What Flannery Recommends: Non-fiction and Catholicism

Part 4: Non-fiction and Catholic works that Flannery O’Connor recommends

“I suffer from generalized admiration or generalized dislike.” 

The Habit of Being by Flannery O’ Connor p. 241

In The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (August 1, 1988) edited by Sally Fitzgerald, lovers literature and students of literature are treated to a rare treat, this 640 volume that contains her passing comments, recommendations and critiques on over 100 titles.

  • For books on the craft of writing that Flannery O’Connor recommends reading, click here.
  • For the authors that Flannery O’Connor recommends reading, click here.
  • For the novels and short stories Flannery O’Connor recommends reading, click here.
What Flannery Recommends, author recommendations from The Habit of Being

Word of God and the Word of Man

Barth, Karl.

About the trials of Biblical scholars since about 1880. Very enlightening to me. It’s certainly easier to be a Bible reader in 1962 than in 1904.

Three Mystic

Bruno, Father De J. M.

Highly enjoying the beautiful book

The Eclipse of God

Buber, Martin.

these boys have got a lot to offer us/I think this book you sent me is wonderful…Buber is an antidote to the prevailing tenor of Catholic philosophy which…is often apologetic rather than dialogic. Buber is an artist. That is one thing. Thomism usually comes in a hideous wrapper, but Buber’s thought is cast in a form that is always readable.

The Phenomenon of Man

de Chardin, Teilherd.

this is a scientific age and Teilhard’s direction is to face it toward Christ. / I might suggest you look into some of the works off…

(Book on Fenelon)

Fenelon, François.

Born Catholics

Frank Sheed.

Forced on me…I found it more interesting than I had thought as there are many and diverse degrees of experience in it

The Unity of Philosophical Experience

Gilson, Etienne.

A book that might help you

History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages

Gilson, Etienne.

I surprised to come across various answers to Simone Weil’s questions to Fr. Perrin.

The Unity of Philosophical Experience

Gilson, Etienne.

I am an admirer of

Religious and the Psychology of Jung

Goldbrunner, Josef.

Jung is with the uncles and not the great uncles; which is not to condemn him. I admire him…to my way of thinking, Goldbrunner has used Jung in the only way that I think he can be used, which is in helping the person face his own psychic realities, or those realities that the great mystics have always faced and that the Church teaches (in spite of Jung’s insistence that she does not) we must face. Goldbrunner can do this because he believes in the objective reality of God.

Christian Thought and Action

Graham, Dom Aelred.

A very good book, heathen friend – amazed a Catholic writer could be so flexible

The Faith and Modern Man

Guardini, Romano.

The Lord

Guardini, Romano.

Very fine/there is nothing like [it] anywhere, certainly not in this country.

The Virgin Mary

Guitton, Jean.

Have had considerable light thrown on the subject for me

The Reformation in England

Hughes, Philip.

Certainly am enjoying…I feel like I was at it

The Lives of the English Poets

Johnson, Samuel.

Modern Man in Search of the Soul

Jung, Carl.

I am conscious in a general way of the world’s present historical position, which according to Jung is unhistorical. I am afraid I got this concept from…

The Conservative Mind

Kirk, Russell.

Which I admire

Miracles

Lewis, C.S.

Which is very fine. Deceptively simple. You really need to read every sentence twice.

On Prayer

Lewis, C.S.

This book is a good one but I don’t like to pray any better for reading it.

Christ and Apollo

Lynch, Fr. William S.J.

Has some good answers to the question of what-are-you-saying.

Art and Scholasticism

Maritain, Jacques.

The book I cut my aesthetic teeth on, though I think even some of the things he says get soft at times. He is a philosopher and not an artist but he does have a great understanding of the nature of art, which he gets from St. Thomas. / your freshmen may be improved by a look at [it]…he dwells on St. Thomas’s definition of art as a virtue of the practical intellect, etc.

The Mystery of Being

Marcel, Gabriel

are readable

God and Mammon

Mauriac, François.

References for writing advice

Mémoires Intérieurs

Mauriac, François.

