Shenandoah and the Advent of Flannery O'Connor.
Still reeling from some of the first reactions to Wise Blood, the novel she had worked on from Thanksgiving 1946 to the spring of 1952, O'Connor found in the depth of these three reviews and the extraordinary sophistication of the journal itself the courage to continue. It was in the period of 1950 to 1952 that Flannery O'Connor came close to death from her first very virulent attack of lupus. Learning then that she would always live on the edge of annihilation, O'Connor appears to have been emboldened by Shenandoah in ways neither its editor nor the reviewers could comprehend at that time. After two reviews of A Good Man Is Hard to Find engendered by the journal, O'Connor discovered perspectives on her art that she would take with her to the end, including the composing of the final triptych of the masterworks, "Revelation," "Parker's Back" and "Judgement Day"
IN O'CONNOR'S FIRST encounter with Shenandoah, Brainard Cheney's review of Wise Blood is preceded by a short review by William Faulkner of Ernest Hemingway's novel The Old Man and the Sea. This almost shocking juxtaposition of O'Connor's and Hemingway's novels, and Faulkner's extremely rare review interested her.
O'Connor found Faulkner's review "nice, He says that Hemingway discovered God the Creator in this one. What part I like in that [Hemingway's novel] was where the fish's eye was like a saint in a procession; it sounded to me like he was discovering something new maybe for him." Faulkner wrote only three book reviews in his life, and this was the most literary and theological of them. O'Connor was on target about the review that was placed just before the review other book.
In his review, Faulkner was at his most elliptical and focused, beginning: "His best. Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries. This time, he discovered God, a Creator." Previously, he wrote, Hemingway's "men and women" had " shaped themselves out of their own clay ... just to prove to themselves or one another just how tough they could he." ... "[T]his time," Faulkner repeated, "he wrote about pity; about something somewhere that made them all" and "loved them all and pitied them all. ... Praise God that whatever made and loves and pities Hemingway and me kept him from touching it any further" (Shenandoah, Vol. 3, No. 3, 55).
Immediately following Faulkner's review of Hemingway's novel appeared the name of Flannery O'Connor and a review of Wise Blood. It was written by someone Flannery had never heard of, Brainard Cheney, identified in the 1952 Shenandoah as a "novelist and politician" (Cheney was the writer and point-man for the famous Tennessee Governor Frank Clement and authored Clement's galvanizing television speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1956). After the review and their incipient exchange of letters, the Cheneys--Brainard and his wife, Fannie, or Frances Neel Cheney--became intimate and conversant friends with Flannery for the rest of her life. In the only picture of the three close friends, the slightly built Brainard Cheney, with wavy brown hair and an endearing smile, is flanked by Flannery (wearing earrings and formally dressed) on his left and the stylish Fannie to his right. With her upsweep of abundant hair, heavy white earrings and her sharp profile and lively open mouth, Fannie is turned toward Flannery.
In fact, Flannery and her new friends already moved in the same circles. The Cheneys were close friends of Allen and Caroline Gordon Tate, having visited them first at the Tate's place, Benfolly, near Nashville in the 1930s. The Cheneys lived all their adult lives in or near Nashville, where in the late 1920s Brainard had studied at Vanderbilt University. His roommate there, Ralph McGill, the future editor of The Atlanta Constitution, gave him his nickname "Lon" (from the movie star of the 1920s horror films, Lon Chaney). The famed editor (who would become a crucial ally of Martin Luther King, Jr.) would remain Cheney's lifelong friend. Fannie had been a student of John Crowe Ransom at Vanderbilt. Both came from Anglo-Saxon Southern families of 18th century descent and, best of all for Flannery, they knew all the Fugitive poets and most of the Agrarians, especially Flannery's most substantial mentor at Iowa, Andrew Lytle.
When Flannery met them, Fannie was already known as a distinguished librarian at Vanderbilt University and she later became head of the George Peabody College Library School (and eventually president of the National Library Association). She was also Allen Tate's assistant in Washington during the Second World War, during which time Tate was appointed the Chair of Poetry at the Library of Congress. Within a year after Brainard's writing the review of Wise Blood, the couple entered the Catholic Church. The Tates were their godparents.
