Not only was Flannery O’Connor one of the most important Christian Humanists of the twentieth century, but she also well understood what made Christian Humanism what it was. While it might very well be conservative, it was always imaginative, allowing one to imagine what must be conserved…
The Presence of Grace by Flannery O’Connor (192 pages, University of Georgia, 2008)
Most readers of The Imaginative Conservative probably know much about Flannery O’Connor. They know she wrote southern gothic fiction—including several brilliant short stories and a few excellent novels. They know she suffered from a debilitating disease and died far too young. They might even know that she and Russell Kirk deeply admired one another. And, almost certainly, they know she was a devout, practicing Catholic.
What many might not realize, though, is that she was also profoundly conversant in the Christian Humanism of her day, not only analyzing and commenting on it, but promoting it wherever she could, mostly in her diocesan newspapers, The Bulletin and The Southern Cross. In 1983, the University of Georgia published a collection of these reviews, the ones written from 1956 to 1964, under the title The Presence of Grace. This might very well be the least known of O’Connor’s books, but, thankfully, the press keeps it in print, and one can still readily order it for less than $25. If you’re reading this review, I suggest you stop and order this gem immediately. (Then, of course, come back to The Imaginative Conservative!)
During her reviewing years, 1957-1964, she reviewed more than 140 separate titles in roughly 120 essays. She reviewed everything from hagiography to philosophy to theology to biography to fiction. Each review is short, ranging from a mere paragraph of, say, 100 words to several paragraphs for a total of 300 words. Not surprisingly, O’Connor excelled at writing about deep things with such precision. The authors she reviewed serve as a “who’s who” of the Christian (and, of course, Jewish) humanism of the mid-twentieth century: Etienne Gilson; Romano Guardini; Baron von Hugel; Russell Kirk; Ronald Knox; Evelyn Waugh; Francois Mauriac; Wyndam Lewis; Karl Adam; Louis Boyer; Edith Stein; Frank Sheed; Henri De Lubac; Martin D’Arcy; Maisie Ward; and Charles Peguy. Not surprisingly, she favored the most Catholic and conservative of presses in her reviews: Regnery; Sheed and Ward; and Newman Club. She reviewed some non-Judeo-Christian allies and fellow travelers, too, such as Eric Voegelin. One can only imagine what her fellow parishioners must have thought. Had they taken her suggestions to heart, Georgian Catholics might very well have been the most educated Americans of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Indeed, any enterprising bookseller should explore the used bookstores of Georgia today; they will most likely find a number of well-preserved treasures.
As O’Connor reviewed, she personally built up a solid base and understanding of the Christian Humanist movement, as is clear from the latter reviews, many of which follow threads and continuities of the previous works and authors considered. Her reviews—naturally, given her character—were as witty as they were insightful. At times, she could be outright brilliant, and, at other times, mischievous, and, every once in a while, humorous.
In her review of Russell Kirk’s most Christian Humanist book, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice, from 1956, O’Connor admitted that even Samuel Johnson—from whom the title derived—would see in Kirk a version of himself for the twentieth-century, and would admire the man and his works “for their thought and the vigor with which [the ideas are] expressed.” More than any other figure of her day, O’Connor wrote, “Mr. Kirk has managed in a succession of books which have proved both scholarly and popular to do both and to make the voice of an intelligent and vigorous conservative thought respected in this country.” Kirk, of course, received such praise with great delight.
O’Connor found Guardini more perplexing. Though devoid of ridiculous and tapioca pieties, the great German-Italian thinker and priest plodded along in his writing as if he had all the time in the world. She never stopped reading him, however, finding that if one is willing to be patient with the scholar, one will find much in terms of real piety and real Christian intelligence. She reviewed his books more than any other author during this period.
Father Louis Bouyer, though, had succeeded in writing properly and perceptively about Protestantism in his 1956 Spirit and Forms of Protestantism. Too many Catholics, O’Connor lamented, wrote narrowly about Protestantism, always devolving into polemic. Not Father Bouyer, though.
O’Connor gushes over Eric Voegelin, claiming his first three volumes of Order and History to be superior to all other attempts at a philosophy of history. His vision, she argues, is not one of cycles, but one of true progress—the progress of humanity toward an acceptance of God. Thus, real history does not seek civilization, but faith. Acceptance of faith allowed man, finally, to become fully human—“a leap in being.” The reviewer does caution her readers, however, that Voegelin’s works contain long passages that are of interest only to the most specialized scholars. Still, one must wonder: How many Georgian Catholics had Voegelin on their bookshelves?
Charles Peguy, she argues, not only reconciled liberty and order for a generation of confused and conflicted Frenchmen, but he also served as one of the most important twentieth-century figures responsible for the current Christian Humanist revival in arts and letters.
Perhaps O’Connor’s most moving review is her review of St. Edith Stein’s The Science of the Cross. Stein, a Carmelite nun who converted from Judaism, best embodied in the twentieth century the spirit of St. John of the Cross, perhaps even besting John himself. As a highly-trained philosopher, Stein combined intense piety with intense intellect, knowing that her life under the Nazis was leading inevitably toward martyrdom. Given her own abilities and her own physical debilities, O’Connor must have identified strongly with the German-Catholic-Jewess.
As I hope is obvious by the time you get to this conclusion, I very much want each of you to have ordered a copy of O’Connor’s Presence of Grace. This book is, simply put, a delight and a treasure, the kind of book you can read not just once, but over and over. It is, truly, a work of Christian meditations, prayers of the intellect.
Not only was O’Connor one of the most important Christian Humanists of the twentieth-century—the century of Hell incarnate—but she also well understood what made Christian Humanism what it was. While it might very well be conservative, it was always imaginative, allowing one to imagine what must be conserved. As with all Christian humanists, she embraced intellect, piety, and, when necessary, suffering.
This essay is dedicated to William Winston Elliott III, editor and founder of The Imaginative Conservative, not just for his excellent labors, but, even more, for his perceptive questions. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.