O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South

by Ralph C. Wood.
William B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, Michigan) 265 pp., $22.00
cloth, 2004.

Incarnational Art of Flannery O’Connor

by Christina Bieber Lake.
Mercer University Press (Macon,
Georgia) 243 pp., $35.00 cloth, 2005.

O’Connor continues to interest many readers and critics.
A slow and painstaking writer who died young (of lupus at
age 39), she did not produce a large body of literature,
but what she did produce (in three genres: letters, literary
criticism, and fiction) is superlative. Her letters, collected
primarily in The Habit of Being, are delightful
and witty, penetrating and powerful. They reveal a bright
and cheerful soul, a remarkable judge of human nature and
the literary arts, and an effective apologist for Christianity,
especially the Roman Catholic faith. Her essays and lectures
in literary criticism, collected in Mystery and Manners,
offer exceptionally insightful and clearly stated judgments
on life and literature. O’Connor is perceptive and
profound in her remarks on region, realism, the grotesque,
the imagination, human nature, and the human and artistic
limitations that make literature great as well as the difficulties
facing a Christian novelist writing for an unbelieving audience—or
audiences that are merely superficial or sentimental believers.

Just as O’Connor excels in the arts of letter writing
and literary criticism, she also excels in her fiction (two
novels and thirty-one short stories). Manifesting her integrity,
the fiction incarnates the same vision of human nature, modern
aberrations, and divine grace and judgment that she discusses
in her letters and criticism. She wrote remarkably well-crafted
storieswith depth upon depth of meaning (some claim that
she’s America’s best twentieth-century writer
of short stories), and her prophetic fiction challenges the
liberal, gnostic, nihilistic, and secular assumptions of
the modern world. She is a writer to be reckoned with, and
critics by the hundreds are attracted to her work: The
Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States
that “O’Connor attracts the critical attention
of more scholars each year than any other twentieth-century
American woman writer.” Another indication of O’Connor’s
stature is The Library of America edition of her Collected

book cover image Because of O’Connor’s stature, it is no surprise
that Ralph Wood and Christina Bieber Lake have presented
books on her fiction. It is fortunate as well, for O’Connor’s
readers do often need a guide to her fiction, and not all
guides can be trusted. Wood, University Professor of Theology
and Literature at Baylor University, examines O’Connor’s
Christ-haunted fiction in connection with the religion and
culture of the American South; he explores her work and the
region’s ecclesiastical and cultural milieu, dealing
with pertinent works of religious sociology and history,
and with a host of past and current scholarly studies of
O’Connor and her work. His premise is that the South’s
history of slavery produced “the greatest historical
guilt of any American region,” and that while the South
lost the War Between the States, it “won the spiritual
war by retaining its truest legacy, not the heritage of slavery
and segregation and discrimination, but the Bible-centered
and Christ-haunted faith that it still bequeaths to the churches
and the nations as their last, best, and only true hope.” O’Connor’s
fiction, with its Bible-centered and Christ-haunted backdrop,
and the very clear embrace of the Christian gospel evident
in her letters and essays, is central to Wood’s hopeful

Like most people in academia, Wood is extremely sensitive
to racial issues, much more sensitive perhaps than he need
be. He chides O’Connor for expressing “ugly racial
sentiments” in one of her letters to a friend (actually,
O’Connor’s racist jingle targeted white liberals
more than blacks), though to Wood’s credit he does
not detect racism in her fiction, as some readers and critics
do. His reading of “The Artificial Nigger” focuses
on O’Connor’s use of Negro suffering as “a
sacrament of reconciliation” for two proud, sinful
racists. Given his thesis, it is not an error of emphasis
that Wood devotes more than two chapters of his book to discussions
of race and slavery. However, I would question his premise
that the South bears more historical guilt than other regions.
That said, I would not question Wood’s thesis: that
the South’s Bible-centered and Christ-haunted faith,
along with O’Connor’s clear and confident statements
regarding Christian orthodoxy, offers hope for a secularized

Some of Wood’s discussions (for example, of Eugene
Genovese’s historical studies of Southern culture)
may seem off the point, but actually they put O’Connor’s
fiction in historical perspective. Likewise, Wood examines
the Southern Agrarians, H. L. Mencken, Walker Percy, Louis
Simpson, and others, comparing and contrasting their views
of the South with O’Connor’s. So Wood’s
book goes far and wide to place O’Connor in a historical
and contemporary perspective. In addition to race, Wood’s
book examines O’Connor’s admiration and sympathy
for the South’s fundamentalist Protestant believers,
the preachers in her fictional world, her depiction of nihilism
as a major corrosive in the modern world, the significance
of baptism and the Eucharist in her life and fiction. There
is a final chapter on O’Connor’s eschatology,
especially as revealed in the short story “Revelation.”