Not surprisingly, Cheney understood the context of the making of Wise Blood. He viewed all sources--social and cultural as well as literary--in a seamless way not fully perceived in O'Connor criticism until the end of the twentieth century. Cheney was only five years younger than Flannery's father Ed, but he understood, as Ed could not, how the Old and New South collided in Flannery's book. Most of all, what Cheney saw in Wise Blood was the process by which the theological and moral and the local and social were bound together in the dramatic, in a text Cheney saw as revolutionary for its time. Using the metaphor of the Patent Electric Blanket to describe the deliberate soothing of social technological mechanisms in the modern world as a gambit to begin his analysis, Cheney pointed out the originality of this novel. He took its universal premise as a start: "The edge of man's social covering has always interested the artist, and the existence of these loose antique strands in the South has not gone without notice." In fact, in "literary treatment over more than two decades, the significance of our unraveling even has been suspected." Now, "no more dramatic representation" or "no wiser blood has brooded and beat over the meaning of the grim rupture in our social fabric than that of this twenty-six year old Georgia girl in this, her first novel." With historical precision, Cheney sees Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road and William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying as critical precursors in opening up this new territory.
Dismissing Caldwell as "no artist and only a dull pornographer," Cheney praised Faulkner for what the recent Nobel-Prize winner understood in his short episodic novel (in actuality, Faulkner's novel had been a structural model for Wise Blood): "death is not merely phenomenal" and "there is a more persistent hunger than physical hunger." Cheney believed that what O'Connor had done could not have been done "twenty years ago." If Flannery's hero, "progressively preaching nihilism, negates his way back to the cross," Cheney found "nothing didactic about [O'Connor's] statement of it" but only the "completely dramatic and the dramatically profound." Indeed, "in contrast to Caldwell's reportorial naturalism and Faulkner's poetic expressionism, she uses, under the face of naturalism, a theologically weighted symbolism." For Cheney, "the surface story as a whole makes its allegorical emphasis by being beside any logical point, except the allegorical point." At the dramatic center of the novel and all its terrors was what Cheney saw as his "share of the landlady's chill (and fascination) over the undescribed vision that filled Haze Motes' "sightless eyes"--the heroine "who had never got far enough under the Patent Electric Blanket to be lulled to sleep in its security" (Shenandoah, Vol. 3, No. 3, 55-60).
On February 8, 1953, Flannery wrote Brainard Cheney: "A few weeks ago Mr. Thomas Carter sent me a copy of your review of my book" and wanting his address, she wrote Caroline Tate who "appears to know everybody who ever wrote anything in Tennessee and yesterday I had a letter" with "your address. I only want to tell you that I like the review." She added sardonically: "There have not been many good ones." Flannery had been "surprised again and again to learn what a tough character I must be to have produced a work so lacking in what one lady called 'love.'" Apparently "the love of God doesn't count or else I didn't make it recognizable." In fact, many reviewers thought her novel "just another dirty book and enjoyed it for that reason." But Cheney had read her book and written about it "so carefully and with so much understanding" that she made copies of his review "to show to some of my connections who think it would be nicer if I wrote about nice people" (Stevens 3).
If most reviews of Wise Blood had generally ignored complex narrative strategies (or their sources) at work in the novel, this review did not. In fact, the review appeared in the autumn 1952 issue of a new journal then edited by an undergraduate, Thomas Carter, and some remarkable students and young faculty at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. As young undergraduates working with Carter were two future dynamic artists of the twentieth century, the ground-breaking writer Tom Wolfe and the avant-garde and internationally acclaimed painter Cy Twombly. Carter intended his journal to be a literary breakthrough, and Shenandoah was stunning in its array of literary artists and reviewers, thanks to its editor and critically astute young faculty". Among these was Carter's perceptive and ambitious mentor and teacher at W&L, Ashley Brown, a product of Vanderbilt. These editors had contacts all over the South and up and down the East Coast, and, for a time, Carter corresponded daily with Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeth's mental hospital in Washington, D.C. The result of this network was the highly sophisticated issue with the review that amounted to Flannery's debut.
Barely recovered from being near death and then from a recurring fever in the summer, Flannery found herself among distinguished company in Shenandoah. The contributions to the issue surely offered her a new kind of hope, and included Wallace Stevens's great late poem, "Note on Moonlight," a classic lyric from e. e. cummings and a famous early story by Ray Bradbury, "The Tombling Day." A magisterial and profound essay, "James Joyce and Pecuchet" by Ezra Pound (translated by a soon-to-be visitor to Andalusia and correspondent with Flannery, Fred Bornhauser), was preceded by the first work in the volume. "Pound on Joyce," by the innovative critic Hugh Kenner, who would become one of the century's most distinguished analysts of modern literature. After the essays, there were letters with philosophical discussions of the term "Agrarian" from two of those involved with the original 1932 manifesto I'll Take My Stand: Cleanth Brooks, already an important scholar of classic English and modern American literature, and the famous Southern novelist Stark Young (whose best-selling Civil War historical novel So Red the Rose, along with Caroline Gordon's fiction, enabled the twentieth-century phenomenon of Flannery's fellow Georgian Catholic, Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind). There was also a long review and analysis by James G. Leyburn of David Riesman's truly epic if not scientifically exact The Lonely Crowd and Faces In the Crowd and a review by Robie Macaulay of William Faulkner: Two Decades of American Criticism, the continuation by Frederick Hoffman and Olga Vickery of the Faulkner resurgence Caroline Gordon had begun in 1946 and, in itself, a new genre of criticism and scholarship in American literature. Also appearing was Carter's own review of Irving Howe's innovative Marxist addition to the Faulkner revival, William Faulkner: A Critical Study, and a perceptive review of Reinhold Niebuhr's ground-breaking The Irony of American History, a work read by Flannery and published in the same year as Wise Blood. In the "Notes from Abroad" in this issue of Shenandoah, the report from Paris by Christopher Logue gives a lengthy description of another event in the annus mirabilis, 1952; the opening in October of a play En Attendant Godot by the "one time secretary to Joyce, and translator of Anna Livia, now the most distinguished ex-patriate writer in Paris," Samuel Beckett.
It was an issue, one may assume, that Flannery read in some detail. Even in what might have appeared her most isolated moment, near death at Andalusia, she was at the center of an avant-garde literary scene, populated by some of the most profound writers in North America, many of whom were her serious admirers.
Although they corresponded for some years, Flannery had only occasional contact with Thomas Carter (who did visit Andalusia with Ashley on an extremely cold day in 1956). Only seven years after their meeting, the gifted young man became very ill with a lingering disease and died from an accidental overdose of medicine during the same week that John F. Kennedy and C. S. Lewis died in 1963. A few weeks later, at Cold Chimneys outside Nashville, where Flannery and Carter had met several times, Brainerd Cheney wrote to tell Flannery the news, and she answered immediately: "I hadn't heard about Tom Carter. What a pity" (Stevens 182). Carter had left little work finished--he had named Ashley Brown his literary executor--but his brilliant work for Shenandoah had already brought Flannery to a very favorite friendship in the last twelve years of her life. It was Ashley Brown, who wrote his dissertation on Caroline Gordon at Vanderbilt University and was a friend of the Cheneys through Gordon and Allen Tate, who was the generous Svengali who arranged the review of Wise Blood and brought his new friend into a wider circle. He wrote to O'Connor early and began to augment her natural gift of friendship into a vocation of letter-writing and friendship. That vocation would take on special meaning only a few years later.
ASHLEY BROWN WAS a native Kentuckian who would become a professor of literature not only at Washington and Lee University but also at the University of California at Santa Barbara and finally the University of South Carolina. Armed with sharp literary insights and cheering literary gossip, Brown became a steady correspondent and informant to O'Connor. Older than Flannery by a year or two, he would live longer than almost any other of her close friends.
Her relationship with Brown cost Flannery little or nothing and seemed always to relax her. Ashley had no interest whatsoever in writing poetry or fiction himself (and was apparently bereft, O'Connor's friends observed, of any religious or sexual or political passion), but from his childhood on in a middle-class home in Louisville, he had loved reading. This early love made the glamorous sphere of literature and its makers thrilling to him. In fact, his good friend Frances Neel Cheney told Flannery once that she could imagine the child Ashley in his high-chair reading the most fashionable avant-garde books. This drive toward literature appears to have directed Brown in his early life, when he led, as he related, "something of a vagabond existence." He moved from one undergraduate college to another, studying literature at Centre and Kenyon Colleges, (he attended Kenyon at the same time as Paul Newman) and ultimately graduating from the University of Louisville. These moves and his bad eyesight kept him from being drafted into the armed forces in World War II.
