Earlier this month, Flannery O’Connor fans and a few burgeoning ones descended on Lafayette for a symposium on the Southern Catholic writer at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. As a co-sponsor, we were thrilled to see all of our months of planning finally come to fruition. For those who missed hearing the news on our site, the symposium was in honor of the 50th anniversary of O’Connor speaking on campus and the discovery of a rare recording of her 1962 talk in Lafayette. After having the reel-to-reel recording digitized, we were able to play clips during the symposium and relate O’Connor’s message to what our featured speakers and literary scholars were talking about.
The weekend began with a cocktail party at the Alumni Center on campus. Speakers, including Farrell O’Gorman, Christina Bieber Lake and Bill Sessions (pictured above with Dr. Mary Ann Wilson) had the chance to meet attendees, like Linda McDade, who drove in all the way from Pensacola just to learn more about O’Connor. A mother and daughter also drove in from Texas to join locals in sipping on a special blue cocktail reminiscent of O’Connor’s beloved peacocks. Following cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, the speakers and the rest of the planning committee, including Dr. Wilson, who discovered the recording in her office, and Fr. Bryce Sibley from Our Lady of Wisdom on campus, dined at Jolie’s Louisiana Bistro.
There, the cocktail of choice was a Bacon Old-Fashioned, along with hit dish of the evening – Jolie’s Zapp’s Crawtator Crusted Louisiana Drum. Yes, it’s what it sounds like. Fish coated in Zapp’s potato chips and then topped with a crawfish cream sauce. The symposium the next morning required us to rise early, so we all headed to our respective beds after dinner.
Saturday’s event drew several people from Baton Rouge, a writer needing a break from National Novel Writing Month, lots of devoted fans and several people who recently read O’Connor for the first time. We kicked off with breakfast in Jeanmard Hall, where O’Connor originally spoke, and played the opening clip from her talk. Then, everyone moved over to the cozier library to hear the three speakers and a panel discussion.
Farrell O’Gorman was up first and spoke about the themes of pilgrimage and Eucharist in O’Connor’s work. A native of South Carolina, he’s the author of “Peculiar Crossroads: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Catholic Vision in Postwar Southern Fiction.” He currently serves as professor of English at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, where his father’s favorite teacher in the 1950s was a young Benedictine monk whose home parish in Savannah had included O’Connor herself.
The first authorized biographer of Flannery O’Connor, Bill Sessions followed, speaking about O’Connor’s recently discovered Journal of Prayers. Scheduled to be published as a book in advance of his forthcoming biography, the journal is the only known writing of formal prayers by a major American writer. O’Connor wrote them between the ages of 20-22 while attending the Iowa Writers Group. Regents professor of English Emeritus at Georgia State University, Sessions’ also has a personal connection to O’Connor. Her mother, Regina, was his son’s godmother, and he often visited the family out at Andalusia. His presence over the weekend, along with tales of meeting Faulkner at a cocktail party, was a treasure, and O’Connor fans should be on the lookout for the journal and his biography, titled “Stalking Joy,” available in the coming year.
After breaking for lunch back in Jeanmard Hall, which included trays of shrimp poboys from Olde Tyme Grocery, it was time for Christina Bieber Lake to take the podium. Her teaching career began just outside Lafayette at Episcopal School of Acadiana, and she first read O’Connor while teaching English there. She completed a dissertation on the author while at Emory University that she later revised into her book, “The Incarnational Art of Flannery O’Connor.” She now teaches at Wheaton College in Illinois, and her topic for the symposium was “Faith is Blindness and Now You Can See: Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic Imagination.”
We then put all three speakers up on stage for a panel discussion and taking questions from the audience.
Fr. Sibley closed out the day with his regular afternoon Mass and a sermon that evoked O’Connor. Many of the attendees then joined us back at the Alumni Center for dinner and a showing of 1977’s “The Displaced Person,” starring a very young Samuel L. Jackson and based on O’Connor’s short story by the same name. Special guest for dinner was Brett Grayson of Good Country Pictures, who filled us in on his company’s plans for adapting “The Violent Bear it Away” for film and several of O’Connor’s short stories for television. We plan to keep in touch with him and will continue to post updates on the progress of these projects.
Thanks to everyone who helped make the weekend a success and keep Flannery O’Connor’s legacy alive. Talks are already in the works for another literary symposium in Lafayette in 2013 or 2014, so we’ll keep y’all posted. To see more videos from the event, visit the Deep South YouTube channel. More photos are posted on our Facebook page.