I am going to send it to you to read what he says about Emily Bronte. He sounds so much like you he might be you. He also has some good things to say about Hawthorne.

a book on Greece

Miller, Henry.

Very fine

The Grammar of Assent

Newman, John Henry.

On the Theology of Death

Rahner, Karl.

It is great but difficult to read.

Two Portraits of St. Thérèse of Liseuix

Robo, Fr. Etienne.

He does away with all the roses, little flowers, and other icing. The book has greatly increased my devotion to her.

Interior Castle

Theresa of Avila.

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. It is a mine of information

Israel and Revelation

Voegelin, Eric.

He gets away from the Spengler-Toynbee business very effectively and instead of seeing history as civilizational cycles sees it as an exodus from civilization.

The World of The Polis

Voegelin, Eric.

2nd volume on the Greek polis, a masterful analyses of the Illad & of Aeschylys but other hunks and dull and over my head/parts were very exciting but for the most part you need to be a Greek scholar to read it.

Essays and Addresses

Von Hugal, Baron.

I like the book very much.

God and the Unconscious

White, Victor, O.P.

Know the terrific pleasure these books are going to give me / I think it is full of psychological explanations of dogmas and rituals, which requires that he ignore the accepted meanings of them.

What Flannery Recommends: Fiction

Part 3: Fiction works that Flannery O’Connor recommends

“I suffer from generalized admiration or generalized dislike.” 

The Habit of Being by Flannery O’ Connor p. 241

In The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (August 1, 1988) edited by Sally Fitzgerald, lovers and students of literature are treated to a rare treat, this 640 volume that contains her passing comments, recommendations and critiques on over 100 titles.

  • To read which authors Flannery O’Connor recommends, click here.
  • For books on the craft of writing that Flannery O’Connor recommends reading, click here.

We are sharing those recommendations with you now.

What Flannery Recommends, author recommendations from The Habit of Being

Diary of a Country Priest

Bernanos, George.

So far it seems to be only a slight framework of a novel to hang Bernanos’ religious reflections on. The diary form gives him leave to do this, otherwise he would have a hard time…Bernanos stands very high with Catholics, at least with the ones who read.

Cary, Joyce. Herself Surprised. The Horse’s Mouth. To be a Pilgrim. I must have liked them or I wouldn’t have read three…it must have been the most interesting one. He has gusto.

The Lament

Chekhov, Anton.

I Choose to Die

Cheney, Brainard.

I like it all but the song and dance.

Secret Agent

Conrad, Joseph.

Under Western Eyes

Conrad, Joseph.

I don’t have one perception about the novels, but I keep reading them hoping they’ll affect my writing without my being bothered knowing how.

A Sea Change

Dennis, Nigel.

A wonderful novel

Gothic Tales

Dinesen, Isak.

Some of them I like right much…I can’t take too much of her at one time

Murder in the Cathedral (play)

Elliot, T. S..

A marvelous play

Medea

Euripides.

More to my taste (compared to Alcestis…It’s a pretty untragic play with only 1 dead body & that eventually brought back from the shades of Heracles)

Poor Harriet

Fenwick Way, Elizabeth.

I enjoyed her and also my mamma enjoyed her

The Simple Truth

Fenwick, Elizabeth.

I liked it…Elizabeth is a lot better writer than she gets credit for

Oedipus Rex

Fitzgerald, Robert with Fitts, Dudley.

A very fine translation/I’m much taken with it…I think it must be the best, and it certainly very beautiful.

The Odyssey

Fitzgerald, Robert.

Arrived to my great improvement, I look forward to carnage at the end

Passage to India

Forster, E. M.

Still my favorite

Lord of the Flies

Golding, William.

I think you would like it

Summer Dust

Gordon, Caroline.

Impressionistic story. You read it and then you have to sit back and let your mind blend it together…She is a great student of Flaubert and is great on getting things there so concretely that they can’t possibly escape…this is real mastery doing, and nobody does it better than Caroline. You walk through her stories like you were walking through a complete world. And watch how the meaning comes from the things themselves and not from her imposing anything. Right when you finish reading that story, you don’t think you’ve read anything, but the more you think about it the more it grows.

