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James T. KeaneApril 30, 2024
James H. “Hootie” McCown, S.J., with Flannery O’Connor at her farm in Milledgeville, Ga., in 1950. Those are geese, not peacocks. (Photo courtesy of Burke Memorial Library, Archives & Special Collections, at Spring Hill College)

You might recognize the name from a popular ‘90s band beloved by frat boys and once sued by Bob Dylan, but the Hootie referenced in the title above was not accompanied by any blowfish. He was a Jesuit priest, originally from Mobile, Ala. He was also one of Flannery O’Connor’s best friends and spiritual advisors: James Hart “Hootie” McCown, S.J.

He caught my attention this week because of the impending release on Friday of Ethan Hawke’s new Flannery O’Connor biopic, “Wildcat.” The film was reviewed in America by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, who called it “an encounter with a powerful imagination, one that leaves the viewer with a vivid impression of who Flannery O’Connor was, with all of her flaws and inconsistencies, her mighty strivings, and her human failures.”

Some sleuthing in our archives (and some help from fellow America editor Zac Davis and his diabolical friend ChatGPT) uncovered an article that was somehow missed by our Flannery-obsessed editors over the past few decades: a reminiscence by Hootie McCown from 1979, “Remembering Flannery O’Connor.”

Where Father McCown got the nickname “Hootie” (spelled “Hooty” in some records) is a mystery. But Scott Watson, S.J., a Southern Jesuit of Hootie’s era who also knew O’Connor, was known as “Youree.” And over the years, I have come across Jesuits known as “Wrong-Way,” “Monk,” “Mugz,” “Blackjack,” “Mad Dog,” “Boom” and, I swear to God, “Three-Fingers.” There is rarely any rhyme or reason to these nicknames except for that unfortunate last fellow, who stuck his hand in a rattlesnake nest while picking grapes.

Born in 1911 in Mobile, Hootie McCown was educated at Spring Hill High School and College, after which he joined the Society of Jesus. Ordained a priest in 1947, he served overseas as a missionary in Kenya, Mexico, Tanzania and (much later in life) China; he also worked for many years in parishes and retreat houses in the American South. Hootie’s brother, Robert “The Blowfish” McCown (O.K. fine, I made that up 🐡), also became a Jesuit. O’Connor later called the latter McCown’s article in Kansas Magazine, “The Education of a Prophet: Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away,” the most sophisticated text written about her novel.

Hootie first met O’Connor in 1956, when he was the assistant pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Macon, Ga. He was critical of the lack of literary acumen among the Jesuits at the time and read widely in fiction. He wrote in America that after a particularly well-read parishioner “mentioned Flannery O’Connor as a ‘Georgian, a coming writer, a Catholic, a convert and very snooty’ (she was dead wrong on the last two points), I decided to get on the O’Connor trail.”

The first visit had its awkward moments, as McCown related:

To visit her in Milledgeville, 40 miles from Macon, I had to beg a ride with Horace Ridley, a fat, big-hearted, unacademic whiskey salesman and lover of new Cadillacs. So, when you read about me coming to her house first in a white Cadillac, then in a black one, please do not misinterpret me.

He found O’Connor to be standoffish and unimpressed with him at first. Her mother Regina was openly skeptical of him; perhaps, he wrote, she “took a dim view of a priest and her daughter consorting with a whiskey salesman.” McCown and O’Connor soon developed a close friendship, however, with her schooling him in matters literary and him offering her spiritual counsel and answers to her occasionally scrupulous questions about sin and grace.

The two could be blunt with each other: In his America article, McCown described O’Connor’s spiritual concerns as “of the scope and seriousness found in a convent-bred schoolgirl,” and O’Connor once noted that McCown was to give a talk “on ‘Literary Horizons of Catholic Thought’ or some such grandiose title. He knows nothing whatsoever about the subject, but was not letting that deter him.” Nevertheless, their affection comes through clearly in their letters. “We corresponded extensively and I visited her often,” McCown wrote. Scholars have identified him as the inspiration for the (not very flattering) priests mentioned in O’Connor’s short story, “The Enduring Chill.”

Soon after the two met, McCown recommended O’Connor to Harold Gardiner, S.J., the erudite and rather cranky literary editor of America at the time, and in 1957 the magazine published her essay, “The Church and the Fiction Writer.” Unfortunately, Gardiner decided to save O’Connor from herself and take his editorial pen to the text in ways that infuriated O’Connor, a tale recalled in detail for America by Liam Callanan in 2017. McCown also remembered the moment: “Flannery, bless her heart, thought boldly and straight, and was not intimidated by the rigorist-neurotic cast of so much Catholic moral theology of the time.”

In 1958, McCown was transferred from Macon to Houston, Tex. Though he and O’Connor remained pen pals until her death in 1964, they never met again in person. McCown died in 1991; a year before his death, he published a short memoir, With Crooked Lines: Early Years of an Alabama Jesuit.

When O’Connor had died 27 years earlier, Hootie McCown wrote a heartfelt letter to their mutual friends Thomas F. Gossett (the author of the influential 1963 book Race: The History of an Idea in America) and his wife Louise:

Well I know how you feel about our precious Flannery and you know how I feel. God has his own reasons for removing from our needful world such choice souls so soon. But it is an exercise in Faith to accept it.

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is three poems from Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O'Connor, by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, news from the Catholic Book Club: We have a new selection! We are reading Norwegian novelist and 2023 Nobel Prize winner Jon Fosse’s multi-volume work Septology. Click here to buy the book, and click here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

​​Who’s in hell? Hans Urs von Balthasar had thoughts.

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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