This peripatetic sense of reality followed Brown beyond his doctoral work at Vanderbilt. Flannery met him for the first time at the nineteenth century house near Nashville that Fannie Cheney had inherited from her family. It was then called Cold Chimneys because, at the time, it had no central heat; the Cheneys never lived there in winter. Flannery wrote to Robie Macauley, the nation's foremost scholar on Ford Maddox Ford, about her visit to the Cheneys: "I heard a lot of Tennessee politics and more literary talk, most of it over my head, than since I left Iowa." She added that before he had headed off to Europe, Ashley had "managed to board his dog, Tiejens, with a family named Ford. The last 1 heard from him, he had stumbled over Swift's birthplace in Dublin" (LA 914).
It was not only Ashley's trips abroad that cheered Flannery in the years ahead, but she also enjoyed his constant linking her to a whole web of mutual and new friends, including those she had known at Iowa like Walter Sullivan and Andrew Lytle, and the conservative philosopher and writer, Russell Kirk, an avant-garde and daring for his day and a friend of the Cheneys. These friends all operated out of the Nashville-Vanderbilt nexus, and were, like Flannery, authentically literary and politically conservative. Ashley's connections in the United States (he sent her communications, for example, about the exotic 1950s world at Santa Barbara, including early praise of Hugh Kenner) and his descriptions of his literary friends abroad also gave Flannery, at home at Andalusia, a special dry comic perspective to the steady drumming of pain that never really left her.
Writing to Andrew Lytle in 1960, she commented about Ashley: "That boy is on the road more than Kerouac, though in a more elegant manner" (LA 1121). His travels, emblematic in their intellectual and literary explorations, clearly brought the invalid Flannery pleasure, as she would remark in her letters. She could imagine, she wrote friends, the spry, tall, slightly bent Ashley with his thick glasses looking at Swift's tomb in Dublin, having tea with T. S. Eliot in London, entering the Iron Curtain and arriving in Yugoslavia and, unusual for the time, visiting Africa and, at the time of her death, Latin America. In this way, Ashley became a constant source of ironic perspective for her, traveling as he did all over the world and producing books like his edition of a pioneering collection of essays on Wallace Stevens--a work that again took Flannery in the 1950s to new boundaries of contemporary literature.
In fact, in keeping with the sardonic identities Flannery gave most of her close friends, she called Ashley an "airplant" and told Sally he resembled the gaunt hawk-faced Belgian guitar-playing nun whose singing entranced world audiences in the early 1960s (HB 48; unpublished letters at Emory). "Airplant" was probably meant as a key to identity and not as a judgment, much as Flannery would look at her Muscovy ducks and often find what made them attractive.
Another close friend asked Flannery about Ashley's apparent lack of religious conviction. "No religion," she replied, "he's one of the boys." What Flannery appeared to mean is not that Ashley was homosexual--he showed no passion to her, secret or otherwise. In fact, Betty Hester, a close observer of such things, thought he lacked any sexuality at all.
Ashley moved through literary circles, another friend said, as courtiers once did at Versailles in the time of Marie Antoinette, never showing any lack of social control that passion--sexual, religious or political--might cause. For the courtier, passion was the game itself, much as football was for Ashley's Southern male relatives in Louisville. For Ashley, literature was a game, a modern-day "court" that revolved around reading, thinking and the glamour of personalities that for him, a Kentucky native of bourgeois background, rivaled anything else he had found in life. An "airplant," as Flannery called him, may appear to be floating and empty, but Ashley was never anything but devoted and loyal. In fact, in the years to come, he would accumulate an impressive panoply of national and international friends, from Sir Stephen and Lady Spender, Auden, Anthony Hecht, James Merrill (whose letters to Ashley are beautifully written), to a host of visual artists.
Caring for Ashley as she did with a passion she had for friendship, in one of her last acts before her death Flannery opened what many considered the greatest literary connection of his life. In one of her final letters, Flannery recommend Ashley to her correspondent friend Elizabeth Bishop--Ashley had never met her but wanted to--as he was heading to Brazil in 1964 on a Fulbright professorship. He developed a profound friendship with Bishop, and his interview with Bisop remained the best.
