Feb/Mar 2009

Southern Discomfort

The origins of Flannery O’Connor’s unsettling fictional world

Wendy Lesser


Even then, it was obvious she was a genius,” said Miss Katherine Scott, Flannery O’Connor’s freshman-composition teacher, speaking to a reporter many years later about her most famous student—“warped, but a genius all the same.” The teacher no doubt focused on the warped part when the seventeen-year-old Catholic girl with the spectacles and the searing wit took her writing class at Milledgeville’s Georgia State College for Women in the summer of 1942; and it was the warped part she noticed some ten years later, when she read O’Connor’s first book, Wise Blood, and flung it across the room. “I thought to myself that character who dies in the last chapter could have done the world a great favor by dying in the first chapter instead,” she told the same reporter.

This was the sort of understanding and encouragement that surrounded Mary Flannery O’Connor from her earliest years in Savannah to her death at the age of thirty-nine in the Milledgeville area. But we should not be entirely sorry about that. Familial and social disapproval evidently spurred this writer on, enabling her to form a pearl around each painful speck of grit. That O’Connor’s pearls are among the most luminous and valuable we have in all of American literature does not detract in any way from their strangeness and hardness. Indeed, their value lies precisely in that hardness, that strangeness. However many times you read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “The Artificial Nigger,” and “Good Country People,” you will not be able to figure out the source of their enormous power; in fact, they will become increasingly mysterious to you as the years go by.

O’Connor’s fictional world is a severe, hilarious, violent place. People behave with senseless intolerance—not just racial intolerance, which we might expect of the South in the middle of the twentieth century, but also a deep-seated prejudice against anything or anyone from elsewhere, and particularly from Europe, the source of “unreformed” religion, gibberishlike speech, and other undesirable forms of behavior. Consider, for instance, this passage from “The Displaced Person,” in which the white Mrs. Shortley converses with two of her black fellow employees about the Polish refugee who has just been taken on at the dairy farm. One of the men wonders what the phrase “Displaced Persons” means, and Mrs. Shortley officiously answers him:

“It means they ain’t where they were born at and there’s nowhere for them to go—like if you was run out of here and wouldn’t nobody have you.”

“It seem like they here, though,” the old man said in a reflective voice. “If they here, they somewhere.”

“Sho is,” the other agreed. “They here.”

The illogic of Negro-thinking always irked Mrs. Shortley. “They ain’t where they belong to be at,” she said. “They belong to be back over yonder where everything is still like they been used to. Over here it’s more advanced than where they come from.”

If you have read this passage without wanting to laugh, you have missed its point. But if you’ve read it without getting angry, without being exasperated, without feeling defensive or offended—in short, without wanting to scream and claw your way out of this terrifyingly enclosed universe—then you have also, very badly, missed its point. Flannery O’Connor is like Mark Twain, but with a harder edge. Both the pathos and the ludicrousness of the life she perceives and creates are always present to her, and which one will win out depends on how wrathful she feels her God to be at any given time.

Ignorance is by no means her only target. Knowingness, of a highly educated and smug sort, also comes under fire, especially in the later stories that are more visibly self-mocking. Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and Asbury in “The Enduring Chill” are both smart-aleck intellectuals saddled with ignorant, prejudiced mothers; each tries to make friends with “Negroes” precisely to annoy his parent; and each gets his own form of ironic punishment. That these two sad, useless men are being set up as avatars of the author herself (Julian is an aspiring writer who sells typewriters to eke out an income and meanwhile lives with his deeply resented mother; Asbury, who managed to escape briefly to a writing life in New York, comes home to live with his mother when he finds that he is deathly ill) does not alter our perspective on them. It may make us shudder that O’Connor could view herself and her existence in that fashion, but we would shudder anyway at the sheer horror of these men’s lives. Knowing the backstory does not help us understand O’Connor’s work any better—it just encourages us to overinterpret.

