by Kirby Hartley
Peculiar Crossroads: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Catholic Vision in Postwar Southern Fiction by Farrell O’Gorman (2007) Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Farrell O’Gorman’s study of the similarities between Walker Percy’s and Flannery O’Connor’s works pierces the banal to draw associations between the authors that significantly enrich interpretations of their fiction and nonfiction. The scholarly book is divided into four roughly 50-page chapters that analyze each author’s influences and a 36-page chapter that surveys their lasting impact on writers of Southern fiction. O’Gorman outlines similarities between the authors, including the absence of their respective fathers; the mentorship of the literary duo Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate; the United States’ post-World War II culture of modernism, scientism, and secularism; Christian existentialism; a particular understanding of grace and mystery that emerges from their Catholic faith; and Christian realism. As O’Gorman demonstrates throughout his study, the upbringing, education, training, and idiosyncrasies of each author account for their differences, but their striking similarities result from their Southern literary environment, the post-war materialistic-scientific culture, and their Catholic faith. O’Gorman convincingly argues that the works of these two authors were part of a new era of fiction that broke with both the past and the present: Old South romanticism and scientific nihilism, respectively.
Chapter 1 gives biographical information on these renowned Southern writers that lends a better understanding of their fiction. O’Gorman emphasizes O’Connor’s battle with lupus erythematosus as coloring her fiction. According to O’Gorman, she saw her own illness as a metaphor for the modern era. In her fiction, she connects her condition with the “disorientation and displacement” of “20th-century humanity”, which she in turn connects with “displaced persons and wayfarers” who are “ultimately bound toward a homeland beyond their imagining.” O’Gorman demonstrates that the author’s understanding of the world through her illness allowed her to create works enriched by instances of grace.
His analysis of Percy’s family history of depression and suicide similarly lends context to the characters in his works (for example, Kate Cutrer in The Moviegoer) and his emphasis on subjects like malaise, manic-depressives, and suicide. Additionally, the extensive family background that O’Gorman draws out explains Percy’s interest in a sense of decaying aristocracy and the end of the Old South. This is due, in part, to the fact that Percy was the inheritor of an aristocratic lineage.
O’Gorman also discusses both authors’ major influences. For Percy, these are the loss of his parents in his youth; his upbringing by his Uncle Will, a respected author whose fiction expressed longing for a revival of the heroes of the Civil War; his scientific training as a pathologist; his bout with tuberculosis; his entry into the Catholic Church; and his devotion to a life of philosophy and fiction. On the other hand, O’Connor’s impetus lies in the loss of her father to lupus in her youth; her training at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing and worked under the mentorship of respected Southern authors like Allen Tate and Andrew Lytle; the intensive Yaddo writing camp; her cradle-Catholic faith; and her struggle with lupus throughout most of her adult life. In sum, these authors
can both be characterized as broadly satirical writers whose religious faith grant[s] them a rich perspective from which to evaluate and criticize a Southern society in the midst of rapid change from World War II
wherein “they understood their own seemingly burdensome histories [and illness] as opportunities for a more fundamentally philosophical realization of personal mortality” coupled with “a heightened need to seek the eternal.”
O’Gorman follows this expansive background on the formative years of O’Connor and Percy with an analysis in Chapter 2 of their literary, theological, and philosophical influences. O’Gorman asserts that the literary vision in each author’s work “was profoundly shaped by Christian existentialism’s sense of the lonely individual in a society where traditional moral codes had collapsed and history did not seem even a potential guide to meaning.” Additionally, he demonstrates through extensive resources and analysis that O’Connor and Percy were influenced by the same great writers: “the younger writers’ libraries contained identical works of Jacques Maritain…[and also] Romano Guardini and Gabriel Marcel.” O’Gorman’s point is that both authors pursued the answers to the same questions and that their respective quests were fostered by the same mentors and thinkers.
This philosophical and theological search culminated in the need for a concrete fiction about this existence and caused both O’Connor and Percy to form Christian realist-existentialist viewpoints. As O’Gorman writes, these authors’ “faith led them to a vision that, in comparison with their Southern Renaissance predecessors [Tate and Gordon], was virtually ahistorical in its concentration on their contemporary moment.” Their fiction, though guided by Tate and Gordon, was a backlash against both the nostalgic Romantic vision of the Old South that their mentors created and the modern fiction of faithlessness. Because of this, O’Gorman argues, their fiction tended toward a “Christian Realism of the ‘Here-and-Now’” that contains glimpses of divine grace and revelation. Their fiction, in essence, takes after Gordon’s in that it is a “curious blend of neo-Thomist aesthetic theory” that contains “reverence for high modernist technique.” He further explains that the Christian existentialist technique is comic—a detail that explains the black and ridiculous humor in both authors’ works.
O’Gorman proclaims in Chapter 4 that all these preceding elements combine to allow O’Connor and Percy to “radically [critique] both decaying Southern traditions and the triumphant American culture that was replacing them” at the very moment when these two concepts conflicted in the wake of World War II. This chapter, though long in proving its point, does so effectively. O’Gorman argues that their fiction is “rooted in the here and now but penetrat[es] the eternal” and with this vision is unique; additionally, their vision brought to Southern authors a different outlook that “served them well in capturing the essential drama of Southern life in the postwar era” and allowed them to create a new literature for the South.
In the fifth and final chapter, O’Gorman describes the legacy of each author in contemporary Southern letters. Though an interesting afterthought, this section does not add significantly to his overall argument within this study.
Peculiar Crossroads is an essential starting point for any serious critic of O’Connor and Percy due to the study’s expansive background of the two authors and their influences. Additionally, the depth of O’Gorman’s analysis of their modes of writing couples with an intensive understanding of their works, prose, and lectures to create valuable intertextual insight. His personal study of these quintessential Southern writers and a body of over 90 works of external criticism from such respected critics as Ralph Wood and Lorine Getz distills their basic thought down to a mere 235 pages. The structure of the work is easy to follow, despite its weighty content, due to O’Gorman’s method of summarizing ideas before transitioning to new topics and his useful subject-topical index. O’Gorman’s main argument amounts to an implicit statement that O’Connor and Percy together triggered a pivotal shift in literary thought because of the environment in which they were immersed. F
Kirby Hartley is a senior studying English.
Image courtesy Elena Creed.