Hare, began writing a one-woman play about O'Connor called "The King of the Birds" based on her volume of letters. Having befriended O'Connor's literary executor and friend, Sally Fitzgerald, during his undergraduate years at Harvard, O'Hare decided to interview for his play--and for posterity's sake--as many of O'Connor's family and acquaintances that he could find. He sat down with Fitzgerald first, and then many of the people whose letters fill The Habit of Being: the publisher Robert Giroux, and friends such as William Sessions, Ashley Brown, Louise Abbot, and Mary Barbara Tate, to name only a few of them. O'Hare's most fascinating interview, though, occurred with the Danish man Erik Langkjaer, the Harcourt-Brace salesman for whom O'Connor had romantic feelings and who would become the inspiration for the character Manley Pointer in her short story "Good Country People." Many of these notable figures have since passed away and it is a credit to O'Hare's foresight that he made this effort to document their memories of O'Connor. In 2005 O'Hare shared with me the unedited film and transcripts from this initial work, suggesting that these be the foundation for a future film on O'Connor's life.

It was not until 2012 that we began to realize our plan. With the help of my colleague, Elizabeth Coffman, a professor of documentary filmmaking at Loyola University Chicago and an avid fan of O'Connor's work, we began putting together a list of artists, critics, performers and directors who had written or spoken about O'Connor's significance. We thought this the best way to construct a film that would integrate O'Hare 's more biographical pieces. That we had this footage helped to convince many people to agree to be interviewed, not the least of whom was Sally Fitzgerald's son, Michael, a screenwriter and producer of John Houston's film adaptation of Wise Blood. Travelling around the country, we interviewed artists and performers as diverse as Alice Walker, Tommy Lee Jones, Tobias Wolff, Alice McDermott, Mary Karr, and Mary Gordon; we talked about O'Connor's work with cultural critics such as Richard Rodriguez and The New Yorker columnist Hilton Als; and we discussed O'Connor's life with biographers Brad Gooch and Angela Alaimo O'Donnell, who both recently published well-regarded works on O'Connor life. In all, we accumulated over forty hours of interviews.

With the further help and support of the Mary Flannery O'Connor Trust and the special collections department at Emory University, where the O'Connor archives are now housed, we were allowed to photograph everything we found in the boxes for possible use in the film. To see--and to touch--the physical objects of her life and to photograph them for the documentary made O'Connor present to us in a profound way. We unearthed never-before-seen early photos of her as a child and her childhood storybooks that she created for her family. But the biggest treasure was found in the bottom of a particular box, a Sterling notebook, standard issue for students in college, inscribed with the words "Higher Mathematics." It was O'Connor's earliest attempt at a journal, when she was just eighteen years old. We knew that the journal existed from O'Hare's interview with Sally Fitzgerald and private conversations with William Sessions, but no one had ever been privy to it before. A mere thirty pages long, the diary reveals a young Mary Flannery O'Connor as a Milledgeville college student. It complements, in many ways, O'Connor's recently published Prayer Journal (2013) written only a year or two after she had tried her hand with this one.

One speculates that O'Connor called the journal "Higher Mathematics" as part of a disguise to keep her mother, Regina, from snooping around and reading it. Indeed, the first entry is a humorous poem to bring this point home:
To whom so e'er would care to roam
The hallowed pages of this tome
Be off to find some better pastime
Or this will be the very last time
You will indulge the morbid dizziness
Of minding other people's business. Amen. (Image 67)

That O'Connor has her mother in mind is evident from an entry 30 days later, as she frets, "I want a lock for it more and more. It makes me nervous lying around. The way she watches me--the way she is always trying to--I don't know what--but it is driving to a white heat that can't be relieved" (76). One gets a feel for O'Connor's voice at such a young age, as well as the tension that a teenager would feel under her mother's watchful eye.

