Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Aficionados of Southern literature are preparing to commemorate one of the giants of the genre, honoring Georgian author Flannery O’Connor on the 40th anniversary of her death.

The “Remembering Flannery” event next week will take place at Andalusia, the author’s home in Milledgeville, Ga., which has been open to the public since March 2003.

Starting at 15 minutes after midnight — exactly 40 years from the moment of the writer’s death on Aug. 3, 1964 — all of Miss O’Connor’s stories from the collection of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” will be read for 24 hours.

An evening Mass on the lawn will be followed by a blessing in the main house.

“Coupled with the spiritual nature of her fiction, deeply rooted in the Catholic faith, we thought it would be a good idea to celebrate her death,” says Craig R. Amason, executive director of the Andalusia Foundation, which will organize the program.

“The themes of grace and salvation are central to O’Connor,” he says. “For real fans of O’Connor, the commemoration of her death is an opportunity for a joyous occasion, under the aspect of eternity.”

Miss O’Connor died at age 39 from complications of lupus, an autoimmune disease. Her small body of work earned her a reputation as one of America’s best fiction writers.

Holding the commemorative event at the O’Connor farm will allow her readers to behold the environment in which she worked, says Bruce Gentry, editor of “The Flannery O’Connor Review.” He is a professor of English at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, where Miss O’Connor studied.

“Every time I go out to Andalusia, I think about the connection between the stories and the land,” he says. “It’s really quite a spooky thrill.”

Miss O’Connor knew her time was short because of her disease. She shaped her writing for people who would read her work after her death, says Paul Elie, who wrote about Miss O’Connor in his book “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” She didn’t waste time on cultural or religious controversies of the era, Mr. Elie says.

“She focused on metaphor and imagery and the central drama of Christianity, the moment of grace with Christ,” he says.

“She stylized her work for posterity. … Flannery O’Connor once said she wished books could be written and deposited in a slot for the next century. … She said that a serious writer would gladly swap 100 readers now for 10 readers in 10 years or one reader in 100 years.”

Her body of work consists of two novels, “Wise Blood” and “The Violent Bear It Away,” and two collections of short stories, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

Two other volumes of her writing have been published since Miss O’Connor’s death: “Mystery and Manners,” including various articles, unpublished essays and lectures, and “The Habit of Being,” a collection of her letters.

“She is better known and more widely read today than when she died,” Mr. Elie says. “She was very well-known around serious writers, but her books didn’t have large sales. They didn’t win prizes.”

After developing lupus, Miss O’Connor disciplined herself to write every day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., including Sundays. During the last year of her life, she wrote for at least one hour a day.

“She took a notebook to the hospital and kept it under her pillow and wrote some of the new passages in longhand,” Mr. Elie says. “She took a draft of [the short story] ‘Parker’s Back’ into the hospital and marked it up.”

Throughout Miss O’Connor’s writing, a common character type is the intellectual who ironically is lacking wisdom, says Donald E. Hardy, author of “Narrating Knowledge in Flannery O’Connor’s Fiction.” He cites the example of Hulga, a character in “Good People Country” who has a doctorate in philosophy.

Miss O’Connor “had a complicated relationship with academics,” Mr. Hardy says. “She had problems with the notion that humans could understand rationally and by reason alone their position in the world.”

Frequently in Miss O’Connor’s stories, a character comes to a realization about his life. In “Revelation,” the main character, Mrs. Turpin, was given a vision of a stairway to heaven on which many people she considered lower class were entering heaven before she was.

“O’Connor is constantly playing with the ambiguity between the physical world and the spiritual world,” Mr. Hardy says. “She takes on pride of various sorts.”

Mr. Hardy says the Southern influences in Miss O’Connor’s writing come through in her sense of humor, and her emphasis on social relationships and the land.

“She is an extremely rich writer,” he says. “She is not just a religious writer. People just keep coming back to her fiction. She is very readable.”

Another defining characteristic is her tendency to write about darker areas of life, says Tom Provost, 39, a screenwriter in Los Angeles who says he has been inspired by her work.

“It’s OK to explore the darkness in the world and society,” he says. “Not every story you tell has to have a happy ending. If you’re going to be honest about the way society is, you need to focus on what’s dark.”

Some readers have criticized Miss O’Connor’s use of sudden violence in her stories, says Mr. Provost. However, he thinks Miss O’Connor was trying to get people’s attention by going to extremes, such as when the grandmother is killed at the end of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

“She would say sometimes you have to use a club instead of whispering to somebody,” he says. “She was trying to say to the world that obviously there is God, salvation, goodness and beauty, but yes, there is darkness in the world, and we need to be aware where our society is headed.”

The pain in her own life probably prompted her to explore troublesome situations, Mr. Provost says.

“She really wanted to travel and see the world,” he says. “When she came down with lupus, at 25, she resigned herself to the fact she had to live on her mother’s farm in Georgia. She had fallen in love twice and would have very much like to have been married. Both times it was unreciprocated. … She had this existence and came to see it as God’s will. She accepted her circumstances as what God wanted her to do.”

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