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Following Flannery O'Connor

Following Flannery O'Connor

Jesuit High School teacher John Davis Jr.’s poetic work has appeared in literary journals around the world, and he has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize. His most recent publication, “The Places That Hold,” is his 5th collection of poems (his books are available through all mainstream sellers), and it received medals from the Florida Authors and Publishers Association as well as the Florida Book Awards. Davis has earned two Master’s degrees, in Fine Arts (Creative Writing) from the University of Tampa and in Education from Florida Southern College. He recently received a National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) Fellowship and participated in a month-long summer institute at Georgia College and State University (see photos below). He shares his experience at the summer institute, where he studied the life and works of renowned Catholic author Flannery O’Connor, the "canonized queen of Southern Gothic literature." 

Following Flannery’s Footsteps
By John Davis Jr.

During the month of June, I was privileged to stay in Milledgeville, Ga., where I studied the life and works of devout Catholic author Flannery O’Connor. This time of intense immersion in literature and history was made possible through funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the summer institute I attended prepared me to teach Jesuit students in a whole new way.

O’Connor is known as the canonized queen of Southern Gothic literature; her short stories and novels often use the grotesque in combination with moments of grace to demonstrate a larger lesson or point. For many years, I’ve taught her short stories, including “Good Country People,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” I love O’Connor’s work for its literary merit, but I also connect with her characters, settings, and language. Because I grew up in a small southern town in the middle of Florida’s farm country, her fiction always reminds me of stories my grandmother might have told while shelling peas on her large screened front porch. Every blemish, every detail, and every truth is so vivid that a reader can’t help seeing a strong mental movie from her words.

In the world of O’Connor’s fiction, the prideful are punished, the lofty are brought low, and the imperfect is often a gateway to the divine. What more could a reader ask for? With my deep affinity for this author and her writing, I was excited to be awarded a spot in “Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor” – a special opportunity to learn all about her from world-renowned scholars and experts like Bruce Gentry, Robert Donahoo, and Farrell O’Gorman. Their research into all things O’Connor-related would allow me to bring new life to literature I’ve taught for decades.

Visiting her childhood home in Savannah, writing from her family farm’s porch at Andalusia in Milledgeville, and unearthing her literary legacy in Emory University’s archives were all unforgettable experiences. But one question kept driving me toward more artifacts: While everyone recognizes O’Connor as a fine prose writer, was she (like many other authors) also a poet? As one who writes poetry, I hoped the answer would be affirmative, but as a former newspaper journalist, I likewise prepared to be objective, fair, and even detached from the subject.

Digging into her personal effects at Georgia College and State University (previously Georgia College for Women), I discovered several poems she’d written for her college magazine. These were traditional sonnets and formalist pieces featuring sharp-witted satire: Flannery the undergraduate enjoyed poking fun at haughty college professors, fellow female students concerned with appearances, and cultish traditions of the college itself. Nothing escaped her acerbic eye and pen, and these foundational writings paved the way for her later ventures into fiction, where she would similarly eviscerate the injustices, prejudices, and superficialities of her era.

In graduate school, she studied under noted Fugitive Poets like John Crowe Ransom, whose praise she cherished. Her verses grew stronger, moving from simplistic rhymes and traditional meters into an established, refined style. She used her poems as a place to inspect her own soul and the behaviors of those around her. In Socratic style, she both asked and attempted to answer big, universal questions about existence and society, all while adhering to invented forms of her own and those of others who had preceded her.

But before she began critically examining human nature with her words, she was primarily a devoted daughter, and most especially a “Daddy’s girl.” Her juvenilia collected at Emory University contains several poems written to her father on holidays and during times he was away on business. The pieces reveal that young Flannery adored her father deeply and wanted him always to be with her at home. His death when she was only 16 profoundly saddened her, and the relationship she had with her mother, Regina, would become increasingly difficult, complex, and at times, contentious in his absence. Characters reflecting these domestic adversities dominate her short fiction (most of which contains autobiographical elements).

Whether it was spending time in the places Flannery O’Connor frequented, learning more about her biography, or investigating her poetic history, each experience at the NEH summer institute provided something new and engaging to enhance my teaching. As a new school year gets fully underway, I am eager to pass on my passion to another class of boys. After all, Flannery has something to teach us all if we’ll take a seat on the porch and hear her.    

Davis is pictured below at Andalusia Farm, the home of O'Connor from 1951-64, and at Georgia College.