The Malefactors

Gordon, Caroline.

With all my usual admiration for everything she writes. I look at it from the underside, thinking how difficult all this was to do because I know nothing harder than making good people believable.

The Tin Drum

Grass, Gunter.

I’m enjoying…That Grass is really something. I’ll be all year reading it…

The Simple Truth

Hardwick, Elizabeth.

I think she’s a mighty good writer

The Lime Twig

Hawkes, John

It came last Sunday and I read that afternoon and evening in a sitting that was unwillingly interrupted once or twice. The action seems to take place at that point where dreams are lightest (and fastest?), just before you wake up. It seems to me that you have retained all the virtues of the other books in this once, but added something that will hold the reader to the reading I can’t make any intelligent comments about this book an more than I could about the others; but I can register my sensations. You suffer this like a dream. It seems to be something that is happening to you, that you want ot escape from but can’t. It’s quire remarkable…Meanwhile, my admiration is 90% awe and wonder.

The Story Hour

Hay, Sara Henderson

I enjoyed them thoroughly—the poems— and thought the illustrations were funny too.

The Disinherited Mind

Heller, Erich.

I like, essays on Goethe, Nietzsche, Rilke, Spengler, Kafka and a few others

Catch-22

Heller, Joseph.

I enjoyed reading…I think it gets funnier after page 36.

The Old Man and the Sea

Hemingway, Ernest.

[Faulkner] says that Hemingway discovered God in the Creator in this one. What part I like in that was where the fish’s eye was like a saint in a procession; it sounded to me like he was discovering something new maybe for him.

The Living Novel, a Symposium

Hicks, Granville (ed).

I like the book very much and am glad to find myself in it/nine others in it of varying degrees of sense

A High Wind in Jamaica

Hughes, Richard.

Small enough to be perfect

The Fox in the Attic

Hughes, Richard.

(Implied it is as good as A High Wind in Jamaica) this other thing is part of something larger and can’t be judged by such standards

Portrait of a Lady

James, Henry.

You have to judge James by this book.

The Dead

Joyce, James.

The Dubliners

Joyce, James.

Study these stories, you can learn an awful lot from them

The Odyssey: a Modern Sequel

Kazantzakis, Nikos.

a wonderful book, just finished Book I and felt I was in the presence of something

The Lotus and The Robot

Koestler, Arthur.

I recommend it highly

The Velvet Horn

Lytle, Andrew.

I was entirely taken with it. I didn’t follow all the intricacies of the symbolism but it had its effect without working it all out/very readable. I usually can’t read a book that long.

The End of Pity

Macauley, Robie.

I want you to see…Not all the stories in this one are good but the good ones are as good as anybody’s

The Legend of Two Swimmers

Macauley, Robie.

The Chevigny Man

Macauley, Robie.

The Good Soldier

Maddox Ford, Ford.

I like…

The Assistant

Malamud, Bernard.

I don’t like his novel as well as his stories but it’s still a good novel

The Magic Barrel

Malamud, Bernard.

I have discovered a short-story writer who is better than any of them, including myself. / The stories deal with Jews and they are the real thing. Really spiritual and very funny.

The more I read it the better I like it.

The Voices of Silence

Malraux, Andre.

I am working my way through it slowly. It is really fine.

The Mechanical Bride

Marshall, Herbert.

Has to be read completely and slowly…I appreciate the book…the meat is in the text and has to be read carefully

The Book of Knowledge

Mee, Arthur.

the only good things I read when I was a child were the Greek and Roman myths which I got out of a set of child’s encyclopedia

The Wandering of Desire

Montgomery, Marion.

Wonderful. 100% solid and alive throughout. The Southern writer can outwrite anybody in the country because he has the Bible and a little history, but you’ve got more of both than most and a splendid gift besides. IT all adds up to a really fine novel and I’ll be proud to say the same or something similar to … all I can say is you’ve done it.

Under the Net

Murdoch, Iris.

