Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Notes For March 25th, 2020

This Day In Literary History

On March 25th, 1925, the famous American writer Flannery O'Connor was born. She was born Mary Flannery O' Connor in Savannah, Georgia. She described herself as "a pigeon-toed child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I'll-bite-you complex."

When she was six years old, she taught her pet chicken to walk backwards. The story made the local news, then was picked up Pathe News for one of its national newsreels. O'Connor and her chicken appeared in a newsreel segment titled Little Mary O'Connor and Her Trained Chicken.

When she was fifteen, her father died of lupus, a hereditary disease that ran in the O'Connor family. She was devastated by the loss. She graduated from the Peabody Laboratory School in 1942 and went on to earn a Social Sciences degree at the Georgia State College for Women, now known as Georgia College State University.

A year later, in 1946, she was accepted into the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she had enrolled to study journalism. While in the Writers' Workshop, she became friends with some important writers and critics who taught there, including Robert Penn Warren, Andrew Lytle, and Paul Engle.

Writer and essayist Andrew Lytle, also the longtime editor of the Sewanee Review, was an early admirer of Flannery O'Connor's work. He published her short stories and others' essays on her work.

Poet and novelist Paul Engle, the director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, was the first to read and critique the early drafts of what would become O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood (1952).

Flannery O'Connor's writings were heavily influenced by her experiences growing up a liberal Catholic in the fiercely conservative, fundamentalist Protestant "Bible Belt" of the American South. Her style was a unique form of Southern Gothic.

Her backward (often grotesquely backward) Southern characters would undergo a transformation bringing them close to her way of thinking. She didn't shy away from controversial subjects such as racism, poverty, and the dangers of fundamentalism.

O'Connor was best known as a master of the short story, foreshadowing and irony her trademarks. She published two short story collections, A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge, published posthumously in 1965 - a year after her death.

The title story of A Good Man is Hard to Find was her most famous and brilliant short story. In it, an unnamed old woman accompanies her son Bailey and his family on their vacation to Florida. She really wants to go to Georgia to see her childhood home, and pesters Bailey until she gets her way.

The old woman's directions lead the family down an abandoned dirt road, and she realizes that her childhood home is in Tennessee, not Georgia. Frustrated, she spooks her cat, which attacks Bailey and causes him to have an accident. No one is seriously injured.

Not wanting to face Bailey's wrath, the old woman fakes an injury to gain sympathy. The family waits for a passerby to help them. A car pulls up and some men get out. One of them is a shirtless, bespectacled man with a gun.

He seems to be a good Samaritan, but the old woman recognizes him as an escaped murderer called The Misfit. When she identifies him as The Misfit, he tells his accomplices to murder the family. The old woman begs for her own life and tries to preach to The Misfit about Jesus.

This makes him angrier, and he tells her that he doesn't want to waste his life serving someone who may not exist, nor does he want to displease a God who may exist. Frustrated by this paradox, his philosophy is "There's no pleasure but meanness."

When the old woman reaches out to The Misfit and calls him her child, he recoils and shoots her three times. After his accomplices murder the rest of the family, The Misfit cleans his glasses and thinks about the old woman.

He sums her up by saying that "she would have been a good woman... if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." When one of his accomplices mentions how much fun they had killing the family, The Misfit angrily chides him, saying "It's no real pleasure."

Another one of Flannery O'Connor's great stories was The Life You Save May Be Your Own. It told the haunting tale of an old woman so desperate to marry off her mute daughter Lucynell that she ