By REBECCA RAKOCZY, Special To The Bulletin | Published November 8, 2012
She is an American icon for both the 20th and 21st centuries. She has been the subject of countless books, papers and master’s theses, and she has captured the attention of celebrities such as film star Tommy Lee Jones and comedian Conan O’Brien.
She’s been quoted by Japanese Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe in his prize acceptance speech and studied in a conference sponsored by the Vatican.
Dead since 1964, Georgia author Flannery O’Connor lives on in her works and letters, which continue to be discussed by a broad and diverse audience.
“Flannery O’Connor is perhaps more popular today than at any point of her life,” said Phillip Thompson, executive director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University.
That sentiment was borne out by the more than 200 people who attended the first of the Aquinas Center lectures on O’Connor, which featured her friend and biographer, William Sessions, Ph.D, the Regents’ Professor of English Emeritus at Georgia State University, Atlanta. The lecture, originally scheduled for one night, was extended to two, to accommodate a large waiting list. It was also moved to a larger venue on the Emory University campus.
Sessions’ talk, “Flannery O’Connor and Freud: The Meaning of Life in Death,” explored the similarities of the author and the renowned psychiatrist in their views on how they approached death. Although they differed in their religious beliefs, Sessions was explicit when he said both O’Connor and Freud explored the meaning of life in death, not life and death.
For O’Connor, that meaning was carried in her literary characters such as Ruby Turpin, in the short story, “Revelation,” and The Misfit, in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” where “in the knowledge of imminent death can they find the meaning of life,” Sessions said. For Freud, that knowledge was carried in his realization of the horrors of the first World War, as told in his musings to his fellow Viennese intellectuals in the early part of the 20th century.
Sessions also talked about the influence of O’Connor’s father in her writing. A close friend to O’Connor, Sessions shared amusing anecdotes and personal observations about the author during her lifetime.
Thompson was enthusiastic about the public’s response to the lecture series.
“We have wanted to have an artist and writer who is Catholic for a while,” said Thompson. “We decided to explore Flannery O’Connor as part of the Emory connection with Sally Fitzgerald and Betty Hester.”
Emory houses the collection of O’Connor’s extensive correspondence with Hester, who died in 1998, and the papers of her friend and editor, Fitzgerald, who edited O’Connor’s letters in the book, “The Habit of Being.”
Although a devout Catholic, her works may be perceived otherwise, Thompson said. It is the letters that bring her work into context.
“Thank God we have these letters. … In many ways, she shows how her literature was related to religion in those letters,” said Thompson. “You could argue from just her works that they weren’t Catholic (in nature); but when you read her letters, you would have a hard time not believing she was Catholic.”
“There is just an enormous outpouring of interest in her. … She appeals to such different types of Catholics and people beyond the Catholic Church,” Thompson said after the lecture.
“Her books were shocking in her day, maybe less shocking in today’s popular culture. The difference between popular culture and Flannery O’Connor was that O’Connor had a point and she tried to use these shock vehicles in her stories to shock us out of our spiritual lethargy. In a way, she uses spiritual dynamite with her words. Her stories make you uncomfortable. They make you think.”
He said, “Her stories deal with the ultimate questions of the meaning of life and death, in terms of how we live our lives.”
The program, supported by the Flannery O’Connor Trust, will be followed by fall lectures in 2013 and 2014. In addition to his lecture, Sessions will be available to speak to other groups, including high schools and other colleges and universities, Thompson said. The Aquinas Center will facilitate his talks.