In fact, Flannery's friendship with Ashley had begun the same way, and it was Ashley, in his love of the game of books, who initiated it. Without having met Flannery, Ashley suggested the review of Wise Blood for Shenandoah. He then arranged for it to he penned by Brainard Cheney, whom he had met through Caroline Gordon. This network had developed at a moment almost providential in Flannery's life.
Ashley knew Caroline Gordon well, of course, by the time Flannery wrote an early letter to him. In 1953 he had finished all his work for his doctorate in English from Vanderbilt, except his dissertation on Gordon. Knowing this, in responding to Ashley's first letter to her, Flannery recognized the kind of letter she must write him. In fact, it was her usual manner in setting up what might become a friendship to first size up the kind of letter a thoughtful or even suffering correspondent would appreciate or need. In this case, Flannery discussed her own literary roots at a level she would not use again until her first letters to Betty Hester.
Thanking "Mr. Brown" for commenting on her first novel, she made a remark that would later appear ironic: "It is always good to get some reaction to what you've written and I don't get much" (LA 910). By time of this letter--exactly a year after Wise Blood appeared--Flannery had become somewhat sensitive to Gordon's book-jacket comparison of her to Kafka. She had recently chastised a favorite professor at Georgia State College for Women, Helen Green, for telling her students the novel was influenced by the Czech writer. Even her mother had wondered. "Regina is getting very literary," Flannery wrote the Fitzgeralds. '"Who is this Kafka?' she says. 'People ask me.' A German Jew, I says, I think. He wrote a book about a man that turns into a roach. 'Well, I can't tell people that,' she says. 'Who is this Evalin Wow?'" (LA 896). Regina had been particularly incensed--"vastly insulted"--with Evelyn Waugh's blurb for Wise Blood, obtained by Giroux from his friend Waugh: "If this is really the unaided work of a young lady, it is a remarkable product." Regina "put the emphasis on if and lady." Did he mean Flannery was NOT a lady? "WHO is he?" (HB 35)
It was clear Flannery felt that Ashley, in his position near the helm of Shenandoah, was influential enough to merit her setting the record straight regarding her literary antecedents. Flannery wrote Ashley what became her standard reply: "I am no Georgia Kafka." She had finished GSCW "with the requirements but I never heard of Kafka until I got to graduate school." But she couldn't finish "The Castle and have never read The Trial and a story like The Hunter Gracchus leaves me a little blank. I can see it's beautifully visualized but to me it's like a ladder with the bottom rungs missing." It should be noted that Flannery had read Kafka in more depth than even her finest critics of Wise Blood, including the dynamic Rosenfeld. "Yon only need to read a little Kafka to become a bolder writer and I am sure reading the little bit I have has done that for me." She was realistic about herself in this first letter to her new friend, whom some already considered a literary snob. "I think I have the Gift of Low Taste that Kafka lacks and that I have been(?) influenced by less fashionable people that nobody mentions--Max Beerbohm and Richard Hughs [Hughes] and maybe, since this is all in the family below the MDixon line, by some of the walled-in monsters of Mr. Poe." In fact, "I have a book called The Humorous Tales of E. A. Poe that I used to read before the age of reason. They were anything but funny."
Knowing Ashley's connection with the powerful Vanderbilt literary establishment, Flannery commented on Robert Penn Warren's recent book-length experimental work, Brother to Dragons with her usual direct intelligence: "I didn't like the first half of Warren's poem," probably all she read. "I have always heard people say he tried to do too much, but those were people who hadn't done as much." However, "I don't know much about poetry. I know a very good poem from a very bad one; that's about all." But she responded to Caroline's (and presumably Ashley's) admiration of the newly restored and virtually canonized (by 1953) Henry James. Flannery repeated to Ashley a line she wrote elsewhere: "When I read Henry James, I feel something is happening to me. I'm not always sure if I like it but it is something happening. Perhaps I feel it's 'the deep deep sea' [James's phrase] keeping me up. Anyhow" she continued, "you see I read Conrad. I don't think there is any writer I like as much as Conrad." She ended by remarking on her surprise when Robie Macauley had told her about Shenandoah "and surprised when I saw it that it should be so good" (LA 910-11).