Readers interested in spirited discussions of wide-ranging
religious, social, and cultural topics will enjoy Wood’s
book, and they should definitely read his footnotes, which
cast light in many different directions. One very provocative
footnote claims that Allen Tate and Russell Kirk, two prominent
traditional conservatives, had a “functionalist understanding
of Christian faith”—that is, they used Christianity
as a prop for Western civilization and merely wrote generically
about morality, God, and religion. I wonder if Jesus’ reply
to John in Mark 9 might be noted here: “For he that
is not against us is for us.” Be that as it may (and
God is the judge in these matters), in general the confessional
quality of Wood’s book, his unabashed embrace and defense
of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and his vigorous style are
attractive and bracing. Wood does not pull his punches (“Conservative
and liberal eschatologies are equally sub-biblical”),
and he offers stunning glimpses of biblical realities and
signification in his explication of O’Connor’s
fiction. This is a good book for the novice and an excellent
book for anyone who wants to come to terms with O’Connor’s
work in connection with its Southern milieu.

book cover imageIn The Incarnational Art of Flannery O’Connor, Christina
Bieber Lake, Associate Professor of English at Wheaton College,
presents the following thesis: “Only O’Connor’s
insistence upon the unique character of the Incarnation can
adequately explain the drama of the stories, her aesthetic
philosophy, and her unique employment of the grotesque.” This
study reveals O’Connor’s awareness of and antipathy
for the Gnosticism underlying much of contemporary American
religion. Lake is familiar with the books O’Connor
read and marked, and her explication of O’Connor’s
fiction elaborates upon theological and aesthetic insights
offered by some of O’Connor’s guides—Aquinas,
Gilson, and Maritain, for instance. Lake is also familiar
with a great deal of O’Connor scholarship, much of
it ideological or tendentious and some of it quite sophisticated
and theoretical. Perhaps it is necessary to defend O’Connor
from the ideological critics, though I sometimes wonder if
they are worth the time and ink. One recalls O’Connor’s
complaint: “The Theories are worse than the Furies.”

Lake notes that the “Catholic theology of the Incarnation
relies heavily upon its theology of the creation,” and
she therefore rightly emphasizes the importance of the concrete,
of the body, of the limited, and of the particular in O’Connor’s
fiction (and a corresponding wariness on O’Connor’s
part of gnostic, angelistic thinkers such as Descartes and
Emerson). She offers illuminating readings of The Violent
Bear It Away
(identifying many biblical parallels) and “The
Enduring Chill” (showing the connection between Asbury’s
artistic and spiritual failings). She also presents a convincing
discussion of two kinds of the grotesque in O’Connor’s
fiction, the early grotesque as a negative feature, the later
grotesque as positive.

Because O’Connor’s fiction is easily misunderstood,
and because the ideological critics have claimed her as one
of their own, I do recommend both of these books. While both
may stray into uncertain ground (Woods on race, Lake in taking
the trouble to refute the ideologues and in occasionally
being overly theoretical), they still admirably reveal the
key artistic and spiritual virtues of the fiction. Other
recent worthy O’Connor studies are Hank Edmondson’s Return
to Good and Evil: Flannery O’Connor’s Response
to Nihilism
and Marion Montgomery’s Hillbilly
Thomist: Flannery O’Connor, St. Thomas and the Limits
of Art

O’Connor herself is one of the best guides
to her fiction. Knowing this, Wood and Lake (Edmondson and
Montgomery as well) quote O’Connor frequently, letting
her pithy, provocative, and penetrating comments elucidate
her fiction, the fiction writer’s craft, and the aberrant
modern condition. With G. K. Chesterton, O’Connor is
one ofthe most quotable of twentieth-century writers. Bartlett’s
Familiar Quotations
should take note. One finds in her
writings a host of prophetic and accurate judgments about
morality, theology, literature, human nature, and the connections
of these things one with another, such as her contention
that “There is something in us as storytellers and
as listeners to stories that demands the redemptive act.” For
those seeking further explanation after reading O’Connor
herself on her work, both books reviewed shed light on an
already very bright writer.

Michael M. Jordan, an Assistant Editor of this journal in
the early eighties, recently collected and edited Marion
Montgomery’s Southern essays (On Matters Southern:
Essays About Literature and Culture, 1964-2000
2005). He is Professor of English and Chairman of the English
Department at Hillsdale College.