Understanding The Hillbilly Thomist: The Philosophical Foundations of Flannery O’Connor’s Narrative Art 
By Fr. Damian Ference.
Word on Fire, 2023. 
Paperback, 280 pages, $24.95.

Reviewed by Henry T. Edmondson III.

By her own admission, Flannery O’Connor was influenced by St. Thomas Aquinas and, secondarily, by Aristotle. Accordingly, Aquinas provides the framework for a new and impressive book on Flannery O’Connor by Fr. Damian Ference, who teaches philosophy and theology at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio. The title comes from O’Connor’s own self-reflective remark about her first novel, when she said, “Everyone who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas I would like to create the impression . . . that I’m a hillbilly Thomist.”

Hillbilly Thomist is closely organized around several principle areas of Thomistic thought. The introduction, “Foundations,” is worth the price of admission as it is one of the best summaries of the O’Connor-Thomas connection available. Among other things, Ference explains O’Connor’s interest in Jacques Maritain, her use of Anton C. Pegis’s Introduction to Saint Thomas Aquinas, and consideration of the manner in which O’Connor’s art provides philosophical insight to its readers. 

Chapters Two through Four are effectively arranged: each chapter begins with an exposition of Aquinas’s thought, followed by material drawn from O’Connor’s correspondence and prose that reflects that material. The latter third of each chapter features selections from O’Connor’s fiction that evinces the Thomistic thought under consideration. Some of the connections are more easily drawn than others, but all are plausible.

In respect to the theological and philosophical material, the reader may feel that he or she is in Ference’s classroom and occasionally may wonder if some of that discourse might be condensed; however, in this case, too much is probably preferable to too little. The sources for St. Thomas’s thought are primarily drawn from, but are not limited to, the Summa Theologiae, Summa contra Gentiles, and Quaestiones disputatae de veritate. Aristotle’s works include the Nicomachean Ethics, the Physics, the Metaphysics, and De anima. 

In respect to O’Connor’s fiction, Chapter Two, “The Metaphysics of Flannery O’Connor,” ends with her short story “The River,” which deals with a young boy inspired by the promise of water baptism. Chapter Three, “The Epistemology of Flannery O’Connor,” cleverly includes O’Connor’s essay on her hobby of raising peacocks, “King of the Birds.” It is also within this chapter that Ference includes an excellent explanation of O’Connor’s interest in the priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin. Finally, the chapter ends with an insightful discussion of “Parker’s Back,” a short story from O’Connor’s first anthology.

Chapter Four addresses O’Connor’s ethics and rightfully explains O’Connor’s commitment, intellectually and personally, to Christian purity and demonstrates what concerned O’Connor about Nietzsche, namely that the “death of God” may be hastened by the promotion of sexual intemperance. In this chapter Ference sensitively describes what he calls O’Connor’s “celibacy,” which for the Southern writer may not have been chosen, but necessitated—and accepted—by her health, circumstances, and time-limited vocation as a writer. The chapter ends with the short story, “The Displaced Person,” also from her first anthology. Chapter Five is a pleasing afterward, an opportunity to acquaint oneself with Ference’s aspirations for this endeavor, a project that grew from his dissertation for the licentiate.

In the chapter on O’Connor’s ethics, Ference understandably feels he must address O’Connor and the question of her attitude toward the black race, especially since Georgetown Fellow Paul Elie wrote an unfortunate essay on the subject in the June 2020 New Yorker. Undoubtedly hoping to avoid the crossfire, Ference confines his discussion to a long endnote. This may have been the best tactic, but it comes at a cost because in doing so, he doesn’t leave himself sufficient space to adequately explain his position. Drawing upon Thomistic moral philosophy, he suggests that O’Connor struggled with “the sin of racism” when her “passions” displaced her “intellect” and thus overcame her “will.”

As in too many allegations of “racism,” however, Ference does not define the term, nor the “sin of racism.” Does racism consist of idle chatter, private conversation, and a bad joke? Or is it something more substantial and pernicious in which the racist individual believes that a certain class of people or an entire ethnic group are morally and intellectually inferior to others? If I dislike the company of Tibetans, does that constitute racism? At the end of the footnote, Ference recommends Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s 2020 Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor. O’Donnell’s is a sympathetic look at this issue, but at times is muddled as any book beginning with “Whiteness Critical Theory” is likely to be. Her multi-disciplinary attempt to clarify O’Connor’s racial dispositions obscures as often as it illuminates. 

Ference does suggest that O’Connor was making progress in her struggle; her final short story “Revelation” is an indication of that success. Ference makes reference to “some scholars” who think that the story’s protagonist, Mrs. Turpin, might be all about O’Connor herself. Indeed, identifying O’Connor’s characters with the writer, her mother, or her second-cousin-twice-removed, is a game of literary charades that has been the delight of academic parlor games for decades. Her characters, however, are just as likely to be taken from “the bus station,” as she once explained. 

