God-haunted

Flannery O’Connor’s Vision of the Southern Gothic and the Horror of Belief

American Christianity is a strange creature.

Europeans with their ancient cathedrals and monarchial institutions gloat about their supposed state of having outgrown religion entirely while sneering down upon us doe-eyed Americans with our mega-churches and Bible Belts.

The symbols of American Christianity are uncanny: the face of whitewashed Jesus, billboards emanating messages of rapture and warnings of imminent hell, cartoon white doves, and Bible verse-printed t-shirts.

In the mid-twentieth century, a writer came along whose prose cut to the crux of it all. Her name was Flannery O’Connor: young, a bit of an outlier, and unapologetically Catholic. And regarding America’s religious dilemma, she had some things to say.

Flannery posing beside a self-portrait (with one of her pheasants).

Flannery O’Connor was not a nice Christian woman.

Her stories were decidedly unfeminine, and certainly not nice. Good-hearted children, virginal women, and righteous men are absent: in their stead are violently racist townsfolk, voyeuristic loners, and serial killers on the lam.

“I am very happy right now writing a story in which I plan for the heroine, aged 63, to be gored by a bull,” Flannery wrote a friend in 1956. “I am not convinced yet that this is purgation or whether I identify myself with her or the bull.”

(Flannery later described the bull as “the pleasantest character in the story.”)

That story, “Greenleaf,” is only one amongst the menagerie of grotesque stories written by O’Connor from her young adulthood in 1946 to her death from lupus in 1965. A headline review upon the initial publication of her first novel, Wise Blood, dismissed the book as “Manic Gloom.”

Flannery’s own mother begged her daughter’s publisher to convince her to write about “nice people.” Flannery herself deliberated sending a copy of Wise Blood to her 82-year-old cousin:

“I thought it’s going to kill her, she’ll have a heart attack or a stroke or something and I’ll go around with her on my conscience for the rest of my life. But it didn’t do anything to her…She sat right down and wrote me a letter beginning, ‘I do not like your book. There is enough trouble and misery in the world without your adding to it.’”

Trouble and misery: two sentiments that reverberate throughout O’Connor’s body of work.

The city of Savannah, 1830s. Image from the Georgia Historical Society.

Anti-Catholicism is one of America’s longest-held traditions.

It emigrated to North American soil alongside the pilgrims and settled in the South with the English colonies.

In Georgia, one of the oldest of those colonies (named after King George himself), Catholicism was banned outright.

With Flannery O’Connor’s birthplace being Savannah, Georgia — the oldest established city in the state — it’s little wonder that contradictory strangeness seeped into her imagination.

Though situated firmly in the Traditionally Protestant American South, Savannah has a rich religious diversity. John Wesley founded Methodism there (a bronze statue of him glowers in Reynolds Square). It’s home to the oldest Black church in the United States (First African Baptist Church, established in 1777). And although like Catholics, Jews were prohibited in Savannah, many of Savannah’s earliest settlers were Jewish and refused to relinquish their faith: a monument stands now in what is one of Savannah’s original Jewish burial grounds.

The Catholicism in Savannah traces its origin to its Irish settlers, many of whom came to the city in the late 18th century as indentured servants and manual laborers. The oldest Catholic building in the city, St. John the Baptist Cathedral — the parish that the O’Connors belonged to — is now a staple of Savannah’s architecture. Its teal, cross-topped spires and gilded white frame were eternally visible from the windows of Flannery’s childhood bedroom.

As for the grotesque, well, Savannah — with a bloody history rife with duels, disease, wars, hurricanes, suicides, enslavement, public executions, curses, and black magic — has more than her fair share of the odd and uncanny.

Though Flannery lived most of her adult life in Milledgeville, Georgia (a small, rural town about two and half hours from Savannah’s coastline), the impact of her childhood surroundings had no doubt burrowed comfortably into her psyche: unshakeable, like the Faith that she believed was relentless.

The effectiveness of Southern Gothic fiction hinges on a fascination with and a horror of religiosity — a specific type of religiosity at that.

“I think it’s safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted,” Flannery once mused. “The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he has been made in the image and likeness of God.”

Posthumously O’Connor’s work has been bestowed the laurel of Southern Gothic, a description she eschewed. She proudly defined her writing as grotesque, which she attributed to that disagreeable combination of being Southern and Catholic.

“The word gothic means nothing to me,” she insisted. “I always use the word grotesque.”

