In Commentary, Terry Teachout writes that for many years, Flannery O’Connor’s readers and critics failed to grasp the meaning of her œuvre because their secularist frame made them blind to the importance of her spirituality and orthodoxy. A recent biography of O’Connor, the first publication of its kind, promises to clear up this misunderstanding once and for all. Even so, Teachout is not convinced readers will get her right from now on: “To what extent is her fiction accessible to those who do not take its religious wellsprings seriously?” Observing that American culture is becoming more and more secularized, he asks, “Might O’Connor’s faith cause the brilliance of her art to fade in an age of increasingly militant secularism whose cultural tastemakers do not share her beliefs?” However, if our age is a “post-secular” one, as some have argued, perhaps cultural criticism is now better equipped than ever to make sense of O’Connor’s work.
In 1952, the landscape of American fiction was dominated by a group of literary celebrities who had published their first novels after or near the end of World War II. James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Ralph Ellison, Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Gore Vidal: these were the up-and-comers about whom everyone was talking in the days when serious fiction still mattered to the educated public, the ones who were expected to do great things.
But while all of them are remembered today, none save Bellow came anywhere near living up to his promise. And though the most consequential American book of 1952 was undoubtedly Ellison’s Invisible Man, the year’s most significant literary debut turns out in retrospect to have been a slender, poorly reviewed novel about a half-crazed itinerant evangelist who preached the gospel of the Church Without Christ, a book whose all-but-unknown author was a young woman whose home was not New York but a small town in rural Georgia.
It took a number of years for Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood to be recognized as a modern classic, but once recognition came, it was decisive. Today O’Connor, who died in 1964 at the age of 39, is generally acknowledged as one of the foremost American fiction writers of the 20th century. Not only has she emerged as a key figure in postwar American letters; she is by far the most critically acclaimed of the many Catholic writers who came to prominence in this country after World War II, as well as one of the most widely read novelists, short-story writers, or poets to have been born in the American South.
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