Thursday, September 24, 2009

Stacey Levine | The Water

Stacey Levine
The Water (from The Girl With Brown Fur: Tales and Stories)

If it were merely water and unimportant, but it is water, all-important, more brilliant than clean.

If water could rage back at us in a future of silver clashes. But water is merely itself—its body, its delirium of cohesion, its obeisance to gravity, its life as the house of fish—so water will never blame, only the people do that: for example, Gale, who lived in Tallahassee; he owned a rural house; he hated writing his thoughts. He liked tea at nighttime with the trees hanging near the fence, when there might be a mood in the air. And smoke (all through the waxy future, we will not lose such nights). He called his wife "Mother"; he lived on a hill. Gale did not vote this time. He was not a bad man, not through all the bad years while Florida lost its lakes and he watched, while the lizards died papery in the grass. The lakes' deaths were a shame, Gale said, resting in his chair, and Mother wrote a blaming letter to a magazine. Gale liked chicken. His children would soon retire. The water will be algae-oily and never consciously suffer.

We might reach an arm toward a dark surface someday, gasping alongside the boats and birds, alongside this incomprehension of water and the way those living at the top always rule. Gale knew it. Still and all, he was glad he lived. He said to Mother, Hi, Koo-Koo. Aren't you glad you lived too?

Copyright ©2009 by Stacey Levine

Author of My Horse and Other Stories (Sun & Moon Press), Dra— (Sun & Moon Press), and Frances Johnson, Stacey Levine lives in Seattle. The Girl with Brown Fur: Tales and Stories will be published later this year, and Dra— will be reprinted in early 2010 by Green Integer.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Douglas Messerli | Strange Bird (on Flannery O'Connor)

O'Connor and her self-portrait with peacock

O'Connor with peacocks at Andalusia

O'Connor's Andalusia

Douglas Messerli
Strange Bird: A Review of Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor

Brad Gooch Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2009)
Flannery O'Connor Collected Works, contents selected and chronology by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: The Library of America, 1988).

Born in Savannah, Georgia on March 25, 1925 Mary Flannery O'Connor was the only child of a devoted and extended Catholic family. Her mother, Regina Cline, was part of the wealthy and noted Cline family of Savannah, whose second cousin, Mrs. Raphael (Katie) Seemes, rented them a small Georgian row house next to her own mansion and garden. Several of Regina's relatives had also established homes in the former state capital, Milledgeville, to the northwest, and during summers the O'Connors visted the town, staying in the home where Regina had grown up, once the interim governor's mansion. They also regularly visited the nearby farm, Andulusia, owned by her uncle.

In his new biography of Flannery O'Connor, Brad Gooch dutifully notes the families' comings and goings, based on brief mentions in the local newspapers. But, except for their scuttling between houses little of interest occurs in O'Connor's youth except at age five, when she was filmed by Pathè with her pet chicken who was rumored to walk backwards: at first, things did not go well, but "Finally, as the afternoon wore on, the bird began to back up. O'Connor, a natural mimic, jumped next to her and began to walk backward as well. The [camera] operator stuck his head under his tent. A few seconds later, the hen hit a bush and abruptly sat down. Exasperated, 'the Pathé man' gathered his equipment and made a quick exit...." The only major literary contribution of her youth was a satirical portrait of her extended family. And, although, Gooch goes out of his way to normalize her Catholic-school girlhood, one cannot help but perceive her a bit like the red-faced child in O'Connor's story "A Circle in the Fire," her face buried in a book from which, from time to time, she would peer out at the world about. At age twelve, she was overly wise and determined to not grow any older. And, in some respects, Gooch and others hint that, at least sexually, she remained that age throughout her life.

One aspect of her childhood education, however, reveals a great deal about her later writing. Attending the local Catholic school, O'Connor, in third grade, began resenting certain of what she described as "nun-inspired doings." As Brad Gooch describes her "tussles" with authority:

In a state of mind somewhere between a child's daydream and one of
the scriptural visions she heard preached about the church, she imagined
bouts with a guardian angel she pictures as half nun, half bird.

As O'Connor wrote to her friend, Betty Hester, years later, "From 8 to 12 years it was my habit to seclude myself in a locked room every so often and with a fierce (and evil) face, whirl around in a circle with my fists knotted, socking the angel with which the Sisters assured us we were all equipped.... You couldn't hurt an angel but I would have been happy to know I had dirtied his feathers...."

Having lost his Dixie Realty Company (later expanded to include the Dixie Construction Company), in part due to the Great Depression, her beloved father soon after began to show signs of illness, lupus, which would eventually kill him—and years later, O'Connor herself. In 1938, having been appointed a real estate appraiser for the Federal Housing Administration, he and the family moved to Atlanta, an experience hated by Flannery and, evidently, by her mother, for the two returned in the Fall to live in Milledgeville—appropriately named, given O'Connor's love of chickens peacocks, geese, and swans, a "Bird Sanctuary"—with the father remaining weekdays in Atlanta, a city much vilified in her story "The Artificial Nigger," where grandfather and son agree: "I'm glad I've went once, but I'll never to back again!"

Over the next two years, O'Connor became active in her High School newspaper, the Peabody Palladium, drawing cartoons and contributing writing. On February 1, 1941, however, tragedy struck her life with the death of her father, a man, she felt, who would have written had he had the "time or money or training or any of the opportunities I have had." Her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, was dedicated to him.

O'Connor came alive, so it appears, during her college days at Georgia State College for Women, located, as she later joked, across the street from her Milledgeville home. There she quickly became active as a cartoonist, regularly contributing to the college literary magazine, the Corinthian. Soon after she began to publish short prose pieces and stories in that magazine and the Colonnade, where she became art editor and also published weekly cartoons. Indeed, O'Connor took her cartoons seriously enough that she sent some for possible publication in The New Yorker. It is fascinating to think what might have happened to her writing talent had that magazine accepted her work.

For fiction, clearly, was not yet an area which O'Connor had thoroughly explored as a possible career. Gooch carefully outlines the several courses in English Literature O'Connor took, pointing to important early readings in her textbook, including stories by Faulkner, Joyce, and Poe. It was a social science course, however, that was ultimately to change her life. That course, an Introduction to Modern Philosophy, was taught by George Beiswanger, who had received is PhD at the University of Iowa. He had also worked as an editor for Theatre Arts Monthly and written on dance in Dance Observer, as well as taken part in a arts symposium at Black Mountain College. Later in her life, philosophical theory, particularly of the religious sort, would occupy a great deal of her energy. But in this course she sat through discussions of Descartes and other Enlightenment thinkers with "persistent, subtle scowl." "What kept me a sceptic in college was precisely my Christian faith," she confided in a letter of 1962. Yet Beiswanger clearly saw her abilities, particularly from her classroom arguments with him. Not only did the student receive an A, but he encouraged her to apply for graduate school at his alma mater. She applied to both Duke University and Iowa, considering a career in journalism. The latter accepted her with full tuition, to which she readily agreed.

