Remnants of Flannery

Emory University
Published October 7, 2014

Flannery O'Connor's place in American literature is undisputed. A master of the short story, her The Complete Stories (1971) was voted the "favorite" of the sixty fiction winners of the National Book Award in 2009. August 3, 2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of O'Connor's death. Had she not succumbed to complications related to lupus in 1964, she would have been eighty-nine years old today. O'Connor's legacy is unique among southern writers. Unlike contemporaries Eudora Welty or Carson McCullers, O'Connor primarily wrote short stories that drew upon her bleak, dark, and deeply religious worldview.

Whittled down to a two-word sound bite appropriate to the age of Twitter, O'Connor's work might be described as peacock grotesque or grotesque peacockian, if one has the three extra characters to spare. (O'Connor's work and image have long been associated with the image of the peafowl she raised at her Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, and the grotesque southern Gothicism of her written work.) And yet, far from being reduced to a convenient sound bite, O'Connor's sensibilities have infiltrated society in far-reaching ways: what might O'Connor make of True Blood and the consistent vamipirization of the South?1 What would O'Connor say about Savannah residents Jim Williams and the Lady Chablis, the carnivalesque at the heart of John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? What would O'Connor think of so-called "reality" television where a real housewife of New York detaches and throws her prosthetic leg during a fight, à la Joy/Hulga in perhaps O'Connor's most famous short story "Good Country People"? What would O'Connor's take be on what I call "Flannery on Film," the numerous in-the-works film adaptations of her texts?2 What would O'Connor have to say about the continual othering of southern space (the land of "freaks" made visible for the world's gaze) in television shows like Duck Dynasty and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo? Fifty years after her death, it is these types of questions that emerge when I think about O'Connor's legacy.

Brooke Hatfield experimented with several iterations of FLANnery O'Connor. Pictured above is version 1. Photograph by Brooke Hatfield. Courtesy of Brooke Hatfield. Brooke Hatfield experimented with several iterations of FLANnery O'Connor. Pictured above is version 2. Photograph by Brooke Hatfield. Courtesy of Brooke Hatfield.
Brooke Hatfield experimented with several iterations of FLANnery O'Connor. Photographs by Brooke Hatfield. Courtesy of Brooke Hatfield. Pictured above are versions 1 and 2.

Recently, Brooke Hatfield, an avid O'Connor fan, designer, and artist, described O'Connor's legacy as "zine-inspiring." Released at the June 2014 Atlanta Zine Fest, one of Hatfield's passion projects, Scale Highly Eccentric: A Zine of Portraits of Flannery O'Connor, asks fourteen artists, utilizing a variety of mediums, to imagine their versions of O'Connor's iconic image.3 Some artists chose more traditional methods of portraiture, while others, as in Yoonhwa Jang's portrait of O'Connor as a dog, chose more radical methods and images to represent her. Hatfield states that she was attracted to the happenstance mix of "reverent, more traditional portraiture with something a little more untethered to legend."4 While Dan Murdoch and Ashley Anderson painted "mind-blowing beautiful" portraits, "Yoonhwa Jang's [portrait of O'Connor as animal] uses a couple of notable elements of O'Connor's appearance (Those glasses! Those pearls!) to tell a very different story."5 Hatfield herself has previously made a portrait of another of her favorite southern women, Harper Lee's Scout Finch dressed as a ham made out of a piece of ham. "I love food and puns in pretty equal measure," Hatfield states. Hatfield's portrait of O'Connor is in this food-pun vein. The piece is titled "FLANnery O'Connor," which as the capitalization suggests, is a portrait of O'Connor drawn on regular print paper, cut out with a "scalpel" (a surgical tool utilized by Hatfield in true O'Connor fashion), and then laid on top of a baking dish of Flan, or what Hatfield calls her "flanvas," which she made herself.6

Travis Ekmark's art for the zine. Portrait by Travis Ekmark. Courtesy of Travis Ekmark and Brooke Hatfield.
Travis Ekmark's art for the zine. Portrait by Travis Ekmark. Courtesy of Travis Ekmark and Brooke Hatfield.