And yet the title "Higher Mathematics" serves to highlight the metaphysical concerns of O'Connor's Catholic faith and the theological vision that propelled many of her stories. Despite the occasional humor, one finds in reading the journal that there is something metaphorically apt in the title, a sense of higher mathematics, an awareness of a higher purpose in the calculus of her desire to be an artist. She wanted the artist's life more than anything else, possibly even more than the vocation of family life and romantic love: "If I loved anyone as much or more than myself and he were to leave, I would be too unhappy to want myself to advance; as it is, I look forward to many profitable hours. I have so much to do that it scares me" (69). As to what sort of artist she could be, she notes in one entry that "Today, I am devoted to realism. I will become a realist... I must write a novel," but a day later begins the entry with, "Today I envision myself a cartoonist--block printer of national repute" (70-71). The journal--and its title--contains in nascent form all the elements of O'Connor's personality. We even glimpse her struggles with arthritis, probably the first sign of the lupus that had already taken her father away from her only three years earlier. This arthritis would later be diagnosed as lupus when she was twenty-five years old, after a harrowing train ride from Connecticut to Atlanta, Georgia in 1950. Playing throughout the documentary are excerpts from both "Higher Mathematics" and A Prayer Journal in order to underscore the depth of O'Connor's vocation, articulated through a distinctively Catholic spirituality.

It goes without saying by both fans and critics alike that O'Connor's religious faith is central to her literary vision. The film struggles to find a way to honor her Catholic intellectual and imaginative world as part of the greatness of her work, all the while acknowledging that many who watch the film in a national broadcast will have no understanding of Catholicism or be dismissive of religious faith altogether. Throughout her whole life O'Connor immersed herself in the currents of the twentieth-century Catholic revival, a hermeneutic that touched upon not only Catholic philosophy and theology, but literary aesthetics, as well. She maintained that "I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic... However, I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty" (HB 90). The critics and artists interviewed for the film spoke of O'Connor's faith as an essential component that shaped her fiction, but we grappled with how to narrate visually the intellectual ferment of Catholicism and its larger historical moment in modern American life during the years when O'Connor was writing. The Canadian novelist and literary critic Randy Boyagoda was helpful in his responses by suggesting we look at the horror of the twentieth century as a way to understand the rise of Catholic thought in its middle decades. A generation of writers who came of age during the rise of totalitarian regimes, world wars, and the terror of the Jewish and atomic holocausts, questioned the purpose of humanity as never before, looking for a higher order account of human purpose. Boyagoda notes that O'Connor's Catholicism, "peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness," blended the truths of medieval metaphysics with modern, existential categories. O'Connor's Catholicism became an asset for her in assessing the crises of modernity, and as a way for her to rearticulate the transcendental call to human flourishing. Her Southern gothic vision was informed by this Catholic cultural moment. As O'Connor herself notes to Betty Hester, "To possess this [sense of crisis] within the Church is to bear a burden, the necessary burden of the conscious Catholic. It's to feel the contemporary situation at the ultimate level" (HB 90).

To capture this idea, we have included images that reinforce this existential crisis--fascist mobs of the 1940s, bomb footage from World War II, an atomic bomb blast, and also images of concomitant societal changes in the United States during and after the war, such as women military volunteers (the WAVES that invaded O'Connor's college during the war years) and the social displacement of peoples. Though Thomas Aquinas is mentioned once in the film, we spend more time exploring how O'Connor's existentially "Catholic" sense of modernity undergirds many of her stories and characters, from "The Temple of the Holy Ghost" and "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," to her novel Wise Blood. We were fortunate that Michael Fitzgerald gave us permission to use clips from the John Houston film, making Wise Blood an important section of the documentary that dramatizes the spiritual stakes inherent in O'Connor's vision.