From almost the first moment of entering the Iowa campus, however, O'Connor found her way to the office of Paul Engle, then director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Their hilarious first encounter is worth describing:

Sitting in his office early in the fall of 1945, Paul Engle...heard a gentle
knock at the door. After he shouted an invitation to enter, a shy, young
woman appeared and walked over to his desk without, at first, saying
a word. He could not even tell, as she stood before him, whether she was
looking in his direction, or out the window at the curling Iowa River
below. ...[Engle] introduced himself and offered her a seat, as she tightly
held on to what he later claimed was "one of the most beat-up handbags
I've ever seen."
When she finally spoke, her Georgia dialect sounded so thick to his
Midwestern ear that he asked her repeat her question. Embarrassed by
an inability a second time, to understand, Engle handed her a pad to
write what she had said. So in schoolgirl script, she put down three short
lines: "My name is Flannery O'Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come
to the Writers' Workshop?"

A couple of days later, after Engle read a few stories she had sent him, O'Connor was accepted into the program, and an important new chapter in American literary history was begun.

It was at the Iowa campus that Flannery O'Connor truly discovered herself. Changing her name from Mary Flannery O'Connor in order to avoid "the lilting double name that exaggerated her oddity as a Southern lady in Iowa City," Flannery soon settled in to her home at Currier House, beginning a series of "close reading" literary classes with Engle, Paul Horgan, Austin Warren, Andrew Lytle, and guest lecturers John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren. It was there she wrote early stories such as "The Geranium," "The Crop," "The Barber," and others. In 1946 she began the story, "The Train," finishing it in early 1947, soon after expanding it to become the first chapter of her novel Wise Blood. In May of that year, O'Connor was awarded the Rinehart-Iowa Award for an early version of the novel.

As a postgraduate student the next Fall, O'Connor moved out of Currier House and became friends with several individuals with whom she could communicate throughout her life, including the story writer and novelist Jean Williams, Robie Macauley, and Walter Sullivan. She also met poet Robert Lowell, who gave a reading in Iowa City's Old Capitol building.

In early June in 1948, O'Connor arrived for her first stay at Yaddo, the writers colony located at the former Trask estate in Saratoga Springs, New York. Among the many noted figures visiting during O'Connor's stay were Patricia Highsmith, Frederick Morton, Clifford Wright, Elizabeth Hardwick, Malcolm Cowley, and Robert Lowell, who quickly became "Flannery's champion." Here, working on and reworking Wise Blood, O'Connor, despite her monastic writing habits which kept her at arm's distance from the wild behavior of Lowell (his romancing of Elizabeth Hardwick was the talk of the colony), had finally found her milieu, determining to remain at Yaddo over the Christmas holidays instead of returning home to her mother.

The post-War anti-Communist hysteria of the "Red Scare," however, found its way to the isolated institution's doors. General Douglas MacArthur's accusation that Agnes Smedley had run a spy ring out of Shanghai, startled the residents, since she had been a close friend of the Yaddo director and "monarch," Elizabeth Ames. An FBI check of Communist sympathies at Yaddo quickly followed. Clifford Wright, believed by Ames to be an FBI informant, was sent packing. Lowell, also one of the directors of Yaddo, held an "inquisition" against Ames, accusing her of arbitrary decisions, even involving a reluctant and distanced O'Connor, who announced that she would be leaving the next Tuesday.

Left without a place to go, O'Connor suddenly found herself in Manhattan, staying for a while first with Elizabeth Hardwick, and moving over later to Tatum House, a YWCA residence on Lexington Avenue. Lowell, in turn, helped her make contacts, introducing her to translator Robert Fitzgerald and his wife Sally, who, through their shared Catholicism and intellectual abilities, would become lifetime friends of O'Connor, with Sally later editing O'Connor's letters and essays, and creating a chronology of O'Connor's life in the 1988 Library of America edition for O'Connor's Collected Works.

Lowell also introduced her to Robert Giroux, in those days an editor at Harcourt Brace, the publisher, ultimately, of Wise Blood, and who, later as a publisher at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, would publish O'Connor's other works.

Lowell's increasing madness during this period, however, and his ultimate rebuke from the Yaddo directors of his charges against Ames, left O'Connor once again in the lurch, a woman with little money and a mother fearful of her living alone in Manhattan. In March the author returned home, staying through Easter, with the intention of returning to New York.

When O'Connor did return, she faced a muggy summer, and, according to Gooch, spent most of her time in her humble room, revising the last sections of Wise Blood, only rarely getting out into the New York streets. As O'Connor herself describes these outings: "I finally ended up eating at the Columbia University student cafeteria. I looked enough like a student to get by with it, and it was one of the few places I suspected the food of being clean." In August, the film Mighty Joe Young opened at the Criterion Theatre in Times Square, flanked by a publicity stunt in which a man in a ape suit greeted theater-goers, an incident that made its way in her first novel.

An invitation to stay as "a paying guest" at the Fitzgerald's large country house in Connecticut saved her from further suffering in the city which, she later admitted, she knew only that there was a "uptown" and a "downtown." But the daily business of family life with three children and another on its way, clearly made for some distressing interruptions in her writing time. During a trip back to Milledgeville in December O'Connor became seriously ill and was hospitalized for an operation for a floating kidney, a disease described as "Dietl's crisis." And, although she made good progress in writing upon her return to the Fitzgerald's, she described the heaviness in her "typing arms." So serious did the pain become that Sally took O'Connor to a local doctor who diagnosed the joint pains as rheumatoid arthritis, recommending a complete examination when she returned to Milledgeville for Christmas. A few nights after O'Connor's return home, Regina, her mother, called the Fitzgeralds—insisting that they keep the fact a secret from her daughter—to announce that Flannery was dying of lupus.


Gooch aptly compares O'Connor's return to the South to that of Asbury Fox's return home in O'Connor's story "The Enduring Chill." Fox's "illness," although he believes it to be a deadly one, is later discovered, ironically, to be undulant fever, a fever which will destroy his life without truly killing him. O'Connor's illness was of a far more serious nature, and even though she was told it was only arthritis, she described her feelings to a friend that belied her fears:

I am languishing on my bed of semi affliction, this time with
AWRTHRITUS or, to give it all it has, the acute rheumatoid
arthritis, what leaves you always willing to sit down, lie down,
lie flatter, etc....I will be in Milledgeville Ga. a birdsanctuary for
a few months, waiting to see how much of an invalid I am
going to be...but I don't believe in time no more so its all one
to me.

