“Never Aim To”
In a June 22nd, 1963 letter to a friend, fiction writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) responded tersely: “Never read Beauvoir. Never aim to.” She offers no other comment on the matter. At that point the writer referenced, Simone de Beauvoir, had had two of her works, The Second Sex (published 1949) and The Mandarins (published 1954), condemned by the Vatican and listed on the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books (both in 1956). As a devout Catholic, ostensibly at least, O’Connor’s committed lack of interest in the ideas of the second-wave French feminist thinker was closely related to the blacklisting of the same.
But did Flannery O’Connor, the master of Southern Gothic fiction and not one to shy away from controversial and sometimes even scandalous material in her own writing, really practice self-censorship?
Sally Fitzgerald, one of O’Connor’s closest friends and the editor of her collected letters, helps clarify the seemingly contradictory stance. “In her letters to an intelligent Jesuit friend, [O’Connor] would demolish the Catholic press and some Catholic education with a blast,” Fitzgerald wrote over a decade after O’Connor had died.
“[A]t the same time [she would] ask a dispensation to read two authors listed on the late, unlamented Index of proscribed works. She maintained throughout her life that the Church in no way impaired her true freedom, either in the practice of her art or in her personal life.”
In this way, it appears that what O’Connor was doing was hedging her bets. If she felt the need or other inclination to read a condemned text, she used her personal connections to clergy (and adept letter-writing skills) to get around any red tape. But if she simply had no interest in the subject matter — she was, in her own assessment, fairly politically conservative — actively avoiding certain books (which may or may not have been officially condemned by Rome) was a foregone conclusion.
The Catholic Mind
O’Connor died of complications related to lupus on August 3rd, 1964 (aged 39), a mere two years before the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books was finally abolished. This is interesting for two reasons. For one, O’Connor never knew a world without book censorship and banning by the Catholic Church; and two, her short lifespan coincided with some of the greatest upheavals in Western history: The Second World War and The Second Vatican Council. The first changed the landscape of world political power; the second, that of the Catholic Church and its own attempts at influence over intellectual freedom.
One can only wonder how O’Connor would’ve viewed the abolishment of the Index, but what’s clear is that despite her appreciation of the sardonic, macabre sides of southern life, and general skepticism about most sacrosanct institutions of society, her religion was always something she held as both dear and apart.
She certainly had a robust sense of humor about things, however. In an earlier letter to the same friend as above, from 1956, she wrote, ironic misspellings and all: “Yours truly is being accepted these days by the Cathlicks as being a Cathlick writer! I just got asked to talk at a Cathlick Litry Gild Book Fair in Providence, R.I…” She fully recognized and relished being somewhat of an anomaly and cloaked herself with humor and irony against those who would fault her for it. Meanwhile, she clearly took her membership in the community of the Church seriously and, at times, even earnestly: “When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist.” Her meaning here is characteristically enigmatic (if not a textbook tautology), but the essence is linked inherently to her commitment to each and every aspect of her own heritage and identity, despite their supposed incongruity: Southern; Catholic; American; female; chronic-disease sufferer; writer.
Her art, like that of so many other visionaries, was the process of becoming whole.
In the essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” O’Connor writes, “Catholic readers are constantly being offended and scandalized by novels that they don’t have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often these are works that are permeated with a Christian spirit.” This is especially confusing at face value, considering the above documentation of O’Connor’s concerns about remaining orthodox. “It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong,” she continues, “that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life…” Why, then, did she not practice what she preached?
In general, O’Connor cherished her freedom to read and write as she pleased. As a native Georgian of Irish descent, she inhabited two worlds. And she argued that there was no contradiction whatsoever in such a duality: “The two circumstances that have given character to my own writing have been those of being Southern and being Catholic,” she wrote. And though the “visible Church” was not as prevalent in her native, Protestant-majority Georgia as in the major cities of the North, her concern was with the internal and spiritual elements that constituted her faith. “I take the Dogmas of the Church literally,” she wrote to another Catholic author.
A few years earlier, in 1957, she had written to a nun that “if I set myself to write about the essence of Christianity, I would have to quit writing fiction, or become another person.” She acknowledged that as a layperson she neither expected from herself nor wished others to expect from her anything other than the fruits of her complex and often dark imagination. Her characters are strange, flawed, and often comically deplorable. The tales they inhabit are almost always left without easy — much less happy — endings. O’Connor’s interests in the the grotesque and the absurd are what make her fiction vivid and readable to this day. Seldom do her own perceptions of theology or morals get in the way of her storytelling.
In another essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” O’Connor wrote, “All the sentences in Madame Bovary could be examined with wonder, but there is one in particular that always stops me in admiration:
‘She struck the notes with aplomb and ran from top to bottom of the keyboard without a break. Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff’s clerk, passing along the highroad, bareheaded and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand.’
“The more you look at a sentence like that,” she concluded, “the more you can learn from it.” Considering Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary had been condemned since 1864, we have a good hint as to at least one of the authors O’Connor asked her Jesuit friend to officially permit her to read.
Robert M. Sarwark is a librarian at the Art Institute of Atlanta and a 2018-2019 Visiting Fellow in Publishing History at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. His scholarly interests include historical and contemporary censorship, with a particular focus on the (now-defunct) Catholic Index of Forbidden Books. He is originally from Chicago and enjoys dogs, pizza, and writing bios in the third person. Find him on Twitter @RobSarwark.