Flannery O’Connor insisted there would be no biographies about her because “lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” A Southern writer confined by lupus to a farm outside of Milledgeville, Georgia, O’Connor taught people through her fiction how to dig below the surface of things to see spiritual truth. Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco learned that lesson from O’Connor and have plenty to draw on in telling her story in their new documentary Flannery (playing now in virtual cinemas), the recipient of the 2019 Ken Burns Prize for Film.
The reputable documentarian (Burns) said Flannery made him “go out and buy her books,” which is the highest compliment one could pay a film about an author. While some critics found the film bland or quaint, for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, Flannery reveals an inspiring story about a woman guided by her singular passion to answer God’s call on her life.
Unfortunately, little footage of O’Connor survives, so the filmmakers bring her to life with home movies, never-before-released photos, and images of her juvenilia, cartoons, and animations in which the characters resemble her. You hear Flannery read from her work, or the actress Mary Steenburgen vivify lines from O’Connor’s diaries and letters. Although the clips from the decades of O’Connor’s life contextualize her work with particularity, when celebrated writers such as Alice McDermott or Mary Karr read from her Complete Stories, we hear how her art transcends her time and place. Rather than writing escapist stories, O’Connor considered fiction a “plunge into reality,” and this film imitates that deep descent.
Rather than writing escapist stories, O’Connor considered fiction a ‘plunge into reality,’ and this film imitates that deep descent.
“She saw life as the action of God’s grace. And without understanding that, it is impossible to know what she was doing, what those stories mean,” Michael Fitzgerald explains. Fitzgerald produced the adaptation of O’Connor’s first novel Wise Blood, directed by John Huston in 1979. Following the production of the film, avowed atheist Huston realized, “I’ve been had.” The meaning of Wise Blood had snuck up on Huston, and he had to admit, “Jesus wins.” That anecdote captures what O’Connor’s fiction always aims to do. O’Connor said, “My audience are the people who think God is dead, at least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.” O’Connor wanted to be “God’s typewriter,” as she confesses in her Prayer Journal.
O’Connor describes her talent as drawing large, startling pictures for the blind and shouting to the deaf. The film shows her drawing cartoons from a young age, honing her ability to portray life in its extreme; writer Richard Rodriguez suggests O’Connor’s popularity with musicians is due to her ear for how people speak. That said, she may have been too acute at Southern idiom, using language from the 1950s and 60s that those of us in the 21st century wish we could censor. Hilton Als calls her a “brilliant reporter” who succeeds at “disrupting the fantasy of whiteness,” and Alice Walker praises her for showing the “mystery of craziness” without reference to a color line. In a televised interview, O’Connor explains that a writer should know herself and know her world and “paradoxically to be in exile from that world.” In other words, to write truthfully O’Connor needed to be “in the world but not of the world” (John 17:14–19).
Called to Be a Writer
The film begins with lines from her diary, “I must write a novel,” and ends with scenes from the hospital where O’Connor spent her last months revising stories in-between surgeries. Each time the film travels to a place where O’Connor resided, viewers also see the church where she worshiped. Although O’Connor was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, she wrote primarily about Protestant characters and affirmed mere Christianity. The film does not focus on the distinctives of her faith as much as its persistence. O’Connor daily attended mass and read the Bible; her writing life was her vocation. Sally Fitzgerald, who housed O’Connor as a boarder in Connecticut in 1948 and then dedicated decades to editing O’Connor’s letters and essays, reads O’Connor’s life through the parable of the talents:
Flannery O’Connor’s life and Flannery O’Connor’s work were all of a piece. They were both returns of her gifts or her talents. She considered her faith a gift. She considered her talent a gift. And she wanted to return them with gain.
To see O’Connor’s life as the tortured tale of a disabled girl isolated in a small town is to miss the point. By dedicating her life and work to the Giver of that life and work, O’Connor was able to give forward what she had received.
Like the disciples who ask Jesus to tell them what the parables mean, readers of O’Connor’s stories often wish for a guide to figure out what’s going on in them. Flannery is a starting place for readers to look more closely at her stories. The film connects her work to her life without subsuming one into the other. I recommend everyone share Ken Burns’s reaction and go out and read O’Connor’s work, perhaps starting with “Revelation.” Her skill as a writer can help us detect spiritual reality in a temporal world.