It was during the painful hospital stays in Atlanta and back in Milledgeville of this period, however, that O'Connor finally came to comprehend the major character of Wise Blood, Hazel Motes', in her own illness, as she described it, spelling out the book. In June of that year, after having been rejected by Rinehart, Harcourt Brace accepted the book, with Giroux sending a list of suggested additions and corrections. Through Robert Fitzgerald's intercession, the book was also read and edited by Southern novelist Caroline Gordon, who became another of the author's literary friends and a reader of all O'Connor's later work. Gordon's editorial influence upon O'Connor's work was evidently quite significant and appreciated by the writer, yet, as an editor, I would certainly have questioned editorial changes such as that Gooch describes wherein the color of Emery Enoch's tie was changed from "greenpeaish" (a perfect O'Connorism) to "the color of green peas," a far more standard metaphor.

On May 15, 1952 Wise Blood was, at last, published.

Hazel Motes, the central character of Wise Blood, is from the very beginning of the fiction, a man defined by his eyes. On the train ride to Taulkinham, Mrs. Hitchcock sees the ex-soldier, dressed in his "glaring blue" blue suit and broad-brimmed hat, "a hat that an elderly country preacher would wear," as a figure with his eyes trained on something outside of her own vision. "...His eyes is what held her attention longest. Their settings were so deep that they seemed, to her, almost like passages leading somewhere and she leaned halfway across the space that separated the two seats, trying to see into them."

Just through Hazel Motes' name, the reader recognizes that the deep-set eyes that Mrs. Hitchcock observes is, in part, accounts for the fact that she cannot see into them. Not only are they the color, O'Connor tells us, of "pecan shells," a kind of "hazel-like" color, but they are "hazy" and, as his last name hints, they contain "motes," specks that symbolically speaking, does not allow him to properly see. This image, in turn, suggests the famous Biblical passage repeated in both Matthew and Luke:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's
eye but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Or wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote
out of thine eye; and behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own
eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out
of thy brother's eye. (Matthew 7:3-5)

With this warning against hypocrisy, O'Connor sets the tone for her tale of a man, destined to become a preacher, yet who rejects the religion of his father and grandfather. Clearly effected by his military experiences, the death of his father (who does not arise from his coffin as he has promised) and by the cultural and social-political changes in his state and small hometown (he is convinced that the train porter is a Parnum "nigger" from his now empty hometown of Eastrod, pretending to be born and raised in Chicago), Motes is determined to promulgate a new faith, "The Church without Christ."

The dilemma of preaching for a church of disbelief in a world where most individuals perceive themselves as eternally saved results in a comic situation, leading to a world in which, as Haze puts it early in the book, "If you're been redeemed...I wouldn't want to be," a predicament played out in the works of the devout Catholic writer again and again. Indeed, through O'Connor's serious engagement of this dark comedic existentialism, Motes' predicament—wherein the more he fights against his lost faith, the more he reveals his own Christian temperament—becomes a terrifying tale of redemption.

Without even trying, Motes immediately attracts disciples, first Enoch Emery, a frictional rock of faith. In his name, Enoch, the eldest son of Cain and the murderer of his brother Abel, is a sort of reverse image of God's chosen, recognized even by the waitress of the zoo's Frosty Bottle stand, as a "pus-marked bastard...a goddamned son a bitch." She recognizes Motes, on the other hand, as "a clean boy." Again, however, Motes perceives his purity in oppositional terms: he is clean because there is no Christ.

The relation between Enoch and Haze, like Christ's relationship with several of his disciples, is an inexplicable one, with Enoch immediately sensing some change in his life and attempting to please the new stranger in Taulkinham. As for Motes, Enoch, coming from the country finds city life lonely, a place in which people are unfriendly. He recognizes in Motes a potential friend and a kind of older brother with whom he might bond. Yet O'Connor goes out of her way to make their relationship even more complex, presenting it as a kind of sacramental kinship in which Enoch is determined to award Motes with something of significance. In that sense, their relationship, without having anything directly to do with sex, is based on an immediate male-to-male attraction, at least on Enoch's part, and made even more sexually ironic when we realize the gift he chooses is a shrunken man, in Enoch's eyes a kind of immortalized baby. That latent sexuality energizes their relationship in the same way that Motes is determined to sexually seduce Sabbath Lily Hawks, the second of his disciples, a kind of Mary Magdalene and Mary, the Mother of Jesus rolled into one.

If Enoch is perceived as an "unclean" figure, Sabbath Lily and her father, also a preacher, are true hypocrites, the old man pretending that he has blinded himself in order to proclaim his faith. In truth, they are both sham artists, attempting to make a meager living from their prayers of salvation. For her part, Lily is determined to marry the preacher because he is "good to look at." More sexually experienced than Motes, she has a difficult time engaging him until she moves in with him, Motes desiring to rid himself of her even then.

Predictably, what most intrigues Motes about the couple is the father's presumed blindness, and he goes out of his way to find out what is "behind the dark glasses." Just as people cannot properly see into Motes' eyes, so Motes cannot glimpse the secret of Hawks' vision. Indeed, unlike other preachers, Hawks makes no attempt to convert Motes or invite him to join his church.

Motes' own attempts at converting the Taulkinham crowds to join his "Church without Christ" are a complete failure. That is, until Hoover Shoats, another of O'Connor's Christian hypocrites, speaks up as having been converted by Motes. But his claim that he previously "met the prophet," who completely changed his life, infuriates the honest Haze, who turns on Shoats and the crowd both, bellowing "Blasphemy is the way to the truth."

When he discovers, the next evening, that Shoats has found a new boy in his preaching scheme, a man who looks to be the twin of Motes, he has no choice but to destroy his double if he and his message is to be heard.

In some ways, Motes' faith in the "Church without Christ" is so fervently straight forward, so humanly honest in its utter rejection of faith and miracles, that no one can believe him, for there is nothing he offers to believe in. Just as ironic is Enoch's robbery from the Museum of "the shrunken man," which he delivers to Motes' room soon after Sabbath Hawks has taken up quarters there. Her language and her actions create a symbolic scene that stands against everything that Motes has preached. Calling Motes the "king of the beasts" and insisting he "Make haste," it is inevitable that Sabbath take up Enoch's gift of the shrunken man as if it were a baby to nurse, taunting Motes with the very image of the nativity. Haze flings the object out the window!

Shaken by events, Motes, unlike the fake preacher Hawks, having the courage of his convictions, puts lime into his eyes, symbolically removing his motes and snaring the Hawk simultaneously.

