Flannery O’Connor is considered one of America’s great writers. While many may be familiar with her short stories such as “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and her novels such as “Wise Blood,” the fact that she was a committed Catholic may not be quite as well known.
O’Connor spent much of her life in Georgia and died of lupus in 1964 at age 39.
Now the award-winning documentary “Uncommon Grace: The Life of Flannery O’Connor,” written by Buffalo Grove native Daniel Kurt, seeks to shed light on O’Connor’s faith journey and how it influenced her stories. It aired recently on PBS in Chicago and is available through Amazon.com.
Kurt, who grew up in a family of eight children and attended St. Edna Parish in Arlington Heights and St. Mary in Buffalo Grove, recently spoke with the Chicago Catholic about the documentary.
Chicago Catholic: Why did you want to do this documentary on Flannery O’Connor?
Daniel Kurt: Some academics think O’Connor was the most important Christian — not just Catholic — writer that the United States has ever produced. And yet relatively few people are familiar with her work. That’s really remarkable. We wanted to help change that.
Chicago Catholic: When writing this were there things about her that came to light that surprised you?
Kurt: It’s hard to separate O’Connor from the South, a region that became so central to her work, but I learned that she didn’t really want to spend her career in central Georgia. She started out in New York, where most of the successful writers were at the time. But when she discovered she had lupus in her mid-20s, she needed extra care. That meant moving back in with her mother, who by then was a widow operating a dairy farm down there. She clearly made the best of it, turning that rural landscape into the backdrop for many of her stories.
Chicago Catholic: How did her personal struggles shape her life and writing?
Kurt: When she was diagnosed with lupus as a young adult, doctors gave her just five years to live —though she exceeded that, fortunately. She battled extreme fatigue and the inability to walk without crutches for much of her adult life. And yet she persevered, maintaining a schedule that allowed her to publish 32 short stories and two novels.
She diligently sat at her typewriter for two to three hours in the morning, but would have to rest during the afternoon. Given that short window of opportunity, she was amazingly productive.
Chicago Catholic: What role did her father play in her writing life?
Kurt: O’Connor always had a vivid imagination and her father really nurtured that. She’d apparently write poems or make sketches and leave them in places where only he could find them. They’d pass notes back and forth, which he’d sign as “King of Siam.” She, in turn, signed hers “Lord Flannery O’Connor.” He made her feel comfortable creating this world of pure fantasy. She was just a teenager when he died of lupus, which was like losing a best friend for her.
Chicago Catholic: How did her faith impact her writing?
Kurt: She most definitely had an intense spiritual life, which included daily Communion. In her essays and correspondence with friends, she’s preoccupied with the role of God in modern life. She continually delved into that in her stories. Virtually all of them feature flawed characters who, in some way or other, face the realization that a life without Christ is a dead end.
There are certainly a few of her stories that you can read without even recognizing a spiritual theme, per se. And they’re still very engaging. She was just such a talented writer. But the more pieces you read, the more obvious it is that her primary concern was what happens to a person who doesn’t think they need salvation.
You can see it, for instance, in a character like Hulga from “Good Country People.” She’s an intellectual who’s bought into all of these nihilistic philosophies. When a traveling Bible salesman comes to her door, she contrives a way to prove how empty his belief system is. And yet, ironically, it’s the absence of objective morality that allows him to turn the tables on her in the end.
Chicago Catholic: Can you share something about her devotion to the Blessed Mother?
Kurt: From her prayer journal, which was first published a few years ago, it’s clear that she sought the intercession of Mary to, among other things perhaps, become a successful writer.
She also prayed the rosary, so that was also a big part of her spiritual life. At her family’s behest, she did take a trip to Lourdes, despite having mixed feelings about the ritual involved. She wrote to a friend, with characteristic humor, “I am one of those people who could die for his religion sooner than take a bath for it.”
She described praying for help with her second novel rather than her health ailments, which she seemed to accept with great faith. Coincidentally or not, she made a creative breakthrough with the novel shortly after returning home.
Chicago Catholic: Her writing isn’t sanguine. Why?
Kurt: She wanted to depict evil in a realistic way, and that meant sometimes using violence. But it was never there just for a cheap thrill. There’s a mystery that unravels in those moments of calamity, which is what makes them so powerful. The paradox is that what seems like a disaster can actually represent a moment of spiritual rebirth for the character.
Mrs. May, the farm owner in “Greenleaf,” is a prime example. She calls herself a Christian, but shows a smug attitude toward her faith. She looks with derision at her tenant farmers’ scrub bull, who regularly make its way onto her property. But O’Connor presents the animal as a symbol of Christ’s love. When it violently approaches Mrs. May, she ultimately recognizes it as Christ chasing her down. Rather than being destroyed, she’s metaphorically redeemed.