Flannery O’Connor and the Habit of Art
April 30, 2012 | by Kelly Gerald
“For the writer of fiction,” Flannery O’Connor once said, “everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.” This way of seeing she described as part of the “habit of art,” a concept borrowed from the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. She used the expression to explain the way of seeing that the artist must cultivate, one that does not separate meaning from experience.
The visual arts became one of her favorite touchstones for explaining this process. Many disciplines could help your writing, she said, but especially drawing: “Anything that helps you to see. Anything that makes you look.” Why was this emphasis on seeing and vision so important to her in explaining how fiction works? Because she came to writing from a background in the visual arts, where everything the artist communicates is apprehended, first, by the eye.
She had developed the habits of the artist, that way of seeing and observing and representing the world around her, from years of working as a cartoonist. She discovered for herself the nuances of practicing her craft in a medium that involved communicating with images and experimenting with the physical expressions of the body in carefully choreographed arrangements. Her natural proclivity for capturing the humorous character of real people and concrete situations, two rudimentary elements she later asserted form the genesis of any story, found expression in her prolific drawings and cartoons long before she began her career as a fiction writer.
Beginning at about age five, O’Connor drew and made cartoons, created small books, and wrote stories and comical sketches, often accompanied by her own illustrations. Although her interest in writing was equally evident, by the time she reached high school her abilities as a cartoonist had moved to the forefront. After her first cartoon was published in the fall of 1940, her work appeared in nearly every issue of her high-school and college newspapers, as well as yearbooks—roughly a hundred between 1940 and 1945—and most of these were produced from linoleum block cuts. When she graduated from the Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville in 1945, she was a celebrated local cartoonist preparing for a career in journalism that would, she hoped, combine work as a professional writer and cartoonist.
In her three years at GSCW, she earned a reputation among the students and alumnae as the “cartoon girl.” The staff members of the 1944 Spectrum yearbook gave her special recognition, publishing this acknowledgment for her in the yearbook: “Mary Flannery O’Connor, of cartoon fame, was the bright spot of our existence. There was always a smile in the Spectrum office on the days when her linoleum cuts came in.” During her senior year, she was The Spectrum’s feature editor, and her cartoons were the organizing principle of the entire design concept, providing a retrospective of O’Connor’s years as the school’s documentary cartoonist, caricaturist, and resident comic wit.
Taken as a whole, her cartoons comment on a predictable range of student experiences—the anticipation of vacations and holidays, complaints about teachers, cramming for final exams—and represent an impressive collection of single-frame satires anchored by human interaction. She targets the anti-intellectualism and social pretensions of her fellow students most frequently, but she also takes up some of the popular cranks about the school’s shortcomings and responds to the effects of World War II on the lives of the students, particularly the presence of the training school for WAVES that invaded the campus in early 1943. Her cartoons showed a talent for mimicking what she observed about people, their appearance, behavior, and manners, and what these things revealed about their character, or what she thought they showed.
Her first cartoon for The Peabody Palladium, “One Result of the New Peabody Orchestra,” published October 28, 1940, responds to an announcement on the front page, “Orchestra and Music Club Are Organized.” “The orchestra and the ‘Music Lover’s Club’ are two new organizations that have been started by the music minded people in Peabody,” the article reports. According to the cartoon, it appears that the music-minded are not always the music-talented, and at least one girl may be planning to keep her distance from this school activity. The school’s music programs were the subject of at least one other cartoon, “Music Appreciation Hath Charms” which has a girl snoozing in her chair with her legs stretched out and her arm hanging to the side as bars of music float in her direction. O’Connor later wrote of herself that she not only had a “tin leg,” but also a “tin ear.” She was sent to piano lessons and tried her hand at the accordion and the bass violin, but it was never quite her bag. The only time her mother ever recalled spanking O’Connor was to make her wear hose to her first piano recital.
Beyond the occasions for providing comic illustration or a witty counterpoint to one news item or another, she seemed to strive in her cartoons to hold up a mirror to the hothouse environment of a rural women’s college. In Hazel Smith’s column “Campus Fashion” for GSCW’s newspaper, The Colonnade, smartly dressed girls could expect to have their wardrobes regularly dissected on the verbal runway. “Doing our usual snooping, we find that plaids and checks have become essentials of the college girl’s wardrobe,” Smith wrote for a 1942 issue. “Helen Clay, a petite brunette, chose a black, yellow, and red plaid skirt. It has two kick pleats in front and two in the back. She combines white silk and a red cardigan with her outfit.”