During a July 29 event to promote the zine's release, writer Johnny Drago read a short fictional piece, "The Name of This is a Sacred Relic," inspired by Travis Ekmark's art for the zine. Drago describes his story as "about two friends, two writers who go down to Milledgeville, Georgia looking for inspiration. Of course, they come back with something completely different. The story is essentially based on the Instagram feeds of some friends of mine who visited Andalusia and the Central State mental hospital recently, and the parallel, vicarious visit I had in my head as I scrolled down."7 Whereas some of the portraits for the Zine explore the more eccentric sides of O'Connor, Ekmark's portrait on which Drago's story is based is startling in its simplicity—a solid background with a black-ink drawing in the foreground—and as such, Drago's story follows an age old plot: two friends go on a journey from which they return changed.

As a writer of fiction and drama, Drago describes O'Connor's influence: "[Her] work has absolutely influenced my fiction, in much the same way that the writing of Tennessee Williams impacted my plays."8 For Drago, O'Connor addressed "reality in a detailed and truthful way."9 Elsewhere, Drago has commented on the "meditative qualities" of O'Connor's work. Drago's focus on the details and the meditative qualities of O'Connor's work points to a way of approaching O'Connor that elides the whole and ruminates on the fragment.

A symbolic representation of the more than 25,000 patients buried in unmarked graves on the Central State Hospital grounds in Milledgeville, Georgia. Photograph by John Kloepper. Creative Commons Liscense CC-BY-3.0.
A symbolic representation of the more than 25,000 patients buried in unmarked graves on the Central State Hospital grounds in Milledgeville, Georgia. Photograph by John Kloepper. Creative Commons Liscense CC-BY-3.0.

For all the cleverness and cuteness of many of the zine's portraits, what are (were) the details and truths of O'Connor's reality? What types of things did O'Connor meditate on, ruminate over, and why do they matter today? Fans, readers, and critics often interpret the "truth" of Flannery O'Connor's work as grotesque, as gothic, as haunting. How do words haunt, and what does it mean to be haunted by Flannery O'Connor's words? In "Ghosts and Shattered Bodies, or What Does it Mean to Still be Haunted by Southern Literature?" the late Patricia Yaeger writes, "We live in a world that is haunted, knows it's haunted, and denies its own hauntedness. What do we do when we see a ghost?"10 What do we do when we see, when we encounter, Flannery O'Connor? O'Connor's ghost no doubt resides in Hatfield's flanvas, in the pearls and glasses of Jang's portrait, in the rough lines of Ekmark's sketch, in Drago's words, in Christine Ernest's pixelated and distorted needlework portrait, in O'Connor's words that remain in print and are read by countless students and fans. As the recent Bitter Southerner publication on Hatfield's zine declared, O'Connor indeed "walks among us still."11 And yet, focusing on the entirety of O'Connor's legacy—the full portrait—ignores the ways in which she actually moved through the world. Nearly all of the images in the zine present O'Connor's ghost in various illustrations of her face and upper body. Only two images, Dan Murdoch's and Alvin Diec's, portray the crutch with which O'Connor literally walked for many years of her life. When we encounter a ghost, even one like O'Connor's, we inevitably make choices as to what to see, witness, and represent.

Dan Murdoch's portrait for the zine, featuring O'Connor holding her crutch. Portrait by Dan Murdoch. Courtesy of Dan Murdoch and Brooke Hatfield.
Dan Murdoch's portrait for the zine, featuring O'Connor holding her crutch. Portrait by Dan Murdoch. Courtesy of Dan Murdoch and Brooke Hatfield.
The cover of the 2007 paperback edition of O'Connor's second and final novel, The Violent Bear it Away.
The cover of the 2007 paperback edition of O'Connor's second and final novel, The Violent Bear it Away.

A portrait by definition is only part of the whole picture, only a fragment of what can be known or seen. Returning to O'Connor's works helps us to shift focus from the whole picture to the haunting fragment in interpreting O'Connor. The most recent paperback edition of O'Connor's second and final novel, The Violent Bear it Away (1960), features an extinguished matchstick haloed by a veil of smoke. It seems a fitting image to approach an understanding of O'Connor's work and legacy. Yaeger asks that we look beyond the "operatic" grotesque and excess of the southern gothic so often associated with O'Connor's work and view the fragments: "A focus on scraps or remnants changes received notions of the southern gothic. Excess, monstrosity, perversion, nightmares, rattling machinery: these rhetorical structures give way to less operatic forms in which fragments, residues, or traces of trauma fashion a regime of haunting."12 What haunts more is the residue; the "vestige, the scrap, the remainder" is "the force that's most frightening."13 The extinguished match haloed by smoke. Or the lavender handkerchief.

