(FOC) Flannery, Fascism, Failings, and Flailings

During long correspondence, professional, spiritual, and personal, Betty Hester appears to have accused Flannery O’Connor of being a fascist. FO’C’s letters to Hester returned repeatedly to a defense against the charge. Unfortunately, I have not seen the prosecution’s indictment and don’t know if Betty Hester’s letter still exists. Flannery’s replies began on 25 August ’55, continuing through September (Habit of Being 97-108). The defenses presented against the charge included the following:

  • Fascism only exists as a proper and therefore capitalized noun. It refers to a particular political abomination.
  • While during the Church’s “spotted history,” individuals have behaved as fascists but they are merely individuals and not acting on behalf of the Communion of Saints (all Catholics living or forcibly retired).
  • Fascist-like behavior, i.e. violence, is at times justifiable depending upon the temptation to sin and the ability of the sinner to resist temptation in a peaceable manner. If one must,  take a poker up against temptation as Thomas Aquinas did. She declared herself  “ in accord with his use of the poker. I call this being tolerantly realistic, not being a fascist” (HoB 97).

Did Mary Flannery unconsciously embrace the use of violence against the sinner? Would she whip a soul toward salvation as she did after Sally Fitzgerald’s imp got the family car rolling, demolished an Adirondack chair, and halted in a Graceless collision with a tree? Mrs.Fitzgerald’s unsteady health at that moment may have been a mitigating factor for both the imp and Flan-nanny pro tem.

Flannery’s fanboys, like me, are fond of quoting her observation: 

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.

Violence isn’t the sole characteristic of fascism. The fascist has other arrows quivered. Mandates overrule dialog, for example. In discussing the Church’s position on birth control, Miss O’Connor argued against encouraging the rational acceptance of the dogma. She said, “I wish various fathers [priests] would quit trying to defend it by saying that the world can support 40 billion. I will rejoice in the day when they say: This is right, whether we all rot on top of each other or not, dear children, as we certainly may.” This neither supports nor dismisses any argument about birth control or violence, it is merely a matter of style. That style is most frequently employed by dictatorial agencies.

O’Connor stories frequently visit violence upon characters who refuse Grace. While she may not preach, her sinners and innocent characters too are likely to face consequences, dire and bloody. After reading only a few stories from her canon, the reader begins to anticipate the threat of mayhem. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” her murderous Misfit announces about his morally compromised victim, “she would have been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Extreme violence is visited in “A View of the Woods,” “Greenleaf,” “A Circle in the Fire,” “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” “Revelation,” and more, and more-more. She visited biblical retribution on the unbeliever and more often on the Believer of Convenience who designed personal dogma to grease personal desires. 

In correspondence, the author stated repeatedly that she did not support violence. In one letter she says that if she did, she would need to convict herself of sinning. The reader might consider that FO’C would heap violent justice on the sinner who is unwilling to accept Grace, or that she might use violence to enforce divine will. In one of her letters in defense against the charge of fascism, O’Connor argues, “But to say that any complete denudation of the writer occurs in the successful work is, according to me, a romantic exaggeration” (HoB 105). The author of murder mysteries should not be assumed a murderer herself, and any author’s work is not the author’s biography, but an author’s disclosure in her personal correspondence can’t use that same defense. Flannery endorsed Thomas Aquinas’ use of a poker to drive away a prostitute. She also says of Tarwater, who commits manslaughter in administering a violent Baptism: “I don’t feel Tarwater is such a monster. I feel that in his place I would have done everything he did” (HoB 358).

The Byzantine Christ-eyes in O’Connor’s story  “Parker’s Back” bore into their host according to Caroline Gordon’s reading. Gordon had much to do with the shaping of the story and would know. Parker is brutalized in the poolroom and scourged along with the icon of Christ under the broom of his wife. The violence, in this case, is administered as penance for undisclosed past sins. Beatings are necessary and vehicles of divine justice and even of divine. Did O’Connor think retribution administered fascist-style from an author’s pen, a tattoo artist’s ink, or a Thomist poker was justifiable and necessary? Evidence indicates that she did.

Would she administer violence for the edification of a wayward soul? The Irish Christian Brothers of the 1950s and 1960s thought that approach was “right and just.” In their realm, the mildest form of penance was called JUG or Justice under God. Fascism at the end of a barber’s strop usually preceded JUG.



2 thoughts on “(FOC) Flannery, Fascism, Failings, and Flailings

    1. I replied and lost the response. Hope I remember everything I said the first time. I sincerely appreciate your Comment, George. Betty Hester authored the accusation of facism. She wrote anonymously and remained so until after her death. Hester belonged to a Protestant Church and was converting to Catholicism. O’Connor was her Virgil on that path. She wasn’t a secularist although she ultimately left the Catholic Church. She was one of O’Connor’s closest friends along with Sally Fitzgerald and Mariat Lee. This wasn’t a secularist attack. But FO’C didn’t brook the brand of Humanism that would allow for acceptance for immorality or human kindness as a compromise to divine justice. Divine punishment gets meted out in her stories. Flannery was a hard-nosed moralist and lived her own life accordingly without ever making excuses for own humanity. You should have seen my first reply– it was shorter. Best~don

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