O’Connor’s eye was drawn to the fashion parade, too, but not at the high end of the spectrum. She thrived on eroding the idealized version of the all-American college girl and turned a glaring spotlight on the reality of oversize sweaters hiding dumpy figures, as well as sloppy skirts and frumpy hair and saddle oxfords and loafers sometimes drawn so large they would embarrass the clowns at Barnum’s.
Her fellow students, however, saw something of the truth, and themselves, in her cartoons. “She was a genius at depicting us ‘Jessies’ running around campus, with scarves hanging out of pockets, or messily draped on our heads,” says former student Gertrude Ehrlich. In her article “Fashions’ Perfect Medium” for the Fall 1944 Corinthian, GSCW’s literary journal, O’Connor moves her satire of college fashion to prose, writing detailed descriptions of the Jessies’ wardrobe choices: “Take sweaters for instance. By now they are practically standard. In fact, there are only two rules which govern their being worn—they must be either four sizes too large or three sizes too small—and since only those who weigh over two hundred and fifty pounds feel inclined to wear them three sizes too small, the oversize sweater is the only one to be considered.”
From 1943 to 1945, fifteen thousand WAVES, or Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service, were trained at GSCW, among them were some WACS, SPARS, and Women Marines who were placed there temporarily while they waited for their bases to open. The influx of WAVES would forced a competition for space and resources over the next three years, as well as inspiring some curiosity and envy among the Jessies. “Some of us were probably a little jealous,” Elizabeth Knowles Adams recalls, “because they seemed so glamorous in their uniforms.”
In her WAVE cartoons, O’Connor has students asking to try on the WAVES’s hats and stumbling over navy jargon, exercising like maniacs to achieve that ideal military physique, climbing trees to avoid being trampled by WAVES marching by in formation, and climbing onto rooftops because the navy has left them with a shortage of classrooms, as well as a shortage of dorm rooms.
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In O’Connor’s fiction, the urge for cartooning can be seen in the superficial sketches she created for certain characters, pegging them with one or two quirky physical features and allowing them to remain otherwise flat and peripheral. In her story “Revelation,” O’Connor puts a few of these in the doctor’s waiting room, like the “woman with the snuff-stained lips.” On the bus in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” there’s the “thin woman with protruding teeth and long yellow hair” and “the woman with the red and white canvas sandals.”
These simple, vivid impressions are reminiscent of the figures in her cartoons and the attention she gave to certain features of an otherwise spare composition—a particularly loud pattern in a plaid skirt, a row of wildly grinning teeth, or the texture and shape of some out-of-control amoebalike hairdo. The minimalist faces described in her fiction also sometimes recall the faces in her cartoons, in their small, seedlike or ice-pick eyes, or in their exaggerated proportions, such as Mr. Shiftlet’s head in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” whose “face descended in forehead for more than half its length.”
Some of the scenarios O’Connor invented to dramatize in her fiction could work just as well as the basis of a cartoon, like Enoch Emory being insulted by a man in a gorilla suit in Wise Blood; Sally Poker Sash standing on the stage at the premier of Gone with the Wind with her brown Girl Scout shoes sticking out from under her evening gown; and a white woman meeting a black woman on the city bus wearing the same garish purple and green hat in “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” which ends, of course, with one of them clobbering the other with her pocketbook. Bailey in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” with his bald head and Hawaiian shirt, and the children’s mother, whose face, “as broad and innocent as a cabbage,” is tied off with a green scarf that has “two points on the top like rabbit’s ears”—all have the appearance and substance of animated characters in a cartoon script for 1950s suburbia, complete with a couple of bratty comic-book-reading kids in the backseat of the car.
O’Connor had early developed the habit of inventing characters and situations that would be suitable for a cartoon. In 1943, when she was describing to Georgia poet and former GSCW music teacher Nelle Womack Hines how she came up with the ideas for her cartoons, she said first you had to catch your “rabbit,” or good idea, then you had to tie it up someway with a situation or event. When O’Connor went hunting inspiration for her fiction, she was still looking in the same sorts of places and catching that same kind of rabbit.