March 25, 2015

Looking for Flannery O’Connor on Her 90th Birthday — “The Dreary Chair She Sat in Glowed.”

book revI have a large tumor and if they don’t make haste and get rid of it, they will have to remove me and leave it.

—Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)

The characteristic quip about the tumor is from a letter Flannery O’Connor wrote months before her death on August 3, 1964. I was hoping to find a copy of her first novel, Wise Blood, at the Bryn Mawr Wellesley Book Sale. I’d have gladly settled for the Ace paperback with a blonde in a black negligee on a cover promising “A brutal passionate novel of sin and redemption in a southern town.” One online bookseller is asking $5,000 for a copy of the rare first edition, which comes with “a custom clamshell slipcase” to “protect” it. If she were around today, the author would no doubt be amused, and appalled, to know that a novel that blindsided reviewers and scandalized her hometown washed up on the shores of bookland 2015 housed in a clamshell slipcase.

Intimations of Flannery O’Connor’s unsparing sense of humor can be seen in the photo of the 27-year-old author seated, demure and smiling, at a May 1952 autograph party for Wise Blood held in the library of her alma mater, the Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville. The story behind the smile (“Cocktails were not served but I lived through it anyway”) is related in Brad Gooch’s excellent biography Flannery (Little Brown 2009), where the “quandary that had befallen so many of the dressed up visitors” is described by an eyewitness: “What to do? Everybody liked the child. Everybody was glad that she’d got something published, but one did wish that it had been something ladylike. What to say to her? What to do with your book once you bought it and she had signed it?” The observer also mentions noticing from time to time that day “the quick light of laughter in Flannery’s eyes.”

There she sits, only recently recovered from the first searing onslaught of lupus, the disease that would kill her at 39. In the little over a decade that she has left, the child who “got something published” will produce a body of work that places her among the greatest American writers. Her level, unbending gaze hints at where she’s headed. Her first novel is in her lap, and however proud she may be to have it close, she seems to be holding it down, both hands clenched in fists, as if the book’s crazy energies are about to explode and wholly destroy the already compromised decorum of the occasion. After all, this is a novel that puzzled, disturbed, shocked, and unhinged its readers, including critics who even while admiring it made misguided comparisons (“I’m no Georgia Kafka,” she insisted); some reviewers found it “terrifying,” and in one instance, “insane.” Years later when a Chicago newspaper claimed that O’Connor had created a Lolita years before Nabokov, she saw no reason to reject the association, having once told a friend, “All these moralists who condemn Lolita give me the creeps …. I go by the notion that a comic novel has its own criteria.” She says as much in her brief preface to a later edition of Wise Blood, “a comic novel” that was written “with zest” and “should be read that way.”

No amount of “zest” in the reading could have eased the consternation Wise Blood created in Milledgeville. According to Gooch’s biography, reactions from family, schoolmates, and locals were picturesque in the extreme. Her writing instructor at the College for Women “threw the novel across the room” and later claimed “that character who dies in the last chapter could have done the world a great favor by dying in the first chapter instead.” Some folks apparently passed Wise Blood among themselves “in brown paper bags,” and one lady claimed to have “burned a copy in her backyard.” A high-minded cousin in Savannah “went to bed for a week” after her encounter with the book and wrote notes of apology to all the priests who had received a copy. Asked by the publisher for a quote, Evelyn Waugh replied, “If this is really the unaided work of a young lady, it is a remarkable product,” adding, off the record, “Why are so many characters in recent American fiction sub-human?” Flannery’s mother resented “this Evalin Wow” for daring to suggest that her daughter might not be a lady.

In Iowa

In a long letter about what she has read “and been influenced by,” O’Connor admits that she didn’t really start reading and writing fiction until she entered the State University of Iowa writing program in 1945. At her first meeting with her teacher, Paul Engle, her Georgia accent was so thick that he was unable to understand a word she said. He soon found that “on the page her prose was imaginative, tough, alive: just like Flannery herself.” Engle pictures her in his class sitting “at the back of the room, silent … more of a presence than the exuberant talkers who serenade every writing-class with their loudness. The only communicating gesture she would make was an occasional amused and shy smile at something absurd. The dreary chair she sat in glowed.”

Religion Without Religion

“The short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me” is how Bruce Springsteen responded when asked in a recent New York Times interview to name one book that made him who he is today. After mentioning “the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters,” Springsteen echoed O’Connor’s visionary language to say that her work made him “feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.”

The stories “landed hard” on me at the American Library in New Delhi. Lightheaded after reading my way through Everything That Rises Must Converge and the title story in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, I knew something like the “swirling” and the “reeling” and “the earth barely beneath us” as I walked into the blindingly bright Indian afternoon. O’Connor’s fiction and India had become one and the same; the spiritual intensity of her writing, like the life-and-death force of spirituality surrounding me in India, was so overwhelming and so vivid that it didn’t matter if I understood Catholicism or Original Sin any more than if I understood Hinduism or Buddhism. There’s a reference to this sense of secular religiosity in one of O’Connor’s letters, where she finds the Notebooks of Simone Weil an “example of the religious consciousness without a religion,” something “maybe sooner or later” she “will be able to write about.”

Rumbling Toward Heaven

The vision that followed me out of the American Library the day I discovered Flannery O’Connor occurs at the end of “Revelation,” a long story most of which takes place in a doctor’s waiting room where a smug, hugely fat woman named Mrs. Turpin, thankful to be who she is, with “a little of everything and a good disposition,” is physically and verbally attacked by a disturbed girl who called her “an old warthog” and told her to go to hell. At the end, standing in the “pig parlor” on her hog farm, the woman lifted her head to see “a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.” She saw “whole companies of white trash” and “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs,” and at the end of the procession “a tribe of people” like herself and her husband “marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

As the story ends, “In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”

Referring to “the vision” in a letter written on May 15, 1964, three months before her death, O’Connor says she likes Mrs. Turpin: “You got to be a very big woman to shout at the Lord across a hog pen.” The letter ends like the story. Having just had another blood transfusion (“I have declared a moratorium on making blood”), she recalls coming home from the hospital earlier that month “hearing the celestial chorus” singing “My Darling Clementine.”

In the Air

I didn’t get around to Wise Blood until years after my introduction to Flannery O’Connor. I read it straight through on a plane from Los Angeles to Newark, smiling most of the way, and now and then laughing out loud, for I was reading, true to the advice in her preface, “with zest.”  As she says in the preface, Wise Blood is a comic novel, “and, as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”

The Springsteen quote is from “By the Book,” NY Times, Nov. 2, 2014. All quotes by Flannery O’Connor are from the indispensable Library of America volume of her collected novels, stories, essays, and letters.