IN THE YEARS that followed their first encounter, Ashley visited Andalusia frequently, often three times a year and especially at Thanksgiving, more often than not in the company of someone like Carol Johnson, the poet and ex-nun whom Flannery wanted to meet (one of the very few to whom, after reading her work, Flannery wrote first) or a friend like Fred Bornhauser, a fellow Kentuckian who had studied at Exeter College, Oxford, and wanted to meet O'Connor. Isolated at Andalusia, Flannery was learning that the converse of her early life-was now true: she was becoming the center of attraction for intellectual and creative friends. In the case of correspondent J. F. Powers, the Pulitzer-Prize winning fiction writer greatly admired by her friends Robert Lowell and Peter Taylor, she found a new friend not only religious and Catholic but a brilliantly innovative writer and, above all, ironic in his perspective on the Church.
Seeing this attraction to Flannery from the higher levels of their 1950s world--a magnetism they could not understand--Regina and her brother Louis could not but feel justified. Flannery was deeply admired by an endless array that fascinated them in ways their Cline world could never have imagined. "Those who knew," as Regina told a close friend, approved her work. Her admirers' credentials in the outside world justified the love of the mother and uncle and the constant courage it took for them to support and live with a very sick young woman. Neither could fully understand Flannery: her interests represented one more darkness, like her terrible affliction, that they had to enter with little more than hope and a kind of radical innocence--for the Clines, always supported by their total faith.
The review "Rhetoric and Southern Landscape" by Thomas H. Carter in the autumn 1955 issue of Accent compared O'Connor with her contemporary Eudora Welty, especially in their power of syntax and rhetoric: "What really links them together is their authors' firm, professional reliance on a highly developed, somewhat personalized use of rhetoric." As soon as Flannery read this review by the editor of Shenandoah, she knew she had discovered a critic's language whose premises were like her own. She also read an authoritative analysis of how her art differed from that of Welty, the most influential stylist in America in the 1950s. Welty's style, transformed by Capote and countless Southern women writers, not least Flannery herself, created a media image of the South that would soon dominate almost any other. For Carter, style in "Miss Welty's book is the more dazzling" of the two, with Carter's irony that Welty's "language pretty much is [Carter's emphasis] the story: the rich surface, tending more and more to assert its right to corporate existence, doesn't have any particular subject to which it can adhere" and at best "minor characters illuminated and permanently fixed by a single memorable gesture; the characteristically sharp, evocative descriptions--but their substance, with one or two exceptions, is trivial." The Welty "selections appear occasional" and are "nothing more than artfully extended sketches."
On the contrary, for Carter, O'Connor's collection "demonstrates a high degree of thematic integrity; it is a tough-minded, solidly realized piece of work" with "a consistent internal coherence." O'Connor, "with no trace of self-consciousness, writes with a firm moral awareness that, serving as a steady point of reference, continually shapes and informs her fictions. Her stories are not didactic, because her moral sense coincides with her dramatic sensibility"--what Flannery herself would say about Henry James--"nothing explicit about them, or moralizing," although "a fabulist just the same."
Reading the conclusion of this review, Flannery would have felt both gratified and justified. As a cunning craftsman, Carter argued, O'Connor had set her title as "literally the burden of the book." "Fragmentary, incomplete persons" are "trying to either go somewhere, to escape, or doggedly to retain what they have," not recognizing what they are really seeking, "and Miss O'Connor, who doesn't employ the devices of a central, ordering intelligence, refuses to spell it out." The result: "The meaning of most of her stories needs to be approached on two levels: that of the events and characters rendered, and that of the symbolic texture of the language." All such texture was, Carter concluded, "naturalistically self-contained, defined by and operating within the story."
The appearance of the peacock, for example, in "The Displaced Person" was through the eyes of the priest, but the same language appeared in Mrs. Shortley's vision before she died. Also, the title story may begin like satire but soon "achieves a delicate balance between gratuitous tabloid brutality and allegory." "Good Country People," which Allen Tate considered "the most powerful story of maimed souls by a contemporary writer," was, for Carter, as "surely predicated on the fact of human damnation as Hawthorne's 'Ethan Brand.'" In this melding of rendered plot and "symbolic texture," nowhere was O'Connor "negative or despairing; the disciplined exuberance of her tone, if nothing else, would contradict that; and her fine humor reflects on her characters a fair share of saving grace." Carter concluded: "In an era of pseudo-Hemingways, Faulkners, and Warrens, there is no one quite like her" (Accent 15, 293-97).