Well written but I don’t remember it

Bend Sinister

Nabokov, Vladimir.

I Have always like Nabokov, I have forgotten everything about it except that I was impressed, even possibly influenced

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

Nabokov, Vladimir.

If you don’t know Nabokov, you ought to

Dr. Zhivago

Pasternak, Boris.

Really something/it is a great book.

Lanterns on the Levee

Percy, Walker.

Percy’s masterpiece…now in its 16th printing

War

Pirandello, Luigi.

Ship of Fools

Porter, Katherine Ann

May not be a great book but it is in many ways a fine one. It has a sculptural quality. I admire the bulldog in it the same way I would admire a bulldog carved to perfection. Essence of bulldog…

Humorous Tales

Poe, Edgar Allen.

These were mighty humorous…this is an influence I would rather not think about

Morte d’Urban

Powers, J. F.

[The review] was so favorable someone might have thought I was in your employ. I chiefly said that it was a novel and all the people who said otherwise were nuts. I thought it really hung together as a whole piece and that it was worth holding onto for ten years or however long you held on to it.

Prince of Darkness

Powers, J. F.

Likes

The Presence of Grace

Powers, J.F.

I admire your stories better than any of the others I know of even in spite of the cat who, if my prayers have been attended to, has already been run down

Remembrance of Things Past

Proust, Marcel.

I am eating through it like a mole. I think it would make good Iceland reading for either you or the Caption. Maybe you could keep him quiet with it.

The Leopard

Purdy, James.

this is very fine.

The Nephew

Purdy, James.

I really think it is quite a good book, on a small scale

(Title not given)

Ripley, Dillon.

I certainly have enjoyed his book and if you are speaking with him, tell him he has one ardent fan in the state of Georgia.

They Don’t Dance Much

Ross, James.

Very fine book

Troilus and Cressida

Shakespeare, William.

His clotted, odd, inspired…

The Girls of Slender Means

Sparks, Muriel.

Which came at 12 o’clock noon and I finished before I went to bed. I really did like it, better than the others.

The Foundling

Spellman, Cardinal Francis.

If we must have trash this is the kind of trash we ought to have.

Lie Down in Darkness

Styron, William.

I find it very impressive so far

much too much the long tedious Freudian case history, though the boy can write and there were overtones of better things in it.

The Man of Letters in the Modern World

Tate, Allen.

A Meridian book worth reading—that I think is very fine.

A Long Fourth

Taylor, Peter.

likes

The Straight and Narrow Path

Tracy, Honor.

Too long but better sustained than most funny books

Domestic Manners of the Americans

Trollope, Frances Milton.

I like [Anthony] Trollope. Have you ever read his mother’s account of her visit to American in the 1830s? Shouldn’t be missed.

Kristin Lavransdatter

Undset, Sigrid

Remember being much gripped with that love and that writing, although in those days I wasn’t thinking of it as writing…could she have done it without returning to the 13th century

All the King’s Men

Warren, Robert Penn.

I suggest you read…

The Loved One

Waugh, Evelyn.

Right length for that kind of book.

Sword of Honor

Waugh, Evelyn.

I really liked this last one…of Waugh’s best.

Check back next week for the round-up of authors that Flannery O’Connor recommends.

What Flannery Recommends: Authors

Part 2: Which authors that Flannery O’Connor recommends

“I suffer from generalized admiration or generalized dislike.”

 The Habit of Being by Flannery O’ Connor p. 241

In The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (August 1, 1988) edited by Sally Fitzgerald, lovers and students of literature are treated to a rare treat, this 640 volume that contains her passing comments, recommendations and critiques on over 100 titles.

  • For books on the craft of writing that Flannery O’Connor recommends reading, click here.

We are sharing those recommendations with you now.

What Flannery Recommends, author recommendations from The Habit of Being

There were certain authors Flannery O’Connor read and referenced regularly. When a correspondent asked her for guidance on what to read, O’Connor knew how to respond.

