Why Reconsider Flannery O'Connor
Often photographed wearing her demure pearls and a sensible dress of her era, Flannery O’Connor offers an appearance that could not be more at odds with the energizing shock readers have been encountering in her stories and novels alive with what she once termed “large and startling figures.” Remember your first encounter with her early story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a comic tale of mass murder, a shocking encounter with terror by a 1950s Southern family and their grandmother simply seeking to escape Atlanta for a few days in Florida? Did you smile or quake when the blood-spattered Misfit pronounced, “She would of been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life”?
This summer, 25 scholars—22 college and university instructors plus three graduate students—added their voices and insights to the vibrant field of O’Connor studies by taking part in an NEH Summer Institute: “Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor.” This Institute was a career-shaping opportunity to step back into O’Connor’s Southern world during which scholars spent four weeks in O’Connor’s hometown examining her manuscripts and taking part in seminars that helped shape how we can research, write about, teach, and respond creatively to the rich treasures of thought and art, belief and creation, that are the life and work of Flannery O’Connor. Today, the works of this skillful, funny, terrifying writer appear in nearly every US college anthology for freshman literature, American literature, or the short story and having been translated into 20+ languages, are also taught world-wide. She has been acknowledged with respect from multiple cultural perspectives, an inspiration for writers as diverse as prize-winning Japanese novelist Shūsaku Endō, Joyce Carol Oates, Bruce Springsteen and even the writers of the TV series Lost. In academia, she was first studied as a humble, regional figure but today there is a vital industry of O’Connor scholarship. Participants in the first NEH Summer Institute on O’Connor in 2007 alone have produced three books, 24 peer-reviewed articles and 63 conference presentations focused on O’Connor’s work.
Since then, the landscape of O’Connor studies has continued to evolve with two new critically acclaimed biographies of O’Connor and O’Connor herself has recently contributed to the flood of texts through the recent publication of her prayer journal—a sign that there may be more growth in an oeuvre that seemed shockingly thin by her early death at age 39. Moreover, despite what once seemed a trend of accepting O’Connor’s own adept spelling out of Catholic readings for her work, scholarship has added to this theological dimension of her work by focusing on her interactions with history, the issues of race and gender central to her era, the effects of revelations concerning her disability and theories of literature itself.
Our Summer Scholars
25 NEH Summer Scholars—22 college faculty members at any stage of their careers and three graduate students who were hungry to challenge and have challenged their ideas about Flannery O’Connor participated in the 2014 institute.
The NEH Summer Institute on any subject is not a vacation from academics but an exciting opportunity to plunge intensely into a subject.
"Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor” began by declaring the major directions from which her work was examined during the Institute. In keeping with the range of approaches and reasons for interest in her work, four thorny (and teachable) foci for our seminars and lectures were chosen.
To these were added the individual interests and projects that each NEH Summer Scholar proposed to examine using the resources of the O’Connor Collection at Georgia College, the largest collection anywhere of O’Connor manuscripts, artifacts (such as her personal library) and materials ranging from news clippings to recordings and films.
A strong staff of seminar leaders was assembled from some of the premier O’Connor scholars active today: Robert H. Brinkmeyer, Jr., Gary M. Ciuba, Brad Gooch, Doreen Fowler, Christina Bieber Lake and Virginia Wray (scholar list). These seminar leaders worked with small groups of our Summer Scholars, discussed assigned primary and second readings. NEH Summer Scholars were assigned to small seminar groups according to the interests and plans they discussed in their applications, thus creating groups with shared interests if not shared perspectives. The seminars surrounded formal public lectures by the seminar leaders, lectures modeling an approach to the issue of the seminar.
In addition, five guest lectures met with Summer Scholars to supplement the topics of the seminars as well as offer practical insights about using materials from the O’Connor Collection. They acted as resources for ideas about circulating through teaching, publications and other means of communicating the ideas developed during the Institute and they opened their personal knowledge of O’Connor to the group. Also, NEH Summer Scholars visited various sites related to O’Connor—both local sites in and around Milledgeville such as the O’Connor farm, Andalusia and slightly more distant sites including O’Connor’s birthplace in Savannah, GA and the Special Collections of Emory University in Atlanta (schedule overview).
Thus NEH Summer Scholars were not only immersed in O’Connor’s texts and criticism but also in the physical culture in which she lived. Additionally, by residing in close proximity to each other for the duration of the Institute, Summer Scholars had the chance to learn from their peers through informal discussions on the porch of Sanford Hall, their main residence.
Embracing both the intellectual and physical world of O’Connor will continually raise questions and uncover insights. Our NEH Summer Scholars had the time and encouragement to pursue these matters as they built a network of other scholars and artists asking questions and reconsidering Flannery O’Connor.