This is the abiding flaw in Brad Gooch’s biography, Flannery. As the title suggests, he feels he has gotten to know his subject well enough to call her by her first name. And he certainly knows a great deal about her: Every quotation I’ve used that is not from O’Connor’s own work comes from Gooch’s informative book. But the biographical impulse is precisely the wrong one for interpreting a writer like this. Far from expanding our sense of her powers, Gooch’s explanations tend to reduce it, in part by suggesting that she is somehow just copying from reality. She herself once noted that “any story I reveal myself in completely will be a bad story.” He quotes the line but doesn’t pay attention to it, for he immediately goes on to interpret “The Enduring Chill” as a “barely camouflaged” version of her life.

Gooch clearly loves O’Connor, but they are just as clearly a bad match (as are so many of the pairings—religious, marital, filial, random—in O’Connor’s stories). She is demonically witty. He reports everything with a straight face. She wrote by scraping her fictions down to a bare minimum, cutting out all the connective tissue, clearing away all the furniture that usually surrounds literary characters. He never met a fact or a detail he didn’t like, and he’s included them all. We get a whole paragraph describing the baby carriage O’Connor was wheeled around in as an infant, as well as the entirely predictable Latin words spoken by the Catholic priest at her baptism.

Granted, to know that O’Connor was raised Catholic in the deeply Protestant South is to acquire a central piece of information about her. All of her writing is riddled with the question of religious obsession, as in this exchange from Wise Blood, where a prospective landlady is interrogating the novel’s crazy, zealous hero, Hazel (or Haze, as he is sometimes called) Motes:

He said he was a preacher . . .

“What Church?” she asked.

He said the Church Without Christ.

“Protestant?” she asked suspiciously, “or something foreign?”

He said no mam, it was Protestant.

But even if we realize that “something foreign” is code for “Catholic” here, it doesn’t help us get O’Connor’s perspective any more securely in view. How can a church without Christ (and Haze means that quite literally) be Protestant, anyway? It’s certainly a strange kind of religion that preaches, as Haze does, that “the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way”—an angry religion, for sure, and sometimes a darkly funny one, and in any case a religion that will find it desperately hard to attract followers. Yet Haze, who cavalierly squishes a man under the wheels of his car and then purposely and painfully blinds himself, is the closest thing O’Connor can imagine to a saint. This is not the sort of authorial vision we can comprehend by learning what grades she got in elementary school catechism.

Nor does focusing on her lifelong disease (a degenerative and eventually fatal case of lupus, which she apparently inherited from her father) help us figure out how physical affliction functions in her stories and novels. It is there: That’s all we can say. Sickness and dismemberment and ugliness and mental defectiveness and painful, irredeemable aging and its inevitable companion, death, are front and center in O’Connor’s view of the human condition.

The most useful fact Gooch has uncovered is that O’Connor, as a child, loved reading the volume called Humorous Tales in her family’s edition of Edgar Allan Poe. It sounds at first like a satiric joke or at any rate an oxymoron: Who even knew Poe wrote humorous tales? But if they didn’t exist, O’Connor would have had to make them up, for precisely this combination of horror and humor lies at the heart of her enterprise. She was funny before she was anything else; and if she learned to use her biting wit in the service of her complicated theological and psychological vision, that is only because, as she explained to one reader of Wise Blood, “I just unfortunately have Haze’s vision and Enoch’s disposition.” That the churchless preacher Haze should end up blind, while we last encounter his sometime-companion Enoch wandering forlornly around the countryside in a gorilla suit, gives an extra little Poe-like twist to the words vision and disposition.

What Poe had, and what O’Connor either inherited or, more likely, invented, was the courage to confront the horrifying without flinching. In Poe, this seems unallied to any belief system: Cruelty alone (his characters’ cruelty toward one another, his toward them) prevails, and madness is the ordinary state. O’Connor has taken on these extreme conditions, but she does so with the word of God ringing in the background. It is never a word we can take at face value; often it comes to us from the mouths of corrupt preachers, congenital morons, cruel parents, hate-wielding provincials, and madmen of all stripes and colors. But it keeps sounding nonetheless and refuses to be ignored. You could read all of O’Connor’s work and conclude that she hated God, with an amused and bitter hatred; you could, with somewhat less support, imagine that she loved God and all his creation; but you could not emerge from a thorough reading and conclude that she was indifferent to God. If her God seems unfamiliar, it’s because he’s not one we’ve seen much of in the centuries since he left off torturing his saints with arrows, flames, and boiling oil.

O’Connor did escape, for a few brief years, from the South—first into graduate work at the State University of Iowa, then to the homes and apartments of friends who lived in New York and Connecticut. It was obviously the happiest time of her life, particularly the months she spent with her close friends Robert and Sally Fitzgerald in Connecticut. It was during this northern period, before she learned of her lupus and had to return to her mother’s house in Georgia, that O’Connor completed most of Wise Blood and the bulk of her first volume of stories.

It’s impossible to imagine what it would have been like, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1946, to receive as the fiction sample handed in by one of your students the first chapters of what later turned into Wise Blood. O’Connor’s teachers there—Paul Horgan, Austin Warren, Paul Engle— did well by her, recognizing her brilliance and letting her develop along her own path. And later connections, ranging from the Fitzgeralds to Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Caroline Gordon, and Robert Giroux, helped her along her way. But they did so best when they encouraged her without giving advice. To attempt to rationalize a talent like this—to make it more palatable, more understandable, more salable—is exactly the wrong approach. And yet it is hard for any editor or adviser, faced with the utterly incomprehensible, to do otherwise.

As O’Connor grew older, she seems to have listened too closely to those market forces and well-meaning advisers, not to mention the “monstrous reader” inside her own head who “sits down beside me and continually mutters, ‘I don’t get it, I don’t see it, I don’t want it.’” Or perhaps she simply began to lose, ever so slowly and not always noticeably, her grip on her initial vision: a vision of such intense and angry and scathingly grotesque wit as to be unsustainable for a lifetime, even a very short one like hers.

If you work your way chronologically through the Library of America’s Collected Works (1988), you may detect a slight fading: not necessarily a decline in stylistic brilliance or psychological insight, but a falling-off in her weirdly inappropriate humor, which is the bedrock of her earliest work. If The Violent Bear It Away (1960) is not quite as good a novel as Wise Blood (1952)—and I think it is not—that is partly because the cruelty and the disjunctions, the crazy leaps and the bizarre statements, have been partially smoothed over by the more conventional demands of a narrative “style.” And though there are great stories in Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965), there is nothing that rises to the level of the insanely delivered, downright unfair bad fortune that painfully but also hilariously afflicts the characters in A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955). By the later volume, O’Connor appears to have discovered the notion of a deserved comeuppance; this, at least, is what we feel about the fates of Julian and Asbury, her pseudo-intellectual pseudo-stand-ins. There is something far too O. Henryish about the fact that Asbury turns out to be suffering not from the kind of fatal romantic illness that would descend on a depressed writer, but from undulant fever, contracted when he drank unpasteurized milk at his mother’s dairy, which he did precisely to impress her black employees and violate her rules. This is not funny or even seriously grotesque; it’s just tidy and even a bit mean.

Reencountering these stories and novels, I was struck by how firmly and precisely some of the details had stayed with me over the decades: the slatternly girl, daughter of a fake preacher, who ominously says “I seen you” to Hazel when he throws away a religious tract in Wise Blood; the horrendously ugly purple and green hat worn by Julian’s mother in “Everything That Rises Must Converge”; and every single item of the Misfit’s and the grandmother’s behavior in the story that is possibly O’Connor’s masterpiece, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” People like this stay vibrant not because they are realistically drawn, but because they have some quality that is more alive than realism, more credible than familiarity. Only a warped genius, I suppose, could have invented them, and we are very lucky indeed that life at its most oppressive did not succeed in straightening O’Connor out.

Wendy Lesser is the editor of the Threepenny Review.

moufawadpaul

October 12, 2009
3:25 pm

Although I really like this article, I disagree with the supposition that Wise Blood was superior to The Violent Bear It Away... Really, I thought the latter was stronger and just as demented. The narrative use of time was more skillful than anything in Wise Blood, as was the strange logic of that demonic figure that is half imaginary and half real.

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