All the Catholic novelists

the best Southern writers:

The Russians:

She write she “learned something from” these:

Joseph Conrad

“I’m a great admirer, read almost all his fiction”:

James, Henry

This may affect my writing for the better without my knowing how/ read almost all of, when I read James, I feel something is happening to me, in slow motion but happening nevertheless/I identify with James’ felt life and not with any particular moral system.

Kafka, Franz

I think reading a little of him perhaps makes you a bolder writer.

To read “What Flannery Recommends” on the craft or writer, click here.
Check back next week for more recommendations.

Honorable Mention

de Chardin, Teilherd

Weil, Simone (life)

About the life of Simone Weil: “is the most comical life I have ever read about and the most truly tragic and terrible”

O’Connor, Frank. Frank O’Connor

“likes”

Celine, Louis Ferdinand.

He did feel life at a moral depth—or rather that his work made me feel life at a moral depth; what he feels I can’t care about

What Flannery Recommends: On Writing

Part 1: What Flannery O’Connor recommends on the craft of writing

“I suffer from generalized admiration or generalized dislike.” 

The Habit of Being by Flannery O’ Connor p. 241

Every reader of Flannery O’Connor who then goes on to read her letters and write to tell the tale of that massive volume will comment on what a voracious reader Flannery was. Indeed she was. O’Connor (March 25, 1925 – August 3, 1964), was a regular correspondent, read daily, discussed the books she read in her letters and personal interactions.

In 1951, Flannery moved with her mother to Andalusia Farm where she would live until her death in 1964 at the age of 39. Her daily routine was to attend Mass, write in the morning, then spend the rest of the day recuperating and reading.

In Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.), Francine Pose reminds us that “Long before there were creative writing workshops and degrees, how did aspiring writers learn to write? By reading the work of their predecessors and contemporaries.” O’Connor had the benefit of formal education in writing, but a good education is never finished, especially as one hones the craft by practice. The best way to read well, is to read great works, and the best way to write well, is to read great works.

O’Connor may be one of the greatest American writers of all time.

While her themes do not appeal widely, the quality of her craft, her sense of time and space, not using a wasted word, is masterful. Writers do well to read her.

O’Connor read for pleasure, to instruct her craft, for spiritual education, and for reviews. In The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (August 1, 1988) edited by Sally Fitzgerald, lovers and students of literature are treated to a rare treat, this 640 volume that contains her passing comments, recommendations and critiques on over 100 titles.

Rather than a list of 124 book recommendations in one post, let’s start here. In subsequent weeks, I’ll share the authors she recommends, fictional works and non-fiction or spiritual works.

Not all recommendations are a blanket affirmation of the work, and some of her praise is given more because the work tickled her ironic sense of humor than that it she saw in it the makings of a classic, but they were good enough to write to her friends.

  • For the author’s Flannery O’Connor recommends reading, click here.
  • For the non-fiction and Catholic works Flannery O’Connor recommends reading, click here.
  • For the novels and short stories Flannery O’Connor recommends reading, click here.

Flannery O’Connor’s book picks on the craft writing:

What Flannery Recommends, author recommendations from The Habit of Being

Understanding Fiction

Brooks, Cleanth and Warren, R.P.

An invaluable help to me and I think it would be to you/it sounds elementary but it has its virtues in that it has a variety of stories in the book and you get some idea of the range of what can be done./ it is pure textbook and very uninviting and part of the value of it for me was that I had it in conjunction with Paul Engle who was able to breathe some life into it; but even without him, it might help you some.

How to Read a Novel

Gordon, Caroline.

I think you would find it valuable, it’s really more for writers than readers, and it is uneven I think, but you would still find it valuable

The Craft of Fiction

Lubbock, Percy.

I think would help you in your writing, this sounds like a how-to-do-it book but it is not; it’s a very profound study of point of view.

The American Novel and Its Tradition

Chase, Richard.

A book on the romance-novel which is very good…I wish you would take a look at it if you haven’t seen it.

The House of Fiction

Tate, Allen and Gordon, Catherine.

Textbook with writing advice.

The Novel in France

Turnell, Martin.

Enjoyable

Check back next week for the works of fiction Flannery O’Connor reads and recommends.