There was one review Flannery may have discovered to be more profound than most. It certainly went to the very center of her art. The author was a Louisville friend of Ashley Brown's who had studied in Oxford, and the review appeared in her beloved Shenandoah. Fred Bornhauser reviewed the two volumes of stories by Flannery and Eudora Welty in the Autumn 1955 Shenandoah (Vol. 7, No. 1). It was the longest of the reviews of O'Connors second book. It was also written with some of the conscious mannerism of the new type of Southern conservative intellectual, radiating from (but hardly limited to) Vanderbilt University and Nashville. In contrast to that world, however, Bornhauser was one of the very first to perceive Flannery's work in terms of her society, of ideology: "It is easy to perceive the well-springs of Miss O'Connor's art as literature of the Fifties." In fact, Bornhauser argued, the stories were guides to the times: "It is even easier but more satisfying to note the affirmation of her vision in all the myriad events subsequent to its formulation." In truth, Flannery was ahead of her time, the review implied. She could perform this feat of being displaced into the future because she had roots deeply placed in her Southern American past.
According to Bornhauser, O'Connor renewed a literary tradition "which an American author 100 years ago conceived of as fundamental Perverseness." That author was Edgar Allan Poe, whose humorous fiction did indeed have an almost totally generative effect on O'Connor's idea of herself has a writer. Poe's essay-story "The Imp of the Perverse" had an expository section, in which, as Bornhauser pointed out, Poe discussed "an innate and primitive principle of human action, a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness [Poe's emphasis] for want of a more characteristic term."
Bornhauser then quoted extensively from Poe's work to make his point about O'Connor. Reading it, Flannery would find another special justification. Poe's perversities are "promptings we act" on, often "for the reason," argued Poe, "we should not [Poe's emphasis]." In fact, "there is no intelligible principle" for this act, said Poe, "and we might, indeed, deem this perverseness a direct instigation of the arch-fiend, were it not occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good." Bornhauser also showed how Poe's story "Never Bet the Devil Your Head" corresponded to Flannery's fiction. In that story, Poe showed the reader how in the "most specifically surprising way the ubiquitous arch-fiend may make himself manifest." If Flannery, as the "Savannah Brat," (a relative's name for her) foreshadowed this "Imp of the Perverse," Bornhauser then showed operating in "the Brat" an instinctive knowledge of the interweaving of evil and good (usually offstage).
Under this rubric of the "perverse," Bornhauser looked in detail at the title story and the Misfit and then at Mr. Shiftlet's stealing the car and the life of Lucynell. He then discerned the young Bevel as perverse in drowning himself as was Mr. Head in denying Nelson in "The Artificial Nigger" and the little girl in "The Temple of the Holy Ghost," whose childish perversity changed only when she heard about the real perversity of nature in the circus freak. The perversity of age and fraud that described the Confederate veteran and the impudence of the embryo in Ruby's stomach were heightened, the critic argued, by the "romance" of Hulga and the "Chrustian" salesman and the price of a wooden leg.
Then, in the ultimate scene of perversity and blasphemy, the true "imps"--the boys in "A Circle of Fire"--ignite the woods with "a few wild high shrieks of joy" that ironically repeated a holy scene: "as if the prophets were dancing in the fiery furnace, in the circle the angel had cleared for them." The good they were doing in this evil act revealed itself, however, as mother and daughter watched the annihilating fire, and the little girl saw in the face of the mother "the face of the new misery she felt, but on her mother it looked old and it looked as if it might have belonged to anyone, a Negro or a European or to Powell [one of the boys] himself." Through reaching such universal "misery," O'Connor obviated any charges of racism or abstract intolerance. Misery was very human.
Bornhauser found the greatest achievement of this rubric of perversity in "The Artificial Nigger": "an overwhelming story--theme, characters, action, symbolism, style, all wondrous--which I do not hesitate to claim as one of the very best pieces of short fiction in American literature." Flannery would have read this climax of the Shenandoah review with greatest attention. For the rest of her life, O'Connor would declare this story her favorite. This review, which may have validated this as her choice story, also gave her the greatest "justification" for her own conception of art.