Enoch, meanwhile, filled with the wonder of "expectation," attends the premiere of Gonga, Giant Jungle Monarch, escaping with a gorilla suit "awarded by its god," donning the costume and slouching through the countryside like Yeats' rough beast towards Bethlehem to be born anew.


The forces at work in O'Connor's first fiction are fierce oppositions, ironies that point to possible redemption rather than awarding those who believe themselves saved. It will be a pattern she will repeat in the remainder of her writings, a vision that, as she admitted back in Iowa, arises from a Third Century point of view of Christianity.
Moving with her mother to Andalusia, O'Connor settled in a room on the first floor. With treatment she was soon able to work for a few hours every morning, spending the rest of the day reading philosophical and theological books, corresponding with friends, caring for her numerous peacocks and peahens, and receiving, on a regular basis, several visitors, including the textbook salesman from Harcourt Brace, Erik Langkjaer (perhaps the major love—albeit a nonsexual one—of her life). O'Connor also traveled to the Fitzgerald's friends, Brainard and Frances Cheney's home, Cold Chimney's, a house described by Gooch as a "refuge for many of the leading figures in the 'Southern Renaissance,'" including Caroline Gordon, Robert Penn Warren, Randall Jarrell, Cleanth Brooks, Andrew Lytle, Eudora Welty, Allen Tate, Katherine Anne Porter, Jean Stafford, Peter Taylor, Eleanor Ross, Malcolm Cowley, Russell Kirk, Robert Lowell, and Walker Percy. Gooch notes these activities to make it clear that O'Connor, despite the isolation brought about her by her illness, was anything but a recluse. Most of these quite intense friendships had already been reported in O'Connor's letters and through Sally Fitzgerald's extensive chronology, but it is useful to have O'Connor's social world spelled out in a single book.

Gooch also notes several events in Andalusia and Milledgeville as sources for the stories O'Connor was writing during these years, pointing in particular to newspaper articles, Langkjaer's relationship with Flannery, the hiring by Regina of a Polish family, the Matysiaks, and O'Connor's relationship with her mother. What is apparent after reading Gooch's biography is how much O'Connor depended on her local community for her writing; but equally important, I would argue, is how the author transformed those local events—or perhaps reconceived her daily encounters as satiric and spiritual fables. It is quite apparent that O'Connor could not have survived those years without the help of her mother, but it is also quite evident that Regina often stood like a thorn in her side, entreating her daughter, again and again, to write about nicer subjects and people. During a visit from Robert Giroux, the publisher describes just such an occasion. During breakfast with mother and daughter, Regina asked: "Mister Giroux, can't you get Flannery to write about nice people?"

Giroux said, "I started to laugh. But Flannery was sitting utterly deadpan.
I thought, 'Uh, oh. This is serious to her.' Flannery never smiled, or raised
her eyebrow, or gave me any clue."

The "small, managing indomitable mother," as Giroux later described Regina to Elizabeth Bishop, is both an important source for many of O'Connor's forbearing and unbearable mothers, but was also someone who O'Connor, just as in her youth she had fought against the nuns and her guardian angel, saw as a force with whom she had to daily reckon.


Despite her illness, by June 1953 O'Connor was ready to return to the Fitzgeralds, also making a day trip with Caroline Gordon to New York City. This time, the slightly older children were full of mischief, made even worse by a Yugoslav "shepherdess" brought to the US to help with the children and pets. Accordingly, life in the Fitzgerald home was more chaotic than before, and O'Connor surely found it difficult to write. Of the greatest importance, however, was a piece of information that would change her perception of everything. Gooch effectively describes the scene:

On the way back, on a lovely summer's afternoon, she [Sally] glanced over
at her passenger...[having] made up her mind, following much inner struggle,
that Flannery should know of her illness. At that instant, Flannery
happened to mention her arthritis. "Flannery, you don't have arthritis,"
Sally said quickly. "You have lupus." Reacting to the sudden revelation,
Flannery slowly moved her arm from the car door down into her lap, her hand
visibly trembling. Sally felt her own knee shaking against the clutch, too, as
she continued driving.....
"Well, that's not good news," Flannery said, after a few silent, charged
moments. "But I can't thank you enough for telling me....I thought I had
lupus, and I thought I was going crazy. I'd a lot rather be sick than crazy.
....But don't ever tell Regina you told me, because if you do she will never
tell you anything else. I might want to know something else sometime."

What with the continued difficulties with the Slavic nanny, Sally being pregnant with a fifth child and turning ill, and Flannery's own contraction of a virus, O'Connor arranged for Sally's care and returned to Georgia. The lupus had been reactivated by the viral infection, further sealing O'Connor's future.

By 1954, as Erik Langkjaer reported O'Connor was "using a stick" to help in her walks, which would follow by her need for crutches. Yet O'Connor continued to write new stories, and by the end of that year, she promised Sally Fitzgerald a forthcoming volume of tales. By May 1955, O'Connor found herself seated before an NBC camera in New York City to discuss with Harvey Breit her upcoming collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find. The book was published on June 6th.

Even in her first work, Wise Blood, one perceived that O'Connor's writing, at times, could be comically violent, but now, facing her own mortality, O'Connor's dark humor entered what one might speculate is a new phase. Particularly in the title story, Flannery proffers a work in which all characters might be said to be fiends. As in so many of her fables, the major struggle in A Good Man Is Hard to Find is between the self-righteous societal figures, particularly represented by The Grandmother, and those outside of societal values, exemplified by The Misfit and his gang. But there is a second and more subtle battle played out in this tale between The Grandmother and the family, her son Bailey, his wife and their two children, John Wesley and June Star. Had O'Connor written this tale a couple of years later, after she had seen Tennessee Williams' 1955 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Caroline Gordon in New York, one might suspect that the two children of this tale were based on what Maggie the Cat describes as her sister-in-law's "no-neck monsters." For the children here are true terrors, selfish, overweight brats whose major activities include dismissing the world around them and reading comic books. In his diffident hatred of his family, however, Bailey is no different, dismissive of any imagined past his mother might conjure up and determined just survive their trip to Florida. O'Connor doesn't even name the mother, who is described as "a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had points on the top like rabbit's ears." The Grandmother, another figure clearly inspired by Regina, is a busybody, do-gooder, who has an answer for everything and believes her values, particularly those inspired by the past, are superior to the modern world in which she had discovered herself. It is her determination to revisit a Southern Plantation she had seen earlier in her life that takes the family down the dirt road to their doom. Even her sudden revelation, as the car is propelled off the road in an accident, that the mansion she had witnessed as a child was in Tennessee, not in Georgia, does not alter for a moment her faith in her own righteousness, a belief she is convinced can be imposed upon people if spoken insistently and strongly enough. As The Misfit they discover upon this ill-fated journey takes the family away to shoot them, one by one, The Grandmother repeats over and over how she can see The Misfit is "A Good Man" at heart, who only needs to rediscover God through prayer. Unable to recognize true evil, she insists up until the moment of her death that he can be redeemed. The utterly cynical statements of The Misfit and Bobby Lee at tale's end, reveal to the reader how absurd she has been in her empty faith and her shallow prescriptions for life.