For other Christians, death is a subject usually avoided or, when it occurs (as it is wont to do, eventually) it’s draped in niceties, accompanied by cheerful psalms and unchallenged promises of a bright, golden heaven. The Catholic faith emphasizes a keen awareness of mortality and fallibility; like the anti-transcendentalists, Catholics are attuned to the evil that man is capable of, to the fruits of human corruption.

The sharing of Christ’s body and blood, relics and Incorruptibles, exorcism rites and demonology: Catholic rituals and cultural traditions, to the outsider’s eye, are strange, morbid, and, occasionally, horrific.

Photo from a stage adaptation of “Good Country People” by Duke University.

Flannery’s story “Good Country People” introduces the reader to the Hopewells, Mrs. Hopewell and her adult daughter Hulga who live together in the rural South. Their humdrum daily routine is interrupted by the appearance of a suave young traveling Bible salesman.

In a 1955 letter to her close friends Caroline and Allen Tate, Flannery expresses some thoughts on her story and her identification with the characters therein: “As for Hulga, I just by the grace of God escaped being her; the Bible salesman also came without effort. I am mighty afraid he is my hidden character.”

Hulga is a protagonist with little charm. In fact, she tries her best to make sure that you don’t like her. Stodgy and equipped with a false leg, she’s determined to impress her intelligence upon everyone she meets. Astutely, O’Connor states that “she was brilliant but didn’t have a grain of sense.”

The Bible salesman is a curious and insistent figure. He is reluctantly invited into the Hopewell home, lugging with him a prominent suitcase. He observes to Mrs. Hopewell that her living room is Bible-free, though he insists that “every line of her face” is Christian.

Assuming that the Bible salesman is a naïve idiot, Hulga makes up her mind to seduce him in the hayloft of the barn. Once she’s entrapped him there, he insists that she removes her false leg, which she obliges. Then he opens his suitcase: inside are two Bibles, one of which has been hollowed out to fit a flask, a box of condoms, and a deck of cards with pornographic imagery on the back.

After Hulga refuses further advances from him, he flees with her leg. Enraged and confused, Hulga manages to sputter:

“You’re a Christian…You’re a fine Christian! You’re just like them all — say one thing and do another. You’re a perfect Christian…”

A smiling Flannery in the Iowa snow.

In her first year studying at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Flannery began a prayer journal.

It was her first experience living outside of Georgia. She was exposed to the bitter Midwest winter, an expanse of good literature, and a litany of perspectives that differed from her familiar domain.

Besides making a personal oath to become a writer, in her journal Flannery pleaded to God to make her, above all else, “intelligently holy.” To O’Connor, separating Reason from Faith was not only dangerous, but a futile endeavor.

“A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do,” she asserted more than a decade later, deep into her writing career. “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.”

Belief, then, to O’Connor, is not a comfortable thing. It’s not security; it’s a liability of sorts.

Of course, O’Connor was not lenient in her criticisms of those who shared her faith. She scorned “unimaginative and half-dead Catholics who would be startled to know the nature of what they defend by formula.” In a letter to Cecil Dawkins, a friend of hers who taught literature, she expresses her disdain for these “by the rule” Catholics:

…They don’t really have faith but a kind of false certainty…It’s never hard for them to believe because actually they never think about it. Faith has to take in all the other possibilities it can.

Fundamentalism — a belief system that demands no doubts — is a fast track to cynicism and distrust.

No reasonable person can thrive for very long under such restrictive thought suppression. When fundamentalism is ingrained in someone as the only way to the truth and the only real way to experience God, it’s hardly shocking when that someone denounces and rails against faith traditions entirely.

But humans have a strange, unshakeable inclination to believe. When that belief isn’t utilized in religion, for instance, it’s transferred. Astrology and numerology, psychedelics, sex, politics — every person yearns to put their faith in something. We’re all too aware of the hypocrisy of certain religious figures; yet lapsed Catholics and neo-Atheists alike fawn over political leaders and knot their identities to their chosen political ideologies, regardless of the corporate corruption, sexual abuse scandals, and abuse of power that run deep in those same institutions.

At times it appears to be nothing more than a cultural argument over who has the least amount of faith, to declare how unshackled one is from all lingering traces of Belief, the last stumbling block on the path to complete human freedom.

It’s an echo of Flannery O’Connor’s traveling Bible salesman’s manifesto:

“‘You ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!’”

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