Flannery O’Connor and friends, revisited

George Weigel

Her fiction may occasionally get the chop in politically correct 21st-century American high schools. But as Benjamin Alexander writes in the preface to a new collection of her letters, Flannery O’Connor’s place in the pantheon of American short story writers seems safe, up there with Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. (I’d be tempted to drop Hemingway from the canon, but that’s a matter for another day.) Good Things Out of Nazareth makes for an even richer read, however, because Dr. Alexander amplifies O’Connor’s previously unpublished letters with correspondence from (and among) Caroline Gordon, Walker Percy, and others in O’Connor’s wide circle of friendship.

For aspiring writers, the O’Connor/Gordon correspondence is particularly fascinating. Caroline Gordon was a Catholic convert and a central figure in the Southern literary renaissance of the mid-20th century. To read her letters advising Flannery O’Connor how to sharpen a story is to watch a master editor at work. Like O’Connor, Gordon’s own fiction was deeply influenced by her Catholic faith. So, one learns, was her unsparing sense of literary worth. Thus Gordon, writing to a friend in 1953:

“I hope you and Fannie will run into Flannery O’Connor sometime…[Robert] Lowell says she is a saint, but then he is given to extravagance. She may be, though, at that. She is a cradle Catholic…but she sure is a powerful Catholic. No nonsense about her! She has some dire disease — some form of arthritis — and is kept going only by a huge dose of something called ACTH. We are expected to adore all the Lord’s doings, but it does give you pause when you reflect that this gifted girl will probably not be with us long, whereas Truman Capote will live to a ripe old age, laden down with honors….”

Then there is Walker Percy writing to Caroline Gordon about being a Southerner and a Catholic, in a letter Gordon shared in 1952 with another member of the Southern Agrarian movement, Andrew Lytle. Wrote Gordon to Lytle, “I had a letter from Walker Percy….the other day in answer to some things said about St. Thomas More. That boy is sure smart: His letter is so good that I have copied [an] excerpt from it and [am] sending it to you…” Percy’s letter is a fascinating window into the Catholic Fifties in the Old Confederacy:

“I agree with you about St. Thomas More [Percy wrote Gordon]. He is, for us, the Road Back. For our countrymen, I mean, for southerners. For More is the spiritual ancestor of Lee. He is the man to pray to for the conversion of the south. One of the stumbling blocks to the Southerner (or the American) who is drawn to the Church is that he sees, not the Church of More, not the English Church which is his spiritual home, but the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori by way of the Irish Jesuits. If he does go in, he must go in with his face averted and his nose held against this odor of Italian-Irish pietism and all the bad statues and architecture. Of course this is somewhat exaggerated and prideful, because it is a salutary experience in obedience and humility to take St. Alphonsus. (Hell, he was a great saint!) But if Allen [Tate, Gordon’s husband] is forming a St. Thomas More Society I want in.”

Say what you will about the judgments; you don’t get that kind of crisp writing on Twitter.

Above all, Good Things Out of Nazareth — Gordon’s biblical metaphor for the Southern literary renaissance, which Dr. Alexander adopts for his title — is a powerful reminder of the intensity of Flannery O’Connor’s Catholic faith: an intensity that was unmarked by sentimentality, that was informed by an astonishingly broad reading in the Fathers of the Church and St. Thomas Aquinas, and that sustained her through many dark nights of the soul, both literary and physical. At the end, that is the deepest impression her letters leave: here is a woman of extraordinary courage whose configuration of her life to the Cross was a source of both personal strength and literary genius.

The O’Connor letters in The Habit of Being introduced the world to Flannery O’Connor’s exceptional skills as a Catholic apologist able to explain the faith to others. Good Things Out of Nazareth fills out the portrait of Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic seeking to plumb the depths of the tradition and finding professional inspiration and spiritual liberation in doing so.

COMING UP: Auschwitz and “intrinsic evil”

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Seventy-five years ago, on January 27, 1945, the infantrymen of the Red Army’s 322nd Rifle Division were bludgeoning their way into the Third Reich when they discovered the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camps. The German inventors of industrialized mass slaughter had cleared out earlier, forcing some 60,000 prisoners deemed capable of slave labor in the Fatherland on a march westward, during which many died. Battle-hardened Russian veterans of the brutal war on the Eastern Front were nonetheless shocked by what they found at Auschwitz-Birkenau: 6,000 living skeletons, many suffering from diseases that would kill them before medical care and food restored their strength.

On his pilgrimage there in June 1979, Pope St. John Paul II called Auschwitz-Birkenau the “Golgotha of the modern world.” And it is striking that a world largely inured to murder on a vast scale still recognizes in Auschwitz an icon of radical evil: a barbaric grotesquerie no sane person would attempt to justify. In that sense, the lethal reality of what happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau stands in contradiction to the claim by some Catholic moral theologians — once thought marginalized but now back in business — that there are no “intrinsically evil acts.” If you cannot concede that what was done to over one million innocents in the torture cells, on the gallows, at the “Wall of Death,” and in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau was “intrinsically evil” — gravely wrong, period — then you are a moral cretin, no matter what your highest earned degree may be.

I’ve been to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex perhaps 10 times: in recent years, to pray at the cell in Auschwitz I where St. Maximilian Kolbe was starved for two weeks before being killed by an injection of carbolic acid, or to hike around the perimeter of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, praying the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary while walking past the likely site of St. Edith Stein’s gassing and cremation. And for me, as for many others, the questions inevitably occur: How? Why?

Poland is not on the periphery of Europe; Poland is at the center of Europe, and that part of Poland that was annexed to the Third Reich in 1939 is in the southernmost part of what, after postwar border adjustments, is now central Poland. So at Auschwitz and Birkenau — the German names for the absorbed Polish towns of Oswiecim and Brzezinka — you are not anywhere near the savage peripheries of the film Apocalypto. You are, rather, in the middle of the continent that, in the mid-20th century, considered itself the center of world civilization. And that is where the industrialized mass murder of innocents was undertaken.

Libraries of books have been written in an attempt to grasp how Germany, a country renowned for its accomplishments in the arts and sciences, could have handed itself over to a genocidal maniac who looked like a Charlie Chaplin character and rabble-roused in screechy German colored by a strong Austrian accent. That question becomes even more urgent when, in the exhibits at Auschwitz I, the visitor ponders black-and-white photos of the “selection” process at the railroad tracks leading into Auschwitz II-Birkenau — and notices that the SS officers making instant decisions about the life and death of those being unloaded from the cattle cars in which they’d been transported across Europe are quite at ease; some are even smiling. Then you learn that the men who invented this horror included eight officials with the coveted German doctoral degree. And you ask again, “How? Why?”

One piece of that jigsaw puzzle of evil falls into place when it’s remembered that, in the 1920s, German intellectuals developed the notion of Lebensunwertes Leben: “Life unworthy of life.” Influenced by the pseudo-science of eugenics and the concern for “race purity” then epidemic throughout the West (not excluding the United States), this wicked idea was first applied to the physically and intellectually handicapped, especially children. From there, it was a short step to its application to Jews, Roma, homosexuals, Slavs, and other Untermenschen: lower life-forms. And the concept of “Life unworthy of life,” it must be remembered, was not developed by clods, but by highly-educated people — people who likely thought there was no such thing as an “intrinsically evil act.”

On this anniversary, we fool ourselves if we think humanity has learned its lesson and that an Auschwitz could never happen again. As the Italian Holocaust survivor Primo Levi put it, it did happen, so it can happen again. The form may be different; but the rationale will almost certainly be the same.