Thursday, March 28, 2013

Flannery's Prayers

Surely some of the best selling items we've carried in the Andalusia gift shop over the years have been books about Flannery O'Connor's spirituality - titles such as Flannery O'Connor: Spiritual Writings (currently out of stock) and The Province of Joy: Praying with Flannery O'Connor, edited by Angela Alaimo O'Donnell.  Visitors ask us fairly frequently about O'Connor's spiritual practices.  Being the devout Catholic she was, Flannery's prayer life was pretty structured.  She prayed portions of the daily office (a replica of her breviary is on the bedside table in her room), did sacred reading ("lectio divina") of the Bible, Thomas Aquinas, etc., and participated in the liturgical life of the Catholic Church through daily mass attendance.  By temperament and personality, she was not drawn to less structured forms of prayer.  However, during the time she was at the University of Iowa in graduate school, O'Connor kept a prayer journal.  The prayers in this book contain some of her most personal devotional writings.  I'm very excited to announce that on November 12th, Farrar, Straus and Giroux will be releasing this journal edited by her friend Bill Sessions.  For a sneak peak click on this link.  While you're there, see if you can spot Flannery in the group photo that was taken with Pope Pius XII during her trip to Europe in 1958. 
- Mark

Friday, March 22, 2013

Walk of Glory

In 1999 the Iowa City Public Art Advisory Committee came up with a great idea to honor the writers - and there are a bunch of them - that are either from Iowa or have connections to the state.  The resulting  Iowa City Literary Walk consists of a series of bronze relief panels by artist Gregg LeFevre that feature quotes from the literary notables.  These panels are set in the pavement along both sides of Iowa Avenue from Clinton Street to Gilbert Street.  Of primary interest to readers of this blog is the one honoring Flannery O'Connor, who lived in the state from 1945-48 while she was in graduate school at the University of Iowa.  We thank Iowa City resident and author, Larry Baker, for sending us this photo of Flannery's panel.  Speaking of walks of glory, I came across a compelling interpretation of O'Connor's story "Revelation" by Kathleen Mulhern.  While I don't usually get into literary criticism on this blog, I think  "Loving Mrs. Turpin, Loving the Grotesque" is worthwhile, especially for those who don't understand why Flannery dealt in the grotesque and why it occupies such a prominent place in her fiction.
- Mark

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Dangerous Proposition

In her blog post last Sunday, my friend Heather King ponders war and peace.  She cites an interview she saw in The Sun with former Vietnam veteran and war resistor, S. Brian Willson.  Here is part of that interview conducted by reporter Greg King:

King: In Vietnam you accompanied a South Vietnamese lieutenant into a village that had been napalmed just an hour before. Burned and blown-up bodies of women and children lay scattered about. But when you broke down, the lieutenant couldn't figure out what your problem was. How was his reaction humanly possible?

Willson: I think we're all capable of being in denial of our humanity. And we're all capable of participating in evil.

When I looked into the eyes of a dead woman I saw there, what I experienced wasn't a thought, it was an overwhelming sensation that hit my body. The lieutenant asked me what was wrong, and my brain and nervous system struggled to come up with words. "She's my sister," I finally said. It was just an interpretation of what I felt. It's like when a father goes home and sees his child and just wants to hug her. It's a response that comes out of your whole being. It's love. It has nothing to do with thought.

After reading this, I responded stating that Mr. Willson's comments remind me of those of the grandmother at the end of Flannery's short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." Though in a different context, the grandmother views her assailant, the Misfit, through the same eyes of love: "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" And we all know what happens immediately afterwards when she reaches out to touch the Misfit's shoulder.  He blows her away. Heather remarked: "Yes, just like they/we blew Christ away...realizing everyone is our sister and brother is an extremely dangerous proposition."
- Mark

Friday, March 8, 2013

Cash Kin

Monday afternoon some visitors stopped by.  I noticed that a young man in the group was wearing a Johnny Cash tee shirt.  I asked if he was a fan of the "man in black."  He responded that not only was he a big fan, but also a blood relative.  While nobody knows if Flannery O'Connor listened to Johnny Cash or had even heard of him, it's not coincidental that fans (and family) of his would be drawn to Andalusia.  I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that there are a lot of parallels in the stories of Flannery O'Connor and the music of Johnny Cash.  Their art can be characterized as gritty and raw.  Because both artists deal with life lived close to the bone, there aren't a lot of "happy" endings to his songs or her stories.  Take for instance, the conclusion of Folsom Prison Blues or any of a number of songs from Cash's great album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.  Furthermore, a dark humor pervades many of these pieces that also resonates through O'Connor's fiction.  As bleak as Cash's music can be, it embraces a vision of life that is ultimately redemptive, as the songs on My Mother's Hymn Book provide ample evidence.  The music in this, Cash's personal favorite of all the albums he recorded, reflects the piety not only of the characters in O'Connor's work, but the people in Milledgeville that she knew.  It is the hymnody of people who wouldn't know a Tantum Ergo from a Gloria Patri, but for all that there is an authenticity and sincerity of devotion in this music that Flannery envied, as it was an element she sometimes found lacking amongst her fellow Catholics.  Finally, and it's just an observation, doesn't this picture of Johnny Cash look like he just stepped out of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"?  I bet you can't guess which character.
- Mark