Reading Flannery O’Connor

Frank Bergon discusses her stories at ‘Islanders Read the Classics’ event.

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At the age of 25, American writer Flannery O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus, a disease that killed her father and would take her life when she was 39.

“As a result, she wrote as if someone were holding a gun to her head,” writer and literary scholar Frank Bergon said last week. O’Connor produced two novels and 32 short stories, as well as a large volume of reviews and commentaries. Certainly, O’Connor’s work indicates she didn’t hold anything back in her work or in her views during a short lifetime that earned her preeminent status as an American short story writer.

O’Connor, a Southerner who wrote about the South, was born in 1925 in Savannah, Ga. She died in Milledgeville, Ga., in 1964.

Bergon will talk focus his talk on three of O’Connor’s best-known stories: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” and “Good Country People.” His talk takes place at the Oak Bluffs library on May 15 at 7 pm as part of the “Islanders Read the Classics” series, an ongoing program sponsored by The Times, Arts & Ideas magazine, and the Martha’s Vineyard Library Association.

Bergon, an Island resident, is an emeritus professor of literature at Vassar College, where he taught for many years. He is the author of three novels, in addition to his literary research and teaching career.

We interviewed Bergon last week via email about the woman and her work. Bergon is currently in California at work on a research project.

 

O’Connor is credited as establishing the American short story as a popular genre in the 20th century. Is that the measure of her importance today?

More than ever, O’Connor remains important today. Her grotesque, dark comedies are meant to shock a morally blind world.

 

Which O’Connor works will you reference in your presentation?

I plan to talk about three of O’Connor’s best short stories, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” and “Good Country People.” All three are wickedly funny and spiritually resonant.

 

O’Connor is described as a symbol of the Southern Gothic writing style. What defines that style?

O’Connor argued that her stories weren’t about depraved characters and ghoulish events in the style of Southern Gothic fiction, which she called the “School of Southern Degeneracy.” She actually saw herself more like the New England writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. O’Connor was a great short story writer, but not a great novelist. I hope to say a bit about the difference between stories and novels, and how few writers are good at both.

 

Would her religious and racial views be regarded as socially offensive today?

O’Connor was a complicated thinker about race and religion. She was a devout Catholic in the Bible Belt, but made fun of churchy, pious people. She saw segregation as evil, and cheered civil rights, but didn’t like puffed-up Northern whiteys coming down to tell Southerners how to solve their problems. Some people see O’Connor’s portrayals of blacks as having racist overtones, but she was portraying her culture. The African American novelist Alice Walker read O’Connor endlessly when she was in college, and said she scarcely noticed a difference between their racial and economic backgrounds.

 

Did William Faulkner influence O’Connor’s work?

No Southern writer can escape the influence of William Faulkner, but O’Connor tried to keep a respectful distance from him. She said, “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”

What makes O’Connor a great writer is her stories are both extremely funny and spiritually visionary. I suppose it’s hard to see how a story of an escaped convict who murders an entire family in the woods is funny, but it is. Funny, disturbing, and redemptive. It promises the possibility of grace in our fallen world.

 

Frank Bergon, with “Islanders Read the Classics,” 7 pm, Tuesday, May 15, at the Oak Bluffs library. IRTC is free and open to the public.