by Erin Z. Bass
Some of you may remember me taking a class in Southern women’s lit at our local university last year. Well, I signed up for it again this year and we’ve been covering Flannery O’Connor. In addition to leading some great discussions on, and providing insight into, her work, our teacher announced what may go down in Lafayette literary history last week. Professor of English with a focus on Southern lit and women’s studies at UL Lafayette, Dr. Mary Ann Wilson was cleaning out her office and came across an old audio reel labeled “Flannery O’Connor.”
It turned out to be a recording of the author’s 1962 lecture at the university and is one of the few of her voice that exists. In November of ’62, O’Connor arrived in Lafayette and was met at the airport by a local priest, Fr. Romagosa. She stayed at The Townhouse Hotel, which I’m told was “the” place to stay in Lafayette back then and hosted Paul Newman while he was filming “The Drowning Pool,” and lectured at the university on November 18 about being a Catholic writer in the modern South. According to what Dr. Wilson has read, O’Connor was greeted with applause for her lecture and then went on to Loyola in New Orleans, where she met writer Walker Percy and his family.
O’Connor wrote a letter about New Orleans to a friend back home and said it was a city she could see herself living in because “the devil’s influence is freely recognized.”
As we’re learning in class, religion was a topic O’Connor struggled with and was fascinated by. She was a Roman Catholic living in the Georgia Bible Belt and has described her stories’ settings as the “Christ-haunted landscape of the South.” Many of her characters also struggle with religion and morals, often experiencing an epiphany at some point in the story. Setting her apart from other Southern writers, O’Connor’s epiphanies are almost always accompanied by a violent episode and are the reason her work is referred to as “Southern grotesque.”
The first story we were asked to read for class was “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” I remembered it from taking a Southern Women’s Lit class in college at LSU but had forgotten how violent the story is. Upon encountering “The Misfit,” the grandmother character starts to question her faith but only after her entire family is taken into the woods and shot to death. Dr. Wilson says her young students love that story and also “Good Country People” for their shocking scenes and sense of humor.
In her time, many critics, including her own mother, didn’t understand O’Connor’s work. An older woman in class last week said, “I think she’s one of the most difficult authors to read. I’d rather read Faulkner.” They thought her work was too violent, her characters too grotesque and that she should write more like Eudora Welty. That’s why it’s a bit surprising that she was received with applause in 1962 in Lafayette. Since then, her work hasn’t been so well received with the Catholic Diocese here, and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” was banned in 2000 by a local Catholic school.
I’m sure O’Connor would find some humor in that and I’d love to hear what she had to say to a group of academics and Catholics back in the ’60s. Here’s to hoping Dr. Wilson is able to transfer that reel to a digital format. I’ll keep y’all posted and also offer up more thoughts on Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty, as the class continues.
Photo Credit: Flannery O’Connor on the front steps of her home on Andalusia farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, with a peacock she raised, from The Library of Congress.
To learn more about Flannery O’Connor and find out where her house museums and gravesite are located, download our Southern Literary Trail App.
Update: The recording has been digitized and we’ll be listening to it in class on the 15th, so I should have a link after that. The university is also planning a symposium in November to mark 50 years since Flannery O’Connor’s visit, so more to come on that as well.