Towards the end of The Violent Bear it Away, a nameless stranger with a car picks up the protagonist-hitchhiker, Francis Marion Tarwater: "The person who had picked him up was a pale, lean, old-looking young man with deep hollows under his cheekbones. He had on a lavender shirt and a thick black suit and a panama hat. . . . His eyes were the same color as his shirt . . . he turned . . . and gave the boy a long personal look."14 After "the boy," Tarwater, passes out in the car, "the man pick[s] him up and carrie[s] him into the woods."15 A break in the narration occurs. Next, the man emerges from the woods, his skin "a faint pink," as "if he had refreshed himself on blood."16 (Note the vampiric South resonance of this simile.) When Tarwater awakens, "his hands were loosely tied with a lavender handkerchief . . . his clothes were neatly piled by his side. Only his shoes were on him . . . [his] mouth twisted open to the side as if it were going to displace itself permanently . . . he began to tear savagely at the lavender handkerchief until he had shredded it off."17 The monstrosity and perversion of this closing scene is the act of forced sodomy Tarwater experiences at the hands of this "friendly" man passing through. Yet, the less operatic scrap, the lavender handkerchief, becomes the focused detail that haunts the reader long after the novel's close.18

The lavender handkerchief. The extinguished match. The veil of smoke. The barbed-wire heart.19 The prosthetic leg. The peacock's feather. The pointy-rimmed glasses. The pearl necklace. The imperfect flanvas. The hobbled body. The crutch. However we interpret O'Connor, her ghost remains in these fragments and remnants she leaves behind as much as the "whole" portraits artists and writers continue to imagine. Fifty years after her death, her legacy seems cemented. Master of the southern gothic, champion of the grotesque, a meditative writer whose truth is found in the details, O'Connor's image and words continue to haunt, inspire, and generate robust conversation. As O’Connor’s cousin and a trustee of her estate, Louise Florencourt, said in a recent announcement of materials donated to Emory University’s Manuscript Archive and Rare Books Library, "Flannery should be seen as whole as could be made possible."20 As we all continue to interpret O'Connor, we would do well to heed the advice of the master herself: Remember, "an identity is not to be found on the surface . . . it lies very deep,"21 and "'if there's no bottom in your eyes, they hold more.'"22

Flannery O'Connor's bedroom at Andalusia, her home in Milledgeville, Georgia. Photograph by pdoyen, November 12, 2008. Courtesy of pdoyen. The porch at Andalusia, Flannery O'Connor's home in Milledgeville, Georgia. Photograph by pdoyen, November 12, 2008. Courtesy of pdoyen.
Flannery O'Connor's bedroom at Andalusia, her home in Milledgeville, Georgia. Photograph by pdoyen, November 12, 2008. Courtesy of pdoyen. The porch at Andalusia, Flannery O'Connor's home in Milledgeville, Georgia. Photograph by pdoyen, November 12, 2008. Courtesy of pdoyen.

For more information and to purchase Scale Highly Eccentric: A Zine of Portraits of Flannery O'Connor, visit Brooke Hatfield's website and shop. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Flannery O'Connor – Andalusia Foundation, Inc. Hatfield describes this decision as one based on the importance of place to O'Connor's work: "O'Connor wrote the majority of her published work at Andalusia. It's a literary landmark. And O'Connor's work was so informed by the specifics of place, so Andalusia is sort of uniquely valuable to her fans. Also there's a huge screened-in porch with lots of rocking chairs, and it's a perfect place to eat a Publix Cuban sub."23 In a related Southern Spaces publication, photographer Nancy Marshall echoes Hatfield's evocation of the importance of place to O'Connor's work. Like Hatfield and the characters of Drago's story, Marshall journeys to Andalusia three times a year to trace or commune with O'Connor's ghost; she writes, "my interest is in trying to photograph the landscape as O'Connor saw it in her time and to allow the traces of her presence there to reveal themselves."24

