Brain Pickings

Flannery O’Connor’s Cartoons

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“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.”

Provided how many famous creators had secret talents — including Richard Feynman’s drawings, Marilyn Monroe’s poetry, Rube Goldberg’s political art, and Liberace’s culinary powers — it comes as little surprise that one of the greatest twentieth-century authors was also a deft cartoonist, whose little-known and lovely drawings are collected in Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons (public library).

When she was about five, O’Connor began cartooning, creating small books, and writing comical sketches, which she illustrated with her own drawings. Like William Faulkner, whose little-known, gorgeous Jazz Age drawings graced his college newspaper, O’Connor also contributed artwork to school publications throughout high school and college, earning a reputation as a cartoonist before she became a famous writer. The latter she had tragically little time to enjoy — O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus at the very beginning of her career as a writer, when she was only twenty-five, and spent the remaining twelve years of her life on her mother’s farm in rural Georgia, writing feverishly and traveling to give more than sixty public lectures. But the artwork she began creating in the early 1940s, shortly before entering graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, exudes its own magic and reveals O’Connor’s remarkable talent as a diverse creator. Her cartoons, created mostly in pen and ink and linoleum cuts, poke humor at student life and comment on the profound impact of WWII. Underpinning her visual art is the same distinct blend of humor and uncompromising fierceness that makes her literary style so singular and so memorable.

Printmaker and illustrator Barry Moser writes in the introduction:

Later in her life O’Connor would say that the things that she worked on the hardest were usually her worst work. It is obvious that she did not work long and hard on these images and that is very much a part of their charm. She also said that a story — or a linoleum print, if you will — has to have muscle as well as meaning, and the meaning has to be in the muscle. Her prints certainly have muscle, and a lot of it.

What makes the artwork especially extraordinary is that O’Connor didn’t work from live models or use any other form of visual reference, and yet her figures maintain a consistent style from one print to another.

Like Sylvia Plath, who found her “deepest source of inspiration” in drawing, O’Connor knew how her visual art enriched her literary process. In the afterword, scholar Kelly Gerald reflects on O’Connor’s academic lectures and how her art shaped both her writing and her message to students:

If you were an aspiring writer at one of these lectures, what kind of advice could you expect to get? If you want to write fiction, stop looking for the right technique and just start looking.

“For the writer of fiction,” she 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. And like any other habit, it has to be developed over time and through practice.

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 in explaining how fiction works? Because she came to writing from a background in the visual arts, where everything that the artist communicates is apprehended, first, by the eye.

Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons is an absolute treasure from cover to cover. Pair it with Sylvia Plath’s drawings and J. R. R. Tolkien’s illustrations for The Hobbit.

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