Monday, August 10, 2015

Flannery O'Connor's Favorite Protestant Theologian

I did a double take when I saw this passage:

"She never missed Dr. Frank Crane, an advice columnist....Appearing on the same page as the comics in the Atlanta Constitution, he was a prophet of positive thinking, regularly reporting success stories of people who smile and compliment others. O'connor jokingly called him her 'favorite Protestant theologian.'"

The passage comes from Jonathan Rogers's 2012 book, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O'Connor (Thomas Nelson). It probably didn't startle others the same way it startled me. But as a wannabe historian, this passage had the potential to make my research relevant. Here was Flannery O'Connor, a darling of the thoughtful Christian crowd, apparently an avid reader of Frank Crane, the subject of my new Nebraska History article. 

Almost everything seemed to fit. Frank Crane was indeed an apostle of positive thinking and also a syndicated newspaper columnist. Norman Thomas, writing in The Nation in 1924, aptly described Crane's style as something "a Pollyanna might have written after a short course in William James's pragmatism and a shorter and somewhat critical course in Tolstoi's non-violent ethics."

Frank Crane in American Magazine (1922)
There was just one problem: Crane died in 1928. And O'connor was reading "Dr. Frank Crane" in the 1950s. It was at least possible that Frank Crane's columns were being reprinted decades after his death, but it seemed unlikely. So I decided to investigate. I went to the sources cited by Rogers, all of which came from The Habit of Being, an edited collection of O'connor's letters. As the letters showed, O'connor definitely peppered her letters with references to Crane. "Ashley was telling me that you are an admirer of Dr. Frank Crane, my favorite Protestant theologian (salvation by the compliment club)," she wrote to Robie Macauley in 1955. "He is really a combination minister and masseur, don't you think? I like to hear him tell Alma A. that she can keep her husband by losing 75 pounds and just the other day he told a girl who was terrified of toads how not to let this ruin her life -- know the truth & the truth shall make you free."

In another letter to Macauley, she cracked more jokes about Crane: "I'll write Dr. Crane and ask him what is the significance of the short story. He tackles any subject." Elsewhere, she described Crane as an "odd mixture of fundamentalism (against the grape), psychology, business administration and Dale Carnegie. The originator of the Compliment Club."


Alas, it was the mention of the Compliment Club that brought my high hopes back to earth. A compliment club sounded like something that Frank Crane would have done, but I had seen no mentions of it anywhere in his writings. As I continued reading the letters that were listed in the index under the name "Crane, Dr. Frank" I found another bit of bad news: in a 1958 letter O'connor referred to Dr. Crane not as "Frank" but as "George Crane." A quick google search quickly revealed that "Dr. George Crane" was the originator of the Compliment Club idea and a well-known advice columnist in the 1950s. O'connor's favorite Protestant theologian, it turned out, was not Frank Crane.

That still left the question of why O'connor herself and O'connor's biographers used the name "Frank Crane." My best guess is that Frank Crane's name was still well-known in the 1950s. His pithy sayings were still being printed by newspapers even if his columns weren't. So when O'connor read a column that was attributed to a "Dr. Crane," she simply assumed that Frank was the first name.

Despite some uncanny similarities between the two Cranes -- along with the shared last name and career, they were both lifelong Methodists born in Illinois -- I haven't been able to establish any familial relationship between the two. In a way, though, the fact that George Crane could be mistaken for Frank Crane seems to prove their many critics right: mass media propagators of positive thinking were almost indistinguishable from each other. Perhaps, then, H.L. Mencken's description of Frank Crane as a purveyor of "canned sagacity" was close to the mark.

On the other hand, whether or not the thoughtful Christian crowd would like to admit it, I think that the Frank Cranes and George Cranes of the world have had much more influence on American Christianity (or at least been more representative of it) than Flannery O'connor. As such, even if their writing lacks the depth or thoughtfulness of writers like O'connor, it seems to me scholars should pay more attention to them and also to the business/media networks and infrastructure that allowed their writings to reach such a large audience.