"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been
somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
"Some fun!" Bobby Lee said.
"Shut up, Bobby Lee," The Misfit said. "It's no real pleasure in life.

The parents of the young boy in "The River" are as ineffective as Bailey and his wife. But these figures are perhaps even more detestable in their endless partying, followed by mornings of drunken sleep. Their young son seems expendable, a child who has little to do in his life "but eat," and they are happy to surrender him to the hired Black woman who intends on taking him to an old-fashioned Southern Baptism.

So dissociated from life is the child, that overhearing that the minister who he will soon see is named Bevel Summers, he tells his sitter, Mrs. Connin, that his name is Bevel, thus becoming a new being even before he is ultimately "reborn" in the river, immersed in the water as a symbol of new life.

The world where Mrs. Connin takes the child does, in fact, represent a "new life," a world completely different from his, and when he arises the next morning to discover his parents in a drunken stupor once again, he steals away from the house by himself, returning to the river to "Baptize himself and to keep on going this time until he found the Kingdom of Christ." The only witness to his death, inevitably, is Mr. Paradise.

In "A Circle of Fire," another Regina-based figure, Mrs. Cope, must indeed "cope" with her hired hands, particularly the Pritchard's, her current head workers. As I previously mentioned, her daughter is a Flannery-life figure, her head buried in a book throughout most of the story—except when three strangers arrive, one a boy, Powell, whose family once worked on the place.

The boys have escaped their homes in Atlanta (a city despised by many of O'Connor's figures) to return to an idyll that Powell has often described to them, of fresh air and riding horses. At first, Mrs. Cope attempts to placate the young men, inviting them to stay. But it quickly becomes apparent through their manners and refusal to eat what she serves, that they are not at all "Good Country People," that, in fact, they are dangerous in their carelessness and sexuality. Mrs. Cope is terrified of fires, and the boys smoke, tossing their cigarettes into the grass. Her tormented daughter, moreover, is fascinated by the young men. Mrs. Cope orders them off her land, but they refuse to leave, becoming interlopers who threaten the ordered world she has created.

Like Hedda Gabler, the daughter escapes to the woods with a pistol, intending to enforce the exit her mother has been unable to accomplish. But when the boys come close to her, she grows silent with wonderment as she watches them naked, bathing in the cow trough. The boys are clearly torn in their desires to live in this rural Eden and, since it cannot belong to them, determine to destroy it, setting the woods afire as the girl runs home terrified of the possible desolation of her future life: "Mama, Mama, they're going to build a parking lot here!" In that mix of new sexuality and loss, she hears the whop of the boys, as they, like the Biblical boys Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, having refused to bow before the golden idol, survive Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace:

She stood taut, listening, and could just catch in the distance a
few wild shrieks of joy as if the prophets were dancing in the
fiery furnace, in the circle the angel had cleared for them.

A opposition between mother and daughter is also at the center of O'Connor's great story, "Good Country People." Mrs. Hopewell does indeed "hope well," facing all of life's difficulties with her favorite clichés, "Nothing is perfect" and "That is life!" Her major sorrow, however, is her overeducated daughter, Joy, a woman with an artificial leg, who has renamed herself Hulga, in part just to irritate her well-meaning mother.

When a traveling bible salesman arrives, Mrs. Hopewell, although having no intention of buying a Bible, politely invites the young man to dinner and, later, allows him to stay in the house. In her world of empty homilies, Mrs. Hopewell, sees the young man as "Good Country People," the salt of the earth, "honest" and "genuine." Hulga, detesting her mother's refusal to see what she perceives of as reality, dares the situation by arranging with the salesman, for the next day, a sexual encounter in a barn.

But the irony here is that it is not only the ridiculous Mrs. Hopewell who is duped. When the bible salesman has deposited Hulga in the hayloft, Hulga is shocked when the boy who she sees as a complete innocent offers her a drink out of a flask embedded in one of the bibles, and, after cajoling her to explain how her artificial leg is attached, steals the leg, leaving her in the helpless lurch.

Although O'Connor strongly denied it, several of her critics, Gooch included, and even the traveling salesman, Erik Langkjaer, have suggested this tale is based, in part, on the friendship between her and Langkjaer. If so, the story reveals that despite her often sardonic viewpoints, O'Connor recognized a kinship with her mother in their inability to see the "real" state of things.

"The Displaced Person" is also a story strongly based on events at Andalusia. Like Mrs. McIntyre, convinced by a local priest to hire a family displaced by World War II, Regina had hired a Polish family, displaced people, to work on the farm. In O'Connor's tale the good work done by Mr. Guizac and his wife, while first greatly admired, is rewarded with fear and doubt, particularly since Mr. Guizac has little of the Southern prejudice again Blacks that his employer does, and is quite willing to suggest a marriage with a family member still in Poland to a meek and uneducated Black worker on the place.

As in many of the stories in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, a secondary cast of characters is central to the action, in this case the Shortley's who previously ran the farm, but in their daily gossip and lack of ambition are quickly shown up by the newcomer. Their hatred of the outsiders, accordingly, is even more fervent that Mrs. McIntyre's, who cannot make up her mind to ask the displaced family to leave. By the time she has gotten her courage up to fire Guizac, she enters the barn just in time to witness Mr. Shortley accidently (?) driving his tractor over the Polish worker. With Guziac's death and the Shortley's departure, Mrs. McIntyre grows ill, herself becoming a kind of displaced person on her own land, a Protestant now regularly visited by the priest explaining to her the doctrines of his church.


Unlike Wise Blood, which had received mostly negative reviews, A Good Man Is Hard to Find received a great deal of praise in the Herald Tribune Book Review, the New York Times and the Times Book Review (written by Caroline Gordon). The New Yorker, on the other hand, called the work brutal and the Times Literary Supplement described the works as "intense, erratic and strange." Yet it was clear that O'Connor had begun to find an audience and appreciative readers.

During this same period, O'Connor also received her first letter from a woman who would later become her closest and most regular correspondent, Betty Hester. With Hester and others, O'Connor would explain, as Gooch describes it, "her artistic intentions," building up a series of expressed concerns that she would soon use to good example in her several university lectures and in essays such as "The Church and the Fiction Writer," "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," "The Regional Writer," and "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South."

