Monday, April 5, 2010

Flannery O'Connor & Thomas Merton: Mutual Admiration Society


From Robert Giroux's Introduction to Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories:

One of Flannery's admirers was Thomas Merton, who became more of a fan with each new book of hers. Over the years I came to see how much the two had in common—-a highly developed sense of comedy, deep faith, great intelligence. The aura of aloneness surrounding each of them was not an accident. It was their m├ętier, in which they refined and deepened their very different talents in a short span of time. They both died at the height of their powers.

Finally, they were both as American as one can be. When publication of Merton's The Sign of Jonas was forbidden by the Abbot General in France, I was able to obtain its release only with the help of Jacques Maritain, who wrote him in beautiful French (the Abbot General did not read English and consequently had not read The Sign of Jonas), explaining what the "American Trappist" was up to. As for Flannery, whose work can only be understood in an American setting, when a German publisher wanted to drop some of her stories as too shocking for Germanic sensibilities, she wrote Miss McKee, "I didn't think I was that vicious."

On a trip south in 1959 I stopped at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky to see Merton, before going to see Flannery in Georgia. He gave me a presentation copy of the beautifully designed private edition of Prometheus: A Meditation to take to her. He was much interested in Flannery's peacocks.

From previous visits to "Andalusia" I was able to tell him about their habits—how they roost at dusk by gradual hops from ground to fence post to tree limb; how their trains get caught under car wheels because they refuse to hurry; how vain they are (they seemed to jockey for good angles when they saw my camera); how funny it is to see peachicks rehearsing with their immature featherduster tails; and how rare it is to see the ultimate display, when the peacock shimmers and shakes his feathers in a kind of ecstasy at the height of preening.

I could not tell Merton enough about them or about Flannery and her surroundings. What was Milledgeville like? Well, one of its sights was the beautiful ante-bellum Cline house, where Flannery's aunt served a formal midday dinner. He was surprised to learn that far from being "backwoods" Milledgeville had once been the capital of Georgia.

I also showed him a letter in which Flannery wrote: "Somebody sent me a gossip column that said Gene Kelly would make his TV debut in Flannery O'Connor's 'backwoods love story' [The Life You Save May Be Your Own]. I certainly can't afford to miss this metamorphosis."

When I got to the O'Connors', Flannery was curious to hear about Gethsemani. Was Merton allowed to talk to me? Yes, without restriction. I described our walks in the woods and the monastic routine of the day: first office (Matins) at two a.m. and last office (Compline) at sunset, followed by bed.

I mentioned that in Louisville I'd bought Edith Sitwell's recording of Facade, which Merton played over and over, laughing so hard that tears ran down his cheeks, and Flannery asked me to recite some of the poems. Even my pallid approximation of Dame Edith's renderings of "Daisy and Lily, lazy and silly," "Long Steel Grass" (pronounced "Grawss"), "Black Mrs. Behemoth" and the rest made her face light up with smiles.

When Flannery died, Merton was not exaggerating his estimate of her worth when he said he would not compare her with such good writers as Hemingway, Porter and Sartre but rather with "someone like Sophocles.... I write her name with honor, for all the truth and all the craft with which she shows man's fall and his dishonor."

Two of my most favorite people & writers of all everywhere & time.

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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Brother Richard.

Thomas Merton probably did admire Flannery O'Connor. I very much doubt she was mutally admiring, as your header implies.

Fr Merton has considerable shakes as a mystical authority. Whether he was himself a mystic I couldn't vouch. As for Miss O'Connor, she didn't write much (cf. the Collected Works) that showed her as seeking to be such an authority. As for the intimacies of her prayer life, God alone would know. But her fiction, my goodness, did she not see keenly into the human heart.

God bless then both. And you, Brother, for joining them in your blog, which was the first hit on both their names this day.

Rodney Stinson
01/08/11

Richard Martin.... said...

Hi, Rodney,

Well, Thomas compared Flannery to Sophocles, so I guess he sure did admire her writing.

As for her admiring him, I haven't seen any evidence to the contrary. I admire them both so much, maybe I'm assuming there, but it's easy for me to imagine them shyly meeting & slowly exercising their wonderful senses of humor on one another and their observations of the world. I wish they would have met. There are many similarities between the two, including that wicked sense of humor, how they kept away from the world in their individual ways, and, of course, their religion, though I agree that how they expressed their faith appears to have been a study in contrast. Merton seems to have worn more of a loose garment in that regard, while Flannery was definitely more hard-core & orthodox.

That is, if I read you right, you're suggesting Merton would have been a little far-out for Flannery, as orthodox as she was? I do see your point. Although he may have been a mystic, or tending toward the mystical, it seems to me to have been a well-grounded mysticism.

Again, I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall if they would have met. They are two of the people in the world whose writing I love the most. I think that whatever differences in their religious viewpoints, those differences would have fallen away in a face-to-face meeting.

There is a book you might be interested in, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, by Paul Elie, about four Catholic writers--Merton, O'Connor, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day.

Nice to meet you, Rodney, and I'm glad you found the article on my blog.

Richard