But if conversion can be measured in the chronological sequence of her fiction, one must also consider the more powerful short story “The Artificial Nigger,” from her first anthology in which the black race is granted the honorific role of sharing in the sufferings of Christ, an experience which in turn releases grace for the flawed white race. Again, Ference may be correct in his diagnosis of O’Connor’s moral evolution, but it is hard to know in the space of an endnote. Perhaps he might revisit the subject in a future essay.

Fr. Ference is a close reader of O’Connor’s fiction. For example, he offers keen observations in his exegesis of “The River,” highlighting the “skeletal” metaphors as instances of memento mori, anticipating the story’s conclusion. At the same time, he follows others who detect psychosexual symbols in O’Connor’s fiction; this erotic code-breaking, however, is often bogus, and in a volume as important as this one, it is entirely unnecessary. Speculation about a “foot-long peppermint stick” only detracts from Ference’s otherwise serious analysis.

Ference asserts that “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” about an unexpected pregnancy is filled with subtle references to sexuality. He writes,

[T]he staircase where most of the story takes place has ‘twenty-eight steps in each flight—twenty-eight,’ a reference to what in O’Connor’s time was thought to be the number of days in a normal menstrual cycle; six-year-old Hartley Gilfeet’s toy gun, which Ruby accidently sits on is described as ‘nine inches of treacherous tin’; and we are told that Hartley’s late father was named ‘Rodman.’” 

Perhaps there is something to the “twenty-eight steps,” perhaps not. But, even in prose as economical as O’Connor’s, everything is not a nod toward something else. O’Connor once offered a mild rebuke to an English class who wrote her asking the meaning of the Misfit’s black hat in her short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Apparently, the teacher and students had spent the better part of a week trying to decipher its meaning. O’Connor responded, “The purpose of the hat is to cover his head.” She then added, “Sometimes you folks strain the soup too thin.” 

Ference joins others in asserting that the name of the Bible salesman in “Good Country People,” Manley Pointer, is consciously sexualized by the author. Fr. Ference is certainly not the first to claim this spurious eureka moment. I am at least grateful that, in Ference’s discussion of peacocks, he does not follow the critic Nagueyalti Warren who suggests, that, so far from being a symbol of the resurrection, as O’Connor naively thought, the peafowl is a “recurring motif in Indian erotic painting, and the eye, according to Jung, is an archetype for female genitalia.”

Granted, O’Connor may have been something of an outlier in the cohort of Southern women of her day, but when she describes sexual events—certainly by today’s standards—her writing is tactful and unambiguous. These instances include a tryst in Wise Blood, a violation in The Violent Bear It Away, and Hulga’s romp in the hay loft in “Good Country People.” As Fr. Ference rightly explains, O’Connor saw in the deterioration of our common culture the symptoms of sexual excess and ugliness and, at times, she indeed addressed that cultural decline in her fiction, prose, and correspondence. He also beautifully writes that O’Connor’s outstanding characteristic in this area was “purity.”

O’Connor once chided the late William B. Sessions, a Regents Professor of Literature at Georgia State University, when he claimed to have unearthed several sexual motifs lurking  in her second novel The Violent Bear It Away. O’Connor wrote, “[Y]ou see everything in terms of sex symbols, and in a way that would not enter my head—the lifted bough, the fork of the tree, the corkscrew. It doesn’t seem to be conceivable to you that such things merely have a natural place in the story, a natural use.”

She continued, 

I do hope, however, that you will get over the kind of thinking that sees in every door handle a phallic symbol and that ascribes such intentions to those who have other fish to fry. The Freudian technique can be applied to anything at all with equally ridiculous results. The fork of the tree! My Lord, Billy, recover your simplicity. You ain’t in Manhattan. Don’t inflict that stuff on the poor students there; they deserve better.” 

Incidentally, I once asked Bill Sessions why he had allowed that passage to be included in O’Connor’s published correspondence, The Habit of Being, as he could have denied permission for its use. Bill explained that it was because it was such a wonderful illustration of O’Connor’s wit. Some years later, he did admit to me that the passage had grown into an opportunity for personal mortification. 

These quibbles aside, Professor Ference has made a major contribution to O’Connor reading and study. In the final chapter, the author asserts, “I do not think it is an exaggeration to argue that the soul of O’Connor’s fiction is Thomism.” He adds, “If a student desires to understand what gives O’Connor’s narrative art life, he or she must study O’Connor’s Hillbilly Thomism.” While this might overstate the case, Ference makes as strong an argument as anyone has for its veracity. 

He argues that such background considerations must go further, to the philosophical underpinning of St. Thomas Aquinas, and secondarily, to that of Aristotle. There is no doubt that Hillbilly Thomist enriches one’s understanding of, and appreciation for, O’Connor’s work. There are times the reader might wonder if Ference is taking things too far with the Thomistic influence. The problem is that however tenuous the connection might initially seem, by the end of each chapter, Ference convincingly demonstrates that O’Connor is indeed, in some way, illustrating even Thomas’s most abstract thought. This is quite an intellectual achievement.

Henry T. Edmondson III is Carl Vinson Professor of Political Science and Public Administration at Georgia College.

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