When Hester felt compelled to reveal to O'Connor her "history of horror," that she was dishonorably discharged from the military for "having been intimately involved with another woman," O'Connor's response, as Gooch describes it, "was immediate and caring":

"I can't write you fast enough and tell you that it doesn't make the slightest
bit of difference in my opinion of you, which is the same as it was, and that
is: based solidly on complete respect." As to Betty's point about scandal,
Flannery argued, "I'm obscure enough. Nobody knows or cares who I see.
If it created any tension in you that If don't understand, then use your own
judgment, but understand that from my point of view, you are always wanted."
Flannery did suggest that they not tell Regina as "she wouldn't understand."
Given the nature of their friendship, she parsed the matter theologically,
"Where you are wrong is in saying that you are a history of horror. The meaning
of Redemption is precisely that we do not have to be our history."

In 1956, through the auspices of the new president of Georgia State College for Women, Robert E. Lee, Flannery met Lee's sister, Maryat Lee, a larger-than-life six-feet tall woman, educated at National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., who finished her MA at Union Theological Seminary under the direction Paul Tillich, and who worked for a while for anthropologist Margaret Mead. Maryat had also written a street play in Harlem, Dope!, covered by Life magazine and selected the 1952-53 edition of Best Short Plays. Like Rosalind Russell's version of Auntie Mame, Maryat showed up in Milledgeville "outfitted in pants, boots, a black overcoat, and an imposing Russian lamb's wool hat," bearing brown bags with cans of beer, illegal in that part of the state. Both she and O'Connor feared for their meeting, Maryat worried, since she had not read of even previously heard of O'Connor, that she would be encountering "a local lady writer." The encounter at Andalusia did begin well, with Reginna disapproving of Maryat's worn, pink sneakers and remarking that she had to keep doors locked because of "the niggahs." As Maryat the politically liberal Maryat was about to respond, however, O'Connor came thudding upon her crutches into the room and swept Maryat away into the back yard, where she explained her illness and the necessity of remaining with her mother as well as sharing with the newcomer her dream of turning the henhouse into an office.

When Maryat finally read some of her stories, including "You Can't Be Any Poorer Than Dead," the original title for The Violent Bear It Away, she was, as she writes, "excited, relieved, impressed—and mystified." Thus began a correspondence between the two of over 250 epistles, many of the letters signed by or addressed to the two significant figures of O'Connor's novel with whom they identified, Maryat predictably siding with the intellectual rationalist, Rayber, O'Connor with the boy-would-be-prophet Tarwater.

Even the news that Maryat's marriage to the Australian, David Foulkes-Taylor had gone astray when he met a man to whom he was attracted, and that in Tokyo, Maryat herself had fallen in love with film critic Donald Ritchie, did not alter their friendship. Only when Maryat, who in the 1970s would admit to bisexuality, wrote Flannery that she too was in love her, was there a temporary chill. Again, O'Connor did not, as Gooch describes it, "blink" about the issue of lesbianism, but she did "transpose the discussion into a more spiritual key": speaking of the grace in the blood of Christ, O'Connor concluded her discussion: "Even if you loved Faulkes and Ritche and me and Emmet and Emmet's brother and his girl friend equally and undividedly, it all has to be put somewhere finally."

When Maryat reacted by describing O'Connor's comments as full of "pious clichés, not flesh and blood," the communications ceased for several months; but when Maryat resumed the letters, O'Connor assured her, "I am not to be got rid of by crusty letters."

During these same years, O'Connor enjoyed great creativity, writing several of the stories that would appear in her last volume, Everything that Rises Must Converge, but her main frustration was working through her promised novel. She had found it easy to deal with her Tarwater figure, but felt ill-at-ease with Rayber, and believed that she had some 50 pages yet to complete, without any certainty that she was up to the task.

Further clouding the waters was a planned trip, to be paid for by her Cousin, Katie Seemes, to Europe on the occasion of the Lourdes Centennial. As she fumed over the enforced vacation in which feared would be made up of "fortress-footed Catholic females herded from holy place to holy place," ending in "holy exhaustion," her doctor advised that she cancel the trip because of hip deterioration, a side effect of lupus. Gooch describes O'Connor as being secretly relieved, but her cousin again intervened, offering Flannery and Regina a less exhausting itinerary, in which they would stay with the Fitzgeralds now ensconced in Italy (where Robert was translating The Odyssey), who would accompany them to rejoin the pilgrims gathered in Paris, O'Connor had little choice but to agree.

On April 21, O'Connor and her mother flew to Idlewild Airport in New York, where they were met by a limousine that took them to Roger Straus and Sheila Cudahy, the publishing house that Robert Giroux had recently joined, where she signed a new contract for the novel. The next evening the two woman were off to Italy.

After four days at the Fitzgerald's villa, Flannery, Regina, and Sally flew to Paris, traveling south to the region of Lourdes. Flannery had not wanted to enter the baths at Lourdes, as she had insisted before leaving on the trip that she was going as "a pilgrim, not a patient." But after Sally's insistence that Katie Seemes would be highly disappointed if O'Connor did not take part in the ritual, Flannery capitulated. Joking about the medieval hygiene of the place, she later wrote Betty, "Nobody I am sure prays in that water."
From Lourdes the group flew to Barcelona, leaving Spain on May 3rd for Rome, the highpoint of O'Connor's trip. For in Rome it was arranged for the travelers to attend a general audience with Pope Pius XII, at which time, witnessing her on her crutches, he granted her a special blessing.

The return to Georgia meant that O'Connor had to face the completion of her novel, now called The Violent Bear It Away, which she was determined to do with new vigor. The book, so many years in the making, finally reached the public on February 8, 1960.

In some respects, the new novel was a retelling of Wise Blood. Tarwater, a boy, a few years younger that Hazel Motes, is raised by his preacher grandfather in rural Georgia to become a prophet of the church. In this case, however, the boy has been stolen from his family home, just as, previously, the old man tried to steal away the boy's uncle, Rayber, whose short time under the preacher's tutelage, has, he feels, tainted his entire life. He is now a rationalist, a schoolteacher who will have nothing to do with religious faith.

In the first few pages of this book, the grandfather dies, and Tarwater, a stubbornly independent child determined to find his own calling in life, is faced with the old man's request for burial. In a highly Faulknerian flourish, the body is left to rot as the young boy retreats to the preacher's still, drinking himself into unconsciousness. Awakening in a funk, Tarwater sets the house, with the old man in it, on fire and heads for the city and his uncle Rayber, the only relative remaining.