Asbury in The Enduring Chill

The Enduring Chill” by Flannery O’Connor is the second book of our Literary Lenten Book Club. In this process of exploring literature during Lent, we’ll ask ourselves first, “How did the main character, Asbury, encounter transcendence?” and second, “How did he respond?”
For reflections on our first book, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, click here.
This is a 1962 photo of author Flannery O'Connor.
This is a 1962 photo of author Flannery O’Connor. (AP Photo)

Flannery O’Connor lived from March 25, 1925 – August 3, 1964, dying from Lupus at the age of 39. She studied writing at Georgia State College, attended the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, lived with writers at Yaddo, an artists’ community after earning her MFA, and only left that way of life when her health needs demanded she return to live with her mother on her mother’s Georgian farm. 

The setting of “The Enduring Chill” presents us with a common theme in O’Connor’s work; the educated young adult returning to his backward home in the rural south.

Asbury is a college-educated intellectual with an “artistic temperament” who moved to the city to escape the stifling environment of his mother’s dairy farm. His mother labels him with this “artistic temperament” to explain away her inability to understand or reach him and to excuse his rudeness and emotional reactivity to all she says and does. 

His sister sees him as a failure, a child-man who tries at nothing and succeeds at nothing. 

How does Asbury see himself? 

Flannery O'Connor and her self-portrait.

He sees himself as in touch with something deeper than the reality before him. He knows more and can see more than others. This places him in the artistic or poetic class, a higher class of being than those around him. And so, he is disgusted with them for their obtuseness. They could not possibly understand.

When Asbury comes home, he comes home to die. He perceives his impending death, and so puts himself through the paces of existential death. 

What happens to Asbury? 

Asbury begins in the story with a sense of the transcendent. He wants to capture it after experiencing something bigger than himself in the “moment of communion” he recalls with the two dairy workers, a moment to meet spiritually and not just physically with another. Though not a Catholic, he asks for a priest.

If he is to die, let him meet with one in whom he can see himself. Let him meet with an intellectual, a Jesuit even, like the one he encountered early in the story. During a discussion, that priest says, calmly.

“There is…a real probability of the New Man, assisted, of course…by the Third Person of the Trinity”

The priest called for is not like that man. Fr. Finn does not concern himself with the death of Asbury’s body. He does not attempt to reflect the image Asbury would like to see. Rather, passing by Asbury’s conception himself, the priest cuts through the image and shows Asbury who he really is.

“The Holy Ghost will not come until you see yourself as you are — a lazy ignorant conceited youth.” 

Asbury thinks his body will die. But in truth, it is his old nature that must die to grasp this divine thing. He must exchange the image of himself as superior, all-knowing, all-seeing for one that reflects the truth.

When one is saved, when one accepts Christ as Lord and God, one must change.

“Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

Ephesians 4:22-24

As his body writhes under the agony of his illness, his soul struggles under this existential death. First, he blames his mother for his wasted life. Next, he pities himself for the loss of a young life. So much more might have been achieved. He changes from his petulance to regret. His life will end and he achieved nothing. He is a failure.

The poet or artist is nothing until he can touch the transcendent. Asbury has had only a poor taste of communion. The real thing would help him not only taste life but make his death a worthy one. That real thing is the Holy Spirit.

The priest lays it squarely on his shoulders. Asbury faces himself as he is. It isn’t his mother or his young life that prevented him from achieving something worth anything. It was only he himself.

Asbury anticipates a revelation, some terrible shock, will come with death. Transcendent communion not with human beings, but with the Reaper itself.

As Ashbury is ill, death takes on its own character.

The shock comes.

He is not dying.

Now, he must live with himself.

To live is more terrible than death because he saw what a pathetic death it would be. Knowing what it is to face death after a wasted life, with life in his hands he must make a choice. 

Asbury encounters the transcendent when he encounters the truth:

God is truth. Truth exists beyond our perception of the world. It is not true only because we think it is true. The truth of himself first presented is his encounter with the transcendent. 

