I’m not one to miss a birthday party, especially when there’s a promise of cake. So when the good folks at LSU invited me to help mark Flannery O’Connor’s 90th, I quickly agreed.
O’Connor, of course, couldn’t make it herself. The celebrated Southern novelist and short story writer died at age 39 in 1964, her life cut short by lupus.
Associate professor of English Brannon Costello, master of ceremonies for LSU’s O’Connor celebration, wondered aloud what O’Connor would think about a birthday party for a dead person.
She probably would have loved it. O’Connor, who lived most of her life in the small Georgia community of Milledgeville, had a morbid sense of humor, as evidenced by short stories such as “Good Country People,” in which a professed Christian seduces a professed atheist so that he can steal her prosthetic leg.
Equally weird is “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” about a hardscrabble drifter who angles to marry a sheltered young woman because her dowry includes an old car.
O’Connor’s characters are instantly recognizable to anyone who lives in the South. My college English professor said that when he lived in New Jersey, he marveled at O’Connor’s cleverness in crafting such colorful characters. Only after moving to Louisiana did he realize that people like the ones in O’Connor’s stories don’t have to be invented; in this part of the world, they might live next door.
Jerry Kennedy, a Boyd professor of English at LSU who was also on hand at the O’Connor gathering, said puzzlement is a common first reaction to her work. “I sometimes say to students, ‘Flannery O’Connor is a writer you can either hate or love; sometimes, you can do both,’” he told listeners.
O’Connor embraced mystery, both at a literary and spiritual level. Her fiction avoids neat resolution, underscoring her belief that man isn’t supposed to fathom everything by himself. She was a devout Catholic who thought that human destiny rested in a world beyond our own.
Many years ago, I picked up a copy of her collected stories while my wife and I were honeymooning in Charleston. O’Connor’s wryly dark sensibility seemed an odd companion for a couple celebrating the first days of marriage.
But during our stay in Charleston, the owner of a designer bakery across the street from our bed and breakfast was arrested for murdering his wife. It was the kind of tragedy that seemed to affirm O’Connor’s sense of man’s potential for evil.
She saw the shadows of human existence but also, against long odds, our capacity for redemption. “What we lost when she died is bitter,” critic Walter Clemons said of O’Connor. “What we have is astonishing: The stories burn brighter than ever, and strike deeper.”
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Dannny_Heitman.