Flannery O’Connor and the Forgotten Influence of St. Thomas Aquinas on Modern Literature
The novelist Flannery O’Connor once complained about English teachers who “strain the soup too thin” by over-analyzing fiction and poetry.
But people who enjoy a good book can’t help but talk about it. And the critic Marion Montgomery — like O’Connor, a Thomist and a Southerner — has delighted in the conversation for decades.
To continue O’Connor’s metaphor, Montgomery has made a career of ensuring that the meat (truth) doesn’t get strained out of the soup of literature. He’s done so as the father of five, as a critic, as a poet, as a novelist, and as a professor of world literature and creative writing at the University of Georgia for 33 years. He even wrote an introduction for a local cookbook.
For the last 20 years, he’s been “retired” but cranking out books on literature, culture, and education for numerous publishers. In the last two years, his focus has been on Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy—another Catholic and Southerner. The two volume Hillbilly Thomist: Flannery O’Connor, St. Thomas and the Limits of Art came out last year and With Walker Percy at the Tupperware Party: in Company with Flannery O’Connor, T.S. Eliot, and Others is scheduled for publication in November.
Like any good teacher of English literature, Montgomery has the knack for inspiring everyone he comes into contact with to read and study. He spoke with Register correspondent Mark Sullivan from his home in Crawford, Georgia where he and his wife Dorothy have lived for over 40 years.
The Flannery O’Connor and St. Thomas Aquinas connection isn’t all that obvious. How did you make that connection?
Flannery and I grew up in the same neck of the woods in middle Georgia. But I hadn’t heard of her until I was teaching at the University of Georgia in the early 1950s and some faculty members that my wife and I were friends with started a group called the St. Thomas Aquinas and Rabbit Hunters club.
We would meet once a week to discuss St. Thomas. Each couple would take turns explaining an article. The reason for our rabbit hunters metaphor was that we found that when we read St. Thomas, we would jump more rabbits than we could catch. Also, on occasion, we would hunt real rabbits.
A member of our group brought one of Flannery’s stories that had appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. I responded to it immediately. It turns out that besides being from the same area in Georgia, we both had attended the Iowa Writer’s workshop and had been reading Anton Pegis’s Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas.
I found out later when I was doing research for my first book on Flannery back in the 1970s, Why Flannery O’Connor Stayed Home, she had marked the same passages in the Pegis book that I had. A lot of those highlighted passages became the basis for Hillbilly Thomist.
What was it about O’Connor’s style that first drew you in?
What she had to say about technique as a science killing the spirit of a literary work–I immediately responded to. Her stories have a sense of immediacy to things and to people that you just can’t escape. There it is. There is something very real in what is considered her grotesque [use of violent or shocking themes]. I had grown up with that sort of thing so we were on the same wave length.”
Can you elaborate on this idea of writing technique as a science?
The idea that the writer can control and limit the response of the reader through certain techniques. T.S. Eliot called it the “objective correlative” [a writer's use of a situation or a series of actions to arouse an emotional response from the reader instead of describing the emotion]. T.S. Eliot very much regretted leading people off in that direction.
T.S. Eliot comes up in your work a lot. Was he a convert to Catholicism also?
Eliot was Unitarian—the Emersonean religion, but he recognized how inadequate it was. In the 1920s, Eliot had a nervous breakdown. Notice the mechanistic term as if man were a machine. But he saw it as a spiritual crisis and afterward he started reading St. Thomas and Jacques Maritain.
The influence of St. Thomas Aquinas on modern literature is definitely there. How is it that the study of literature has gotten so far removed from that fact?
In 1909, T.S. Eliot was in summer school at Harvard trying to finish a poem called “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In that same year, a distant cousin of his, Charles William Eliot, who was the president of Harvard from the end of the war between the states until then, delivered an address to the theology students called “Theology of the Future.” He said the religion of the future will not be based on authority, whether spiritual or temporal. There will be no worship express or implied of dead ancestors, teachers, or rulers. The primary objective will not be the personal welfare or safety of the individual in this world or in the next but service to others.
That’s a direct attach on Christianity. John Dewey would write the Humanist Manifesto two decades later. Dewey working from the grammar schools up and Charles Eliot working from Harvard down changed the whole nature of education in the country.
And especially after World War II, there was an explosion of the universities and everybody was writing dissertations. The popular formula for dissertations on literature was the influence of “x” on “y.” You can demonstrate that “x” said this here and “y” said that there, and therefore there is this relationship. But that is at the surface of things. The real question is–what is the truth that lead “x” to say this and “y” to say that. That is why I use the epigram in my books from St. Thomas Aquinas, “The purpose of the study of philosophy is not to learn what others have thought, but to learn how the truth of things stands.”
Almost everyone has read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in a high school English class. What is the connection with Charles Eliot?
If carefully read, it reflects Eliot’s own alienation as a “progressive” intellectual—the “educated” person President Eliot envisages as the true disciple of his new religion.
Can you give an example of this “x” and “y” relationship and how it stays at the surface of things?
Nathanial Hawthorne was a father [influence] on Henry James, but James was embarrassed by Hawthorne because Hawthorne couldn’t get away from the idea of original sin. James tries to locate his concern in cultural history and play American culture against European cultural. James was critical of Hawthorne even though he is is a formidable talent. I’m working on the book to correct misjudgments about Hawthorne that came directly out of Henry James.
How did you get interested in Hawthorne?
I started to get interested in Hawthorne because I was curious why Flannery O’Connor felt so close to him as did so many other Southern Writers.
Was there any general advice that you used to give your students?
I used to tell them that my responsibility as a teacher was to muddy the water for them, and they would have to wade around and wait for the water to clear. As it clears, you see deeper and deeper into it.
Mark Sullivan is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh, PA