Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Too Awful to Ignore

When I was in high school, I used to claim pretentiously that Flannery O’Connor changed my life. I have no idea what I meant by that, and if I was honest with myself at the time, I’m sure I would have admitted I had no idea then, either. Such was the depth of my ignorance and my pretention, in fact, that I made this claim after reading through the Complete Stories and being completely unable to point out the religious dimensions of her work. College did that for me, along with a book I picked up at a Christian music festival, Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner’s Flannery O’Connor: A Proper Scaring. Baumgaertner’s book is the perfect introduction to traditionalist readings of O’Connor—she goes through her work story by story and explains what she’s up to.

The phrase you hear bandied about in O’Connor studies—I don’t have the energy to comb through Baumgaertner’s book to see if it’s in there, although it’s not listed in the somewhat skimpy index—is tragic grace. However sophisticated you want to get with your interpretations, it’s a hard thing to ignore, and it’s certainly the method endorsed by the author herself, who famously notes in “The Fiction Writer and His Country” that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

So to get her very premodern point across to those of us numbed by the modern and postmodern worlds, O’Connor kills off her main character in pretty much every story. (In the few stories where the main character doesn’t die, something nevertheless terrible happens to her, as we see in Mrs. Turpin’s public come-uppance in “Revelation,” a personal favorite.)

In O’Connor’s Catholicism, a character who receives a flash of grace just before her death is given a chance for full acceptance of that grace in Purgatory; thus, it really counts for something that the Grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” “would have been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” She’s a good woman for 35 seconds on earth, and she’s given a chance to be a good woman forever. Furthermore, the reader is made aware of divine presence and grace and given his own chance to accept that grace by viewing someone else’s tragedy.

All of this is de rigeur O’Connor criticism; throw a rock up in the air on a college campus, and you’ll be sure to hit someone who wrote a paper to this effect. What I didn’t recognize until I reread, for the first time in 15 years, the previously uncollected work at the front of Complete Stories, is the extent to which her own biography created and then necessitated this approach.

The stories in question—“The Geranium,” “The Barber,” “Wildcat,” “The Crop,” and “The Turkey”—were part of O’Connor’s master’s thesis at the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop, from which she graduated in 1947. The future, presumably, was wide and open in front of her at this point; she would attend the Yaddo Writer’s Retreat in a few months and move in with lifelong friends Sally and Robert Fitzpatrick shortly after that, and these appear to have been happy times in her life.

What these stories have in common is their weakness, at least when viewed in the larger context of her later work. (O’Connor, best I can tell, got much better as she went along—A Good Man Is Hard to Find is better than Wise Blood, and Everything That Rises Must Converge is better than both of them. We’ll ignore The Violent Bear It Away.) Readers looking for tragic grace in these early stories will not find it, not without stretching credulity to its limits. “The Barber,” the best of the five, sets up the reader for a great fall that never comes; death permeates “Wildcat” up until the very end, when it mysteriously vanishes; and “The Crop” is a very ill-advised attempt at John Barth-style metafiction (even if it was composed before Barth was a blip on the radar). We get in these stories all the elements that make O’Connor such an entertaining and philosophically interesting writer—but without a catalyst to put them all together.

Then came 1950. O’Connor was hospitalized for a floating kidney, and while she was there, she discovered she suffered from the lupus that claimed her father eight years earlier. She was dying—there was no cure and not much treatment for the disease in those days. She finished Wise Blood while recovering from her surgery and adjusting to her new lifestyle in Milledgeville.

I am not sure of the degree to which her conception of this novel changed once she learned of her illness. It’s obvious from the fragments published earlier (also collected in Complete Stories) that it gained a certain measure of darkness, a darkness which her later stories would not only replicate but intensify. Hazel Motes blinds himself in penance, but the Grandmother, say, or Mrs. May, aren’t given a choice in the matter. Fate or God takes over, and we’re to them as flies are to errant boys.

We can see the difference between pre- and post-lupus O’Connor in the twin stories “The Geranium” and “Judgment Day,” the first and last stories she published. The latter is a rewrite and expansion of the former; they both deal with an elderly Southern man adjusting to life in New York City by staring at a plant on a balcony across the street, but the tone of their endings is radically different. “The Geranium” ends with a thud, the potted plant falling off the balcony. Old Dudley survives, at least for the time being, but the story ends in alienation and ugliness.

“Judgment Day” is somehow less dark, despite Tanner’s ending position with his head stuffed into a balcony. His death is made explicit here—and it’s one of the most horrifying in O’Connor’s entire corpus—but the story offers redemption. He’s explicitly given the judgment day he’s so hoped for, and he makes it back to Georgia, even if he does so in a pine box. “The Geranium” is a tragedy; “Judgment Day” is a comedy of sorts.

So American literature may have received its own form of tragic grace in O’Connor’s untimely death; as Walter Clemons remarks on the back cover of my edition of Complete Stories, “What we lost when she died is bitter. What we have is astonishing: the stories burn brighter than ever, and strike deeper.” The point is, however, that those stories wouldn’t burn at all without her knowledge of her impending death—for whatever reason, she needed that time limit in order to create her own unique vision of the world.

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