American Catholic Fiction: Flannery O’Connor’s Hillbilly Thomism

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This new series, led by Dr. Jennifer Frey (associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina and host of the literature, philosophy, and theology podcast, Sacred and Profane Love), explores the fiction of mid twentieth century Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor.

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.” Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor is simultaneously one of the most celebrated and least understood twentieth century American fiction writers. In her short career (she died of Lupus at age 39), she published two novels and thirty two short stories. Her first novel, Wise Blood, was published in 1952 when she was just 27 years old. Critical reactions were mixed–far too many critics couldn’t understand why her characters were so darkly comic and outlandish, or why her works contained so much shocking violence. The publication of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in 1953, however, secured her status as one of the greatest writers of her generation–it was immediately compared to the best of Hemingway and Melville.

O’Connor once claimed that she read a lot of theology because it made her writing bolder. She was often described by literary critics as a hillbilly nihilist, but she protested that she was in fact a hillbilly Thomist, and we know that she had the habit of reading Aquinas every evening before bed. In this six part series, we will try to understand the theological vision that informs O’Connor’s fiction, and in particular how she understood the action of grace unfolding in her stories.

O’Connor’s conception of grace often shocks and unsettles Christians. She did not think of grace as a warm blanket; she knew that it could shock, disrupt, and displace. It is central to her vision of grace that it works to pierce the veil of perception, to help us to see the world as it really is, and to force us–sometimes quite violently–to confront reality, most especially the unpleasant reality of sin and our need for some kind of redemption.

Topics we will discuss throughout the series include O’Connor’s understanding of: grace and the will, the relation between grace and nature, the grotesque in southern fiction, the “Christ Haunted South”, the aim and purpose of fiction, the relationship between art and truth, the place of the Roman Catholic in the Protestant South, and the regional writer.

This salon has 6 series, running on the 1st Sunday of every month, at 7:00- 10:00 pm EST

Dates are: February 6th, March 6th, April 18th, May 1st, June 12th, and July 3rd

Depending on availability, the host might release tickets for individual salons too

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1February 6th
Southern Catholic Gothic

In this salon we will explore the life of Flannery O’Connor and connect key events in her life to some of the enduring themes of her fiction. We will discuss her relationship to the grotesque (in the literary sense) and how it relates to her underlying theological commitments.

Main Reading: “A Good Man is Hard to Find”; “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”;
Recommended Reading: “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”
2March 6th

Flannery O’Connor’s Vision of Grace

In this salon, we will explore and discuss how O’Connor understands the action of grace and nature in her fiction, with particular emphasis on how grace is related to vision, and how the concept of vision operates in her theological worldview and her fiction.

Main Reading: “Good Country People”
Recommended Reading: “Novelist and Believer”
3April 18th
The Catholic Writer in the Protestant South

In this salon, we will explore and discuss the ways that O’Connor uses the Southern, Protestant landscape and culture to communicate Catholic ideas about nature, grace, and divine love.

Main Reading: “Greenleaf” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”
Recommended Reading: “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South”; “The Regional Writer”
4May 1st
Suffering and Evil

Flannery O’Connor once wrote that evil is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be endured. In this salon, we will discuss the role of mystery in O’Connor’s fiction in relation the problem of evil and suffering, paying close attention to the question of how fiction can help us enter into this mystery more deeply.

Assigned Reading: “The Enduring Chill”
Recommended Reading: “The Church and the Fiction Writer”
5June 26th
O’Connor and Race, Southern Manners, and Class

In this salon, we will explore and discuss how O’Connor uses race, class, and southern manners in her fiction.

Main Reading: “Revelation” “Everything that Rises Must Converge”
6 July 3rd
Flannery O’Connor’s Vision of Art

In this salon we will explore how O’Connor understands the relationship between art, truth, and beauty.

Main Reading: “Parker’s Back”
Recommended Reading: “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”

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