As the work on the documentary became more involved through the many interviews and rough cuts of the film, and in our own reading and re-reading of her stories, it became clear that we had to tackle forthrightly O'Connor and racism. As a white woman of some privilege, she lived through the last years of the Jim Crow South and the rigid class system of peoples that it engendered. She was slow to grasp the magnitude of the developing civil rights movement and its effect on the country. Though comfortable acknowledging that O'Connor was shaped by the racist and segregated world in which she lived, I was concerned that we find a critical way to interrogate the complexity of racism in her life, her work, and in her manners. Many of those we interviewed helped show the range of this complexity, the effect of which made race a much larger aspect of the film than I first thought it would be. Biographer Brad Gooch, for instance, relays how O'Connor tells a friend that she became an integrationist on a bus ride from Georgia to Iowa in 1948, after seeing how an African American woman was forced to leave her seat and move to the back of the bus. Sally Fitzgerald, Alice Walker, and Hilton Als all comment on O'Connor's use of the N-word in her short-story "The Artificial Nigger," the rightness in standing up for her title and the nuance that she is asking from her readers. We found archival footage of the African American choreographer Bill T. Jones, who adapted the story into a dance sequence, explaining why he thought the story a worthy exploration of how we learn to be racist. And we interviewed the New York stage director Karin Koonrod, who has staged O'Connor's story "Everything That Rises Must Converge" as a post-Rosa Parks bus ride through Atlanta. It made me realize more than ever that the question of race was everywhere in O'Connor's work.

As to race and Southern manners, the film doesn't hide the fact that O'Connor used the N-word in her banter with her friend, the artist and playwright Maryat Lee. They would address themselves in humorous, even audacious salutations. Sally Fitzgerald focuses on the way the N-word is used by O'Connor to poke fun of Maryat's liberal activism, when she writes to Maryat, "Dear Nigger-loving New York White Woman." The hidden insult, according to Fitzgerald, is the "New York White Woman."

But perhaps the interview with critic and professor Bruce Gentry from O'Connor's alma mater, Georgia State College in Milledgeville, was particularly helpful to us in finding a way to understand how race operates in O'Connor's life and work. He comments that O'Connor is the best American fiction writer for "recovering racists, of learning not to be a racist," implying that anyone who unconsciously lives within the categories of white privilege is, in fact, always recovering from the latent effects of racism: "Recovering from white racism takes a long time," Gentry notes, and O'Connor would have included herself in this recovery. Indeed, her stories are shocking and revolutionary in the way they bring home to her readers the assumptions of whiteness. Whether it is Mrs. McIntyre in "The Displaced Person" or Ruby Turpin in "Revelation," her characters are always caught up short by their deformed understanding of status and race.

What we discovered from among the many writers and artists we interviewed was their admiration not only for O'Connor's craft, but for the uniqueness of her voice in American literature. Alice McDermott, as noted above, speaks about O'Connor's gift as sui generis: "there hasn't been anyone like her before, or anybody like her since in American fiction," she observes. The writer Tobias Wolff says he discussed O'Connor's work with his M.F.A. students at Stanford, encouraging them to wrestle with O'Connor's brilliance, not in order to imitate her, but rather to see the emotional impact that fiction can produce. "One needs to go through Flannery O'Connor's work, not around it," he says. Or as O'Connor's editor Robert Giroux simply exclaims in O'Hare 's interview with him, "she was a genius!"

As the film approaches completion, the work of editing it has not been done in a vacuum. Over the last couple of years, the activist movement "Black Lives Matter" has marched in cities around the world campaigning against the violence and systemic racism towards black people. In the summer of 2017 there was a rise in neo-Nazi white supremacist organizations looking for legitimacy in speeches and marches. We have come to a time in our culture where reading Flannery O'Connor's stories offers us more than the rhetoric of politics and ideology. Her art draws us into the mysterious gray area of modern life, where the brokenness of our human condition plays out in parable-like dramas of violence and redemption. Novelist Mary Gordon judges that "Flannery O'Connor is one of the few writers who is not afraid to look into the darkness." That darkness, what O'Connor might call the burden of original sin, haunts us today. O'Connor's stories are redemptive acts because they send us, the readers, to look inside ourselves, where "something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored" (MM 48).


O'Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Mariners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1970.

--. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1979.

--. "Higher Mathematics." Image Journal, No. 94, Fall 2017.
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Author:Mark Bosco, S.J.
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2018

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