Perversity, including her choice of title for the story, showed, Bornhanser argued, Flannery's daring and profound originality, standing like a rock in a mountain stream. As a matter of fact, in "The Artificial Nigger" Bornhauser found the crucial difference between the two women Southern writers whose books he is reviewing: in O'Connor, "the charting of a public world in fiction as distinguished from a private world in fiction" in Welty. That "charting" dealt, certainly in a public world, with the use of ideological perversity and even social scandal.
At the time, 1955, this was a shocking suggestion. O'Connor had written a powerful "perverse" allegoric enactment of the racial conflict looming over the entire South. Indirectly, the story carried with it her solution, so notoriously different, concrete and "perverse" that it defied all political, sociological and abstract ideologies. Her solution built on the most fundamental of confrontations: that of cultural symbols. O'Connor spoke to her time through a contradicting social and political sign. It was the scandal of paradox. As an artist first and foremost, Flannery offered more metaphor than simplistic message in her solution. In fact, the solution was worked out before an image, not in a theory. The sign is a twisted and peeling plaster black jockey on a lawn, which Nelson and Mr. Head stare at in wonder.
As O'Connor rendered it in her story, the black jockey loomed like a crucifix before them, carrying its own real presence, as Bornhauser implied. The jockey impelled recognition, and through its startling image told them imagined metaphor is evidential fact. Human life, of whatever kind, was generally "misery," beginning and ending in a sign like this one of humiliation. Life did not rise for Flannery O'Connor with Emersonian optimism--so Bornhauser, an Agrarian offspring, believed--or in the Victorian and mid-century American certitude of Browning's "the best is yet to come." If it converged, it was usually with suffering.
In fact, for this early reviewer, all O'Connor characters shared, in a dark world like Poe's or Hawthorne's, the humiliation and suffering of a common world not even the greatest hero could escape. Being trapped was the undesired and, more often than not, the undeserved perversity of human life. Perversity and scandal were embodied in the plaster icon of the black jockey on the white man's lawn. Flannery's perversity was pointing it out in a story with a perverse title, and not with a message but with a metaphor. Imagination--O'Connor's method of Coleridgean synthesis she first discovered at Iowa under Austin Warren--made it free and lasting. It was Bornhauser's powerful perception to discover this so early and so fully in his review in Shenandoah (Shenandoah, Vol. 7, No. 1,71-81).
There were other connections between O'Connor and Shenandoah, but these reviews of her works and the scope and depth of the journal itself gave the young O'Connor highly perceptive and sophisticated perspectives on her work and provided the increasingly invalid young woman with great hope for her future as a writer. They also defined her as a theorist of a perversely new type of art in the 1950s. So invigorated, she took on experiments that would later attract the cultural makers of the late twentieth century--including Bruce Springsteen, Conan O'Brien, Tommy Lee Jones and Cormac McCarthy--to her work.
More than forty years after her death, and just before Robert Giroux, the famous editor of her work died, he observed to a close friend of O'Connor: "To everyone's surprise, Flannery grew in ways none of us could have imagined." In this continuous rising and converging of O'Connor and her art, at a particular moment in its history, Shenandoah gave Flannery O'Connor a stage and, for her remarkably enduring art, a special advent.
NOTE: This essay is excerpted from Sessions's forthcoming biography, "Stalking Joy": The Life and Times of Flannery O'Connor."
Bornhauser, Fred. Rev. of A Good Man Is Hard to Find, by Flannery O'Connor and The Bride of the Innisfallen, by Eudora Welty. Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review, 7.1 (1955): 71-81.
Carter, Thomas H. "Rhetoric and Southern Landscapes." Accent: a Quarterly of New Literature, 15.4 (1955): 293-97.
Cheney, Brainard. Rev. of The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemmingway and Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor. Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review, 3.3 (1952): 55-60.
O'Connor, Flannery. Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works, Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Library of America, 1988.
--. The Habit of Being. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979.
--. Unpublished letters, Emory University Library, Atlanta, Georgia.
Stephens, C. Ralph, Ed. Correspondence of Flannery O'Connor and the Brainard Cheneys. Oxford: UP of Mississippi, 1958.
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|Title Annotation:||60th Anniversary - Flannery O'Connor Issue|
|Author:||Sessions, William Alfred|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
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