About the Author

Eric Solomon is an editorial associate at Southern Spaces and a PhD student in the department of English at Emory University. He received his BA in English and Spanish from the University of Mississippi and the University of Belgrano, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

  • 1. In addition to the HBO series True Blood and the series of novels that inspired the show, Charlaine Harris's The Southern Vampire Mysteries, see A Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin's early novel Fevre Dream (1982), set on a Mississippi Riverboat in 1857; Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles, largely set in-and-around New Orleans; Seth Grahame-Smith's 2010 novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and the 2012 film of the same name, which reimagines slaves as food for vampires and the roots of Lincoln's antislavery crusade following his realization of this in New Orleans; and the television series The Vampire Diaries, set in Virginia and largely filmed in Georgia, among many others.
  • 2. O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood, was memorably brought to the screen in 1980 by filmmaker John Huston. Atlanta's Good Country Pictures has acquired the film rights to many of O'Connor's texts, planning to mount a production of The Violent Bear It Away and a television series based on her short stories. Irish filmmaker John Michael McDonagh has also recently stated that he plans to complete his so-called "glorified suicide trilogy"—which currently combines the films The Guard (2011) and Calvary (2014)—with a film that takes its title from O'Connor's story "The Lame Shall Enter First" to star Brendan Gleeson.
  • 3. The "esteemed zine artists" include: Ashley Anderson, Rebecca Bowen, Jenifer Carter, Alvin Diec, Travis Ekmark, Christine Ernest, Brooke Hatfield, Yoonhwa Jang, Tori LaConsay, Elizabeth McNair, Dan Murdoch, Natalie Nelson, Emily Wallace, and Lydia Walls.
  • 4. Brooke Hatfield in discussion with the author, September 2014.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Johnny Drago in discussion with the author, September 2014.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Patricia Yaeger, "Ghosts and Shattered Bodies, or What Does it Mean To Still Be Haunted by Southern Literature?," South Central Review 2, no.1 (Spring 2005): 87.
  • 11. "A Talented Group of Writers and Artists Prove that Flannery O'Connor Walks Among Us Still," The Bitter Southerner, August 2014, http://bittersoutherner.com/flannery-oconnor-walks-among-us-still.
  • 12. Yaeger, 90.
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear It Away (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1955), 227, emphasis added.
  • 15. Ibid., 231.
  • 16. Ibid.
  • 17. Ibid, 232.
  • 18. It will be lost on few that "lavender" has long been associated with homosexuality. The so-called "lavender scare" of the 1950s would have been on people's minds upon the novel's publication in 1960. The lavender scare paralleled Joe McCarthy's Red Scare, with McCarthy stating that gays and lesbians were perhaps "even more dangerous than Reds." On April 27, 1953, as O'Connor was preparing to publish "You Can't Be Any Poorer Than Dead," a short story which serves as chapter one in The Violent Bear It Away, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which made it legal to hunt down and fire gay and lesbian government employees. The policy lasted until President Clinton officially rescinded it in 1995. What exactly O'Connor is doing with this image and this grotesque act of violence at the novel's close is a question for another forum. Tison Pugh gives an insightful reading of homosexuality in O'Connor's work and this novel in particular in his recent Queer Chivalry: Medievalism and the Myth of White Masculinity in Southern Literature (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013).
  • 19. The 1999 thirty-fifth printing of O'Connor's first novel Wise Blood features a barbed-wire heart on the cover. Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1949).
  • 20. Richard Fausset, "Emory Receives Archive of Work by O’Connor," The New York Times, October 7, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/08/books/university-acquires-flannery-oconnors-papers-and-effects.html?_r=0.
  • 21. Flannery O'Connor, "The Regional Writer" in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, ed. Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1969), 58.
  • 22. O'Connor, Wise Blood, 222.
  • 23. Brooke Hatfield in discussion with the author, September 2014.
  • 24. Nancy Marshall, "Andalusia: Photographs of Flannery O'Connor's Farm," Southern Spaces, April 28, 2008, http://southernspaces.org/2008/andalusia-photographs-flannery-oconnors-farm.
Cover Image Attribution: 
The porch at Andalusia, Flannery O'Connor's home in Milledgeville, Georgia. Photograph by pdoyen, November 12, 2008. Courtesy of pdoyen.
doi:10.18737/M7832T

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