Through dreams and personal memories revealed in the first two chapters of the book, we quickly discover what life was like for Tarwater living with the old man.
Rayber's own son, Bishop, is an idiot, and when Tarwater shows up at his door, he is, at first, convinced of a new possibility in his life, a kind of redemption for his inability to deal with Bishop and his attempt, a failure, to kill his own son early on. Imagining for himself a role similar to Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, "catching thousands of little kids" from falling off a cliff, Rayber clearly intends, as we would describe it today, to "recondition" his nephew, bringing him out of the darkness of his religious mania into the light of the rational world.

But just as Motes was drawn deeper and deeper into faith the more he fought against it, so does Rayber, through his sociological jargon, clichés, and just plain American innocence, push the desperate Tarwater away, finally finding himself giving up on his end of the conversion. Throughout O'Connor's powerfully violent work (the book's title emanates from Matthew 11:12, "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent shall bear it away")—a book O'Connor herself described to Maryat as "grey, bruised-black, and fire-colored"— there are numerous terrifyingly surreal events. Perhaps the most cinematic (and we must remind ourselves that O'Connor as a master of imagery) is the revival meeting to which Tarwater, followed by a half-dressed Rayber, is drawn one night. There a young girl, Lucette, having traveled the world with her parents, powerfully preaches in a mix of Biblical poetry and lunatic-like incantation ("Leave the dead lie. The dead are dead and can stay that way. What do we want with the dead alive?"), ending with her pointing to Rayber through the window, "a damned soul before my eye!"

Strangely, or perhaps we should say, understandably, the most innocent figure in this tale, Bishop, is completely mesmerized by the slightly abusive elder boy, following him everywhere in a manner that is even more sexually-charged than the relationship between Motes and Enoch Emery. And like Enoch's final transformation, that relationship also ends in a kind a redemption when Tarwater takes the child out on the lake and, in baptizing him, frees him also into death.

Yet for Tarwater the baptism has been an accident, something against which he has desperately fought, and his only possible escape is to go back from where he has come. Yet even as he attempts to retreat to the source of his compulsion, he is determined to remain independent, to simply live off the land without becoming a prophet. His rape by a passing homosexual changes everything.

As O'Connor argues, in what Gooch describes as her "extreme theology," "Tarwater's final vision could not have been brought off if he hadn't met the man in the lavender and cream-colored car." When the Fitzgeralds suggested that perhaps the character was presented as too broadly stereotypical, O'Connor argued, that she had seen just such an individual "with yellow hair and black eyelashes—you can't look more perverted than that."
In his anger for the violence against him, like the boys in "A Circle of Fire," Tarwater takes up his matches, and in mad pyromaniac dance, lights the woods afire.

But his final conversion comes only after he discovers that instead his ridding the world of his grandfather's body through incineration, the neighboring Black laborer Buford had buried him, giving him a decent Christian funeral. The deep hunger Tarwater has long felt, swells: "His hunger was so great that he could have eaten all the loaves and fishes after they were multiplied," O'Connor writes. And suddenly in the fiery whirl of the treeline, he understands his destiny as being connected with all those that have come before him, Daniel, Elijah, Moses. Returning to the city, Tarwater has becomes a true prophet of God.

For a non-believer like myself, O'Connor's fiction is not an easy read. Yet, strangely, I find it her most powerful work, in part because of the intricacy of the story, which follows the mindsets of its various characters, it's fantastic apocalyptic imagery, and comically surreal dialogue. Finally, one must remember what O'Connor herself insisted, her works were not psychological realist pictures of life in the South, but, as Hawthorne described his fictions, romances, a possibility for fiction that lay outside of a presentation of social forces. Allying herself with the "grotesque," O'Connor writes in "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction":

In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive
some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day,
or win which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary
life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary
kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps
which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly
not have left. Yet the characters in these novels are alive in spite of
these things. They have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence
to their social framework. They fictional qualities lean away from typical
social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected.

The reviews for The Violent Bear It Away were, predictably, given the dominant values of the realist fiction of the day, quite negative, describing the author as a "literary white witch," as belonging to "The School of Southern Degeneracy," and even invoking images of the "Hillybilly South," the Time review even going so far as to accuse the author for being negative because she suffers from lupus "that forces her to spend part of her life on crutches." O'Connor, so Gooch tells us, felt particularly violated by that review, "My lupus has no business in literary considerations."


Over the past few years, O'Connor had written a sizable number of new stories, but she now found herself, in 1962, at a kind "creative impasse," and, as Gooch describes it, she began to reappraise her life.
The year before she had looked forward to a hip operation that might have allowed her to walk without crutches. Her current regimen of cortisone and Novocain lasted only temporarily. But her doctor advised against the surgery in fear that it might reactivate her lupus. Her relationship with Betty Hester was also strained when her friend announced her intentions to leave the church, a decision which O'Connor attributed to Betty's reading of Iris Murdoch.

Although she was certainly heartened by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy's decision to reissue Wise Blood, O'Connor could not bring herself to write a new note to the book and, instead, wrote a disclaimer, describing the work as "a comic novel about a Christian malgre lui, and as such, very serious," words which as any publisher might realize, would scare away most readers.

O'Connor did travel, reading and lecturing at several Southern universities, including East Texas State, the University of Southeast Louisiana, and Loyola, the New Orleans trip including a meeting with Alabama novelist Walker Percy, who reported he also found it difficult to comprehend what O'Connor was saying through her Georgia accent.

Yet work on a new novel, "Why Do the Heathen's Rage?" was at a standstill. As she wrote her friend John Hawkes, "I have been working all summer just like a squirril on a treadmill, trying to make something of Walter and his affairs and the heathens that rage, but I think this is maybe not my material (don't like that word)."

In a doctor's waiting room that Fall, however, the writer's block finally ended. There in the room she found her country women that make up the marvelous story "Revelation," a story she completed within eight weeks. Planning a new collection of stories, she wrote Giroux, asking for the addition of the new work.

Already in Winter 1963 O'Connor had a fainting spell on account of a low blood count. But as Gooch quite forthrightly declares, "In truth, she had begun the long, slow process of dying." In February she was told that needed a hysterectomy to remove a fibroid tumor, an operation that was, at first, declared a great success. But in two weeks time she was back in bed, and by late March she clearly comprehended that "something was gravely wrong." Forced to take a new regimen of drugs, O'Connor found her body covered with the lupus rash. Unable to use the typewriter, she was forced to begin writing stories in her head, including a rewriting of her early tale, "The Geranium," which in Everything That Rises Must Converge would become "Judgment Day."

In early July she returned home, but had little energy to crawl out of bed. Receiving the local priest for communion, she asked that he also give her the sacrament of Extreme Unction. For the rest of the month, she struggled to type up "Judgment Day" and another new story, "Parker's Back." But soon, even those few hours were impossible to maintain. After three coronary arrests, her doctor refused to make further house calls, putting her on a heavy dose of antibiotics. On July 28th O'Connor wrote her last letter, a note to Maryat beginning "Dear Raybat" and ending, "Cheers, Tarfunk."