Death is the vehicle that reveals this truth. Asbury looks around the corner to face death as if it were a character, more real to him than his mother’s employees. His conception of them exists on his mind and try as he might, he cannot make them what he would like. They disappoint him. 

“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things.”

John 14:26

Asbury is reduced in his estimation. Humbled by the revelation that all he thought true was false, he is broken and ready, though he does not yet understand it.

What is his response?

He puts away the key to the drawer holds the letter which was meant to change the life of his mother. His life must change instead. Though he does not know how.

And as he sees the bird descend, he knows that God, that hound of heaven, in the form of the dove, the Holy Spirit, will pursue him. 

Find Ashbury and "The Enduring Chill" in "Everything that Rises Must Converge"
Check back next week for our discussion on “The Gifts of the Christ Child” by George MacDonald.
For more information about our Literary Lenten Book Club and the schedule of readings click here.

Revelation

One more Flannery O’Connor column before my thoughts turn back to “The Golden Bowl” by Henry James. For book club, we carefully navigated the waters of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation.” Lacking the violence of other stories, the story works better for group reading.

The main character Mrs. Ruby Turpin spends the majority of the short story in a doctor’s waiting room, observing, chatting and then recovering from an altercation with other persons in the waiting room. O’Connor describes early on the way Mrs. Turpin thinks long and deeply about the various classifications of people and their relative worth in the eyes of God. She thanks the Lord she is not in group X, but considers would still be worse to be in group Y.

Thus, she immediately sizes up her waiting room companions. She engages pleasantly with those who agree with her idea of class and shuts out from conversation with those who don’t.

Across from Mrs. Turpin sits a young lady who defies classification. She appears to be educated, though unattractive. The reader learns she is the daughter of the well-dressed woman beside her and attends Wellesley. The girl seems to know her somehow, seems to see something deep into her. Eventually, at an unanticipated boiling point, the girl reacts, attacks, and uses words a nice, clean country woman like Mrs. Turpin would never expect to hear about herself.

The words strike a nerve. Mrs. Turpin has made it her life to consider how above the other classes she is, even though there are others above her. She has justified herself. She checked the boxes on what it means to be a good woman, but somehow this girl sees through her. Turpin shakes her first and questions God, “Who do you think you are!”

Who is this Being to challenge her classification, her perception of the world, her truth? She fits in with the good people. Who is this spiritual being to say that her quality does not somehow measure up? How can she be challenged?

There are two elements at play here worth considering. How easily we are like this lady. It is part of human nature to classify things. Social scripts help us navigate complicated relationships. While many of these scripts have been upended in modern society (for example how couples date or how married couples define their roles) our tendency still exists in full force.

Life is immensely complicated and getting even more so as our surrounding culture changes rapidly. Instead of old familiar categories, we are using left and right, liberal and conservative, for the mask or anti-masking, vaccinated or anti-vax, one of us or one of them. The judgmental divisions have hidden fault lines and while social media and politics present a world of this side of that, clearly divided, we are, in truth, more complex. Some characters agree with the categorizations, but some, as in O’Connor’s waiting room, defy description.

When we group people as Mrs. Turpin did, we rarely come out on the bad end in our estimation. What started as naturally organizing units now becomes a battle: how much are you like me and how are you different? We begin to judge everything against ourselves. In this way, Mrs. Turpin made a god of herself. When the challenge came that there is a reality beyond her own making, that people and even she were more complex than she had defined them, it shakes her mightily.

In the story, we do not see what happens next. But what about us? When we encounter someone who defies our stereotypes, do we ask open-ended questions to learn more, or are we so preoccupied with sharing our beliefs and our opinions that we lose the moment entirely?

These questions do not have to lead to an argument unless you begin with this premise: I know the right way and everything about it. Convince me otherwise.

In that case, questions are used as prompts to allow us to spout off our knowledge. Every interaction validates what I think.

How different that is from trying to understand the other’s point of view, history, and ideas. When we begin to approach others as persons, not just a side of an issue, not just a unit in a box, then maybe, just maybe we can experience our own Revelation.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.