Flannery O'Connor's life, work examined in PBS American Masters documentary
Flannery O'Connor exhibited a saintly devotion to her writing and Catholic religion even before suffering from lupus.
After the debilitating and eventually terminal disease forced O'Connor to return to her Georgia home, she followed a daily ritual of prayer and writing. She bravely led a constricted life of intense pain, living with her mother on a remote farm in Milledgeville, Ga.
She died of the disease at age 39, leaving behind several daring novels and a collection of masterful short stories. Her letters to friends such as Atlanta resident Betty Hester are considered spiritual classics.
O'Connor's courage and commitment to her work dominate the uneven PBS American Masters documentary "Flannery," which examines her career through interviews, rare films and photos, readings from her work and a rare TV interview.
Enthusiastic readers Tommy Lee Jones and Conan O'Brien join writers Mary Karr, Mary Gordon,William Sessions, Hilton Als, Alice Walker, Alice McDermott and Tobias Wolff in giving appreciations of O'Connor's novels and stories.
Actress Mary Steenburgen reads from O'Connor's writing, and cartoonish sequences illustrate "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and her final story, "A Revelation."
O'Connor's longtime publisher, Robert Giroux, and friend and mentor Sally Fitzgerald talk about O'Connor's personality. Fitzgerald's recollections come from a three-hour session with her conducted by filmmaker Chris O'Hare, the genesis of the documentary.
The bizarre "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" illustrations aptly illuminate the story's themes. The accompanying excerpts indicate that the story's strangeness might alienate today's readers.
O'Connor's happy, if unconventional, childhood was shadowed by the early death of her father, also from lupus.
After attending an all-girls college in Milledgeville, O'Connor was accepted at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, where she stood out with her thick Southern accent, devotion to religion, and literary genius. She embarked upon a literary career in New York City, falling under the sway of the erratic poet Robert Lowell, whom she met at Yaddo.
Along with Elizabeth Bishop, O'Connor was one of Lowell's platonic literary loves, although the show indicates that she had deep romantic feelings for him. He was married to Elizabeth Hardwick at the time, following his disastrous first marriage to Jean Stafford, like O'Connor an accomplished short story writer not as well-regarded for her novels.
In the early signs of his manic-depressiveness, Lowell converted to Catholicism, which attracted O'Connor. He enlisted her in a nutty rebellion against Yaddo director Elizabeth Ames, whom he accused of harboring communists. Not one of O'Connor's brighter moments, as Gordon says.
After showing debilitating signs of lupus, O'Connor was forced back to Georgia. The black writer Walker's family lived nearby, but she never met O'Connor.
Deceived by her mother that she was suffering from arthritis, O'Connor was forced to use crutches because of bone damage from the cortisone she took. Fitzgerald at last told her the disease was lupus. Aware of her terminal condition, O'Connor wrote until the day of her death in 1964.
The film, produced in cooperation with O'Connor's estate, openly examines O'Connor's racism, keying in on her refusal to meet James Baldwin in Georgia.
Als, a black writer who's developed a mini-career interpreting white women writers (Hardwick, O'Connor and Joan Didion) unconvincingly defends O'Connor with a convoluted claim that she couldn't defy Milledgeville's white supremacy and maintain her artistic integrity.
He also says her physical condition wouldn't allow her to meet Baldwin elsewhere, although the documentary shows the rare TV interview conducted in New York City and details her visits to universities.
O'Connor's work once galvanized young readers like Jones and O'Brien in their college days. Her "Christ-haunted" Southern world looks even stranger today, a foreign country where people's acts and language are incomprehensible.
The documentary makes an earnest case that O'Connor's work remains vital. But many now likely find her work forbidding.