Friday, June 5, 2015

The Flannery O'Connor Stamp

Today the United States Postal Service is issuing a stamp portraying and honoring the great Southern writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). This 93-cent stamp is part of the Literary Arts series. The picture on the stamp is a painted version of a photograph from O’Connor’s college days, surrounded by peacock feathers signifying her life on her Georgia family farm. The picture has been criticized by some as leaving off her “trademark” eyeglasses and of not conveying her persona as the author of strong, dark, “Southern Gothic” fiction. In any case, glasses or not, I am happy to see this unique writer honored. She was the author of several striking and memorable books, including the novels “Wise Blood” and “The Violent Bear It Away” and the short story collections “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Unfortunately she died at the age of 39 of lupus; one can’t help imagining how much more of her powerful, thought-provoking, and disturbing fiction she would have produced if she had lived longer. A devout Catholic who studied both in Georgia and at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, who lived in New York for a while before she became ill, and who knew many of the prominent American writers of her day, she explored moral issues in ways that were blunt, often violent, and shocking to readers. Biographer Brad Gooch wrote that “O’Connor said that modern writers must often tell ‘perverse’ stories to ‘shock’ a morally blind world.” During my college years and after, I read all of her major work, and I still remember how unusual, how vivid, and how unexpected her harsh portrayals of evil and of struggles with evil were. They seemed so incompatible with the persona of the author, as she looked and was written about, and yet that seeming mismatch was a lesson in itself. When I re-read her work a bit later, I always hoped (in a cowardly way) that somehow the endings would not be as brutal as they were the first time, but there was no mercy on O’Connor’s part. I hope that readers still read her work, and I hope that this stamp will in a small way remind the world of her pathbreaking, heartbreaking writing that doesn’t let readers -- or the human race -- off the hook, ever.
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