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When Flannery O’Connor Schooled the English Professors

February 5, 2020


Last fall, I received a letter from a student who said she would be “graciously appreciative” if I would tell her “just what enlightenment” I expected her to get from each of my stories. I suspect she had a paper to write. I wrote her back to forget about the enlightenment and just try to enjoy them.

—Flannery O’Connor

You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.

—Flannery O’Connor

Some of my favorite anecdotes featuring Flannery O’Connor involve her encounters with English teachers. A brilliant young southern novelist with acerbic wit and penetrating insight, Flannery suffered no fools . . . and especially fools who fashioned themselves the wise men of academia. This slight woman racked with the consuming pain of lupus had no qualms about rebuffing the abstract literary theory, the mindless ideology, and the old-fashioned intellectual priggishness characteristic of many teachers and professors who penned her letters and populated her audiences. In one of Flannery’s collected letters in The Habit of Being, she wrote,

Week before last I went to Wesleyan and read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” After it I went to one of the classes where I was asked questions. There were a couple of young teachers there and one of them, an earnest type, started asking the questions. “Miss O’Connor,” he said, “why was the Misfit’s hat black?” I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats. He looked pretty disappointed. Then he said, “Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?” “He does not,” I said. He looked crushed. “Well, Miss O’Connor,” he said, “what is the significance of the Misfit’s hat?” I said it was to cover his head; and after that he left me alone. Anyway, that’s what’s happening to the teaching of literature.

Two years later, a professor of English wrote on behalf of three department members and ninety university students offering a convoluted interpretation of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” that, in Flannery’s telling, bore no resemblance whatsoever to her story’s meaning. In classically blistering fashion, Flannery wrote,

The interpretation of your ninety students and three teachers is fantastic and about as far from my intentions as it could get to be. If it were a legitimate interpretation, the story would be little more than a trick and its interest would be simply for abnormal psychology. I am not interested in abnormal psychology. . . .

The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.

My tone is not meant to be obnoxious. I am in a state of shock.

“Good fiction,” Flannery would write in her essay The Teaching of Literature, “deals with human nature.” Because human nature is mysterious and impossible to fully apprehend, the all-encompassing theories that propose to dissect fiction and, in so doing, explain the “entirety of us,” are simply preposterous. This doesn’t mean that a deeper consideration of literature is forbidden; it simply means that such a consideration must be undertaken with humility. To better understand human nature is not necessarily to explain fully, but to reveal vividly. The brokenness of Sebastian Flyte, the unbalanced rage of King Lear, the angst of Anna Karenina need no clinical break-down; they simply require an eloquent unfolding for the discerning reader to see and perhaps nod in empathy saying, “I’ve met that person,” or “I know that feeling.” “Psychology,” Flannery wrote, “is an interesting subject but hardly the main consideration for the teacher of English.” She would add,

I believe it’s perfectly possible to run a course of academic degrees in English and to emerge a seemingly respectable Ph.D. and still not know how to read fiction.

The fact is, people don’t know what they expected to do with a novel, believing, as many do, that art must be utilitarian, that it must do something, rather than be something. Their eyes have not opened to what fiction is, and they are like the blind men who went to visit the elephant—each feels a different part and comes away with a different impression.

“The Theories are worse than the Furies,” Flannery once railed in a letter to a friend. Unsaddled, theories tend to run amok and oversimplify what it means to be human. Human beings and our nature are greater than the sum of our parts. We cannot simply be reduced to an aggregation of cells and neurotransmitters and electrical impulses. Nor are we to be branded as cogs in an evolutionary wheel, samplings of psychological case studies, or faceless members of a sociological construct. We are flesh and blood, mind and soul, unique and part of a greater whole. We are miraculous and mysterious. To treat ourselves and the literature about ourselves otherwise is to defile and debase the dignity intrinsic to being endlessly complex, gloriously puzzling, a God-loved riddle. Our fiction, offered with passion and honesty, tells this story. Flannery explains,

It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind. About the turn of the century, Henry James wrote that the young woman of the future, though she would be taken out for airing in a flying-machine, would know nothing of mystery or manners. James had no business to limit the prediction to one sex; otherwise, no one can very well disagree with him. The mystery he was talking about is the mystery of our position on earth, and the manners are those conventions which, in the hands of the artist, reveal that central mystery.

Flannery, in her often cutting frankness, did not intend to wound, but to wake up. If literature is meant to form—and not simply educate—its readers, then it must first be warmly loved, honestly discerned, and humbly passed on by its teachers. A story worth reading is a story worth telling well.