On August 3 O'Connor died.

Her funeral was scheduled for the very next morning, and, accordingly, many of her closest friends, including the Fitzgeralds, discovered that she had died days later through newspaper obituaries.

Many critics argue that O'Connor's greatest work was the collection published shortly after her death, Everything That Rises Must Converge. And several of these stories are, indeed, masterworks. Yet I find that O'Connor's major concerns are repeated here rather than further developed, making all of her writing of one brilliant piece.

Like Hulga in "Good Country People," the young son, Julian, of the title story is a frustrated intellect, out of place in the homey world of clichés and myths in which his mother lives. Yet, despite his education, he has found no employment and is dependent upon the small income of his mother.

Several of O'Connor's fables skirt issues of race relationships, but in the Teilhardian-titled tale she meets the issue head-on as Julian's bigoted mother is forced to come face to face with a Black woman, whose head is topped with the same hat. While the son's smug pleasure in his mother's discomfort might delight O'Connor's liberal readers, the tragic results of that encounter, are equivocal, as Julian's mother, attempting to award the Black woman's child with a penny, is accosted by the stranger. Even more delighted by the "lesson" he imagines his mother has received in the encounter, Julian must suddenly face her flight and death by heart attack. The final lines ironically put him and the absurd situation in its place: "The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow."

Similarly, the Regina-like Mrs. May of "Greenleaf," unforgiving of the behavior of her worker, Mr. Greenleaf, and his two sons farming nearby, ends in a comeuppance that does not expurgate the actions of the other characters. The Greenleaf boys' bull has entered Mrs. May's property, and she wants it immediately removed, convinced they are lazy no-gooders and unable to keep up an excellently-run farm like her own. Yet even upon her discovery that their farm is far more up-to-date and cleaner than hers, the bull on the loose seems to justify all her petty doubts about those she deems socially inferior. Her huff-and-puff philosophy, however, seems almost to wear her out, as, determined to rid her farm of the bull, she drives her car to the center of field only to suddenly find herself inordinately tired. Her sleep might almost be seen as the exhaustion of a whole way of life, a life of a determined independence founded on small-minded striations in the social fabric of her community. And her final goring by the bull is not only a kind of ritual killing of this small-minded matador, but a revelation of the sexual prowess (a "green leaf") of a new generation.

She did not hear the shots but she felt the quake of the huge body as it
sank, pulling her forward on its head, so that it seemed, when Mr. Greenleaf
reached her, to be bent over whispering some last discovery into the animal's

In many respects, "Revelation" is a kind of interweaving of the two themes I have noted above. Once again we witness a battle between an intelligent offspring, this time represented in a young woman awaiting a doctor's appointment, and her well-meaning but cliché-spouting mother. Into this minefield steps what may be O'Connor's most opinionated character ever, Mrs. Turpin, who not only shares the well-dressed mother's jargon, but has created a complex social-stratification topped by wealthy individuals and bottomed by "white trash." As Mrs. Turpin insists throughout the tale, she would rather be a "nigger" than a trashy white woman.

The pleasure of this story is O'Connor's dead-on dialogue, both in Mrs. Turpin's inner thoughts and the two ladies' comments. So settled are they in their absurd formulas of life that by story's end the reader may want, as Mary Grace does to Mrs. Turpin, to slug her in the face. Yet it is not so much what Mary Grace does, but what she says that astounds and troubles the older woman. The girl's cry, "Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog," shakes Mrs. Turpin's sense of reality more than any possible event she might have encountered and simply judged.

For one of the few times in O'Connor's work, moreover, this violent act does not result in death or potential destruction, but ends in a beatific revelation for Mrs. Turpin, whose entire system of societal values is suddenly overturned as she witnesses, in an apocalyptic vision, the true meaning of a forgiving Christ:

There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first
time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and
battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping
like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe
of people who she recognized at once as those who, like herself
and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given
wit to use it right. ....They alone were on key. Yet she could see
by their shocked faces that even their virtues were being burned away.

In some senses, one could almost use that vision to describe the entire range of Blacks, freaks, lunatics, and "good people" who inhabit O'Connor's fiercely satirical fictions, all them redeemed in the blood of the lamb.

Los Angeles, August 3, 2009 (the 46th anniversary of O'Connor's death); September 1-7, 2009

The method I used to organize the above essay reflects the process of my reading. I read Gooch's O'Connor biography in sections, each time reading up until his announcement of the publication of a new O'Connor book, then pausing to the read the work itself. Accordingly, I metaphorically "lived through" the author's life and writing for a period of approximately two months. The writing, as is apparent from the dates, also took me about a month further in exploring the mind of Flannery O'Connor. Most of the facts of her life are directly repeated from the Gooch biography, but I have incorporated a few other details from her letters and Sally Fitzgerald's chronology published in The Library of America's Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works. The comments on her fictions are, for the most part, my own. In this one instance, I did not wade through the mass of essays and books written about the author for further elucidation and critical support; rather, I felt it important to react to these powerful works in a personal, unscholarly way. Accordingly, my own perceptions may not be particularly original and are certainly not exhaustive, but are merely meant to present immediate responses to her writing.
I should add that, although I never met O'Connor (I was only 17 at the time of her death), I read her work as early as 1966 or 1967 at the University of Wisconsin, and I taught a couple of her books in a course titled "Avant-Garde Contemporary Fiction"—along with figures such as Djuna Barnes, John Hawkes, and Jane and Paul Bowles—as a graduate student at the University of Maryland in the early to mid 1970's.

A couple of insignificant parallels also bring me spiritually closer to O'Connor. She attended the University of Iowa a couple of years before my birth, when my father was a student at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. But only two or three years after she left Iowa, my family moved to a small town quite near Iowa City, an area where I grew up and remained throughout high school. Working on his Master's Degree in the summers my father suffered courses in the same overheated Quonset huts where O'Connor had taken some of her writing courses. The head of the writing program, Paul Engle, moreover, was later well-known in our home as a poet: for a few years in the early 1960s my parents, themselves not readers of poetry, chose his books such as An Old Fashioned Christmas and A Woman Unashamed and Other Poems as Christmas gifts for their literarily pretentious son.

Finally, Sheila Cudahy, the third partner of Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, O'Connor's publisher before editor Robert Giroux would later join the firm, was also a writer, author of several books of poetry and fiction, and a translator of Natalia Ginsburg. In 1993 or 1994, Cudahy sent me a collection of her tales, Crow Time, which my Sun & Moon Press published in 1995.

Los Angeles, September 8, 2009


Essay copyright (c) 2009 by Douglas Messerli