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Saturday, December 9, 2017

"A Political Companion to Flannery O'Connor" ed. Henry T. Edmondson III. A Review


A Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor
Ed. Henry T. Edmondson III
University Press of Kentucky
ISBN: 978-0-8131-6940-8; $60.00; June 2017

While one of my daughters was sitting in her college literature class in Mississippi, the professor assigned a short story by Flannery O’Connor. She plaintively raised her hand and asked him if she had to read it. Her instructor stated pointedly, “yes,” and then inquired as to why she asked. “My dad made me read Flannery O’Connor during High School, and she gives me a headache!”  Her response impressed him, to say the least. Beyond giving High School students headaches, there is a deep value to reading the novellas and short stories of Flannery O’Connor, which is thoughtfully played out in a new work, “A Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor” edited by Henry T. Edmondson III, the Carl Vinson Endowed Chair of Political Science and Public Administration at Georgia College. This 398 page clothbound edition is a goldmine of perceptive articles by a wide variety of authors on the life, formation, thought and work of this seminal Southern author. It is written for literati and O’Connor aficionados, but is easily comprehensible by all interested parties.

The title of the volume makes it sound like it could be a droll description of O’Connor’s leanings and activities. Yet it quickly becomes clear that the material between these hard covers is presenting something profounder and richer. As Edmondson remarks in his editorial introduction, “O’Connor’s paramount achievement is to reveal artistically the phenomenon of divine and natural grace, which, for her, is the manifestation of mercy in the life of the individual. Herein is the key to O’Connor’s political philosophy…” (5). The first ten pages of the editor’s introductory chapter gives a notable overarching analysis of O’Connor, and displays the tone of the remaining monographs.

“A Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor” opens up with four chapters on O’Connor’s politics. John D. Sykes discusses her involvement with the Southern Agrarians and her distinctive difference from them because, ultimately, “the politics of Flannery O’Connor is an eschatological politics” (42). Benjamin B. Alexander explains the relationship and aid O’Connor received in the Jesuit priest, Father James H. McCown.  Finally, Michael L. Schroeder and Margaret Earley Whitt, apologetically unpack the ways desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement quietly, but not forcefully, surface in a few of O’Connor’s tales. Some of the questions and perceptions that arise from these last two chapters appeared to me to be balanced out in later sections of the volume. This four-chapter division gave me a greater historical and social grasp on the environment in which O’Connor wrote, and several of the subtle ways they show up in her writings.

The second part of “A Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor” describes a number of of her friendships, as well as her friendly reception of certain thinkers. George Piggford gives details on O’Connor’s engagement with the works of Baron Friedrich von Hügel and the theological modernism that was on the rise in the Roman Catholic Church.  Then there was O’Connor’s appreciative interest in Simone Weil and Edith Stein, helpfully chronicled and deciphered in Sarah Gordon’s essay. Next, in Ralph C. Wood’s article is mapped out the candid but charitable bond between O’Connor and Elizabeth Hester. Lastly, Mark Bosco spends time showing how O’Connor’s attraction to the medieval (St. Thomas Aquinas) in the midst of her modern moment come forth in her “parabolic story lines” which “violently deconstruct preconceived notions of righteousness and social order, drawing her characters into the real struggles and costs that come with attempts to live a coherent and authentic life” (184-5). All told, these four chapters show a personal and perceptual side of O’Connor that fill in many of her stories and themes.

The third and fourth sections of the volume move into subjects that speak more openly about our own era. Farrell O’Gorman depicts the importance and humanizing significance of O’Connor’s misfits in the face of the rising eugenics push that even moved into the State Hospital in her hometown, an institution that was Georgia’s “primary facility for carrying out enforced sterilizations” (204). Further, Gary M. Ciuba illustrates how O’Connor replaces the politics of benevolence with the politics of fellowship, especially in her “The Violent Bear It Away”. Then the editor, Henry T. Edmondson III, contributes an essay on the reciprocal influence of O’Connor and Russell Kirk as they addressed the societal overreliance on statistics “to answer crucial moral and political questions” (258) and the resultant misguided and hazardous humanitarianism. John Roos shows how O’Connor undresses and challenges Lockean individualism in “The Displaced Person” with her artful answer to the questions of “who rules and to what ends” (279). With some disturbing insight, Christina Bieber Lake brings out the way O’Connor can offer an alternative to the personism of ethicists like Princeton’s Peter Singer, as in “The Violent Bear It Away” which “is a veritable hymn to Christian personalism” (312). John F. Desmond explains and illustrates how O’Connor undermines the prevalent nihilism and gnosticism with hopeful depictions of grace that catch us unawares. The final essay is drawn from a now deceased, but close friend of Flannery O’Connor, Marion Montgomery. This is the headiest composition in the whole work, explaining the parallel thoughts and focuses of O’Connor and Eric Voegelin. Instead of history as progress, it was history “as a process and history as a drama: that is the Voegelinean message Miss O’Connor reads as a welcome complement to those necessities she faces as a dramatist – as a narrative dramatists” (357). All in all, parts three and four add developed muscle and deeper meaning to O’Connor’s lines and leitmotifs, directing readers further into her stories and raising them up to see their world with new eyes.

As a fan of Flannery O’Connor, I found “A Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor” enlightening, refreshing and pleasing. This particular volume helped with details that explain the backstory, which enriches the front story. Though the volume is a bit pricey, it will make a great investment as a gift for your favorite O’Connor fanatic. And if you have only dabbled in O’Connor’s works, this is an important read that may turn you from a dabbler to a devotee. I highly recommend this book!

Thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing, upon my request, the free copy of the book used for this review. The assessments are mine given without restrictions or requirements (as per Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255).

The book may be purchased from this link: "A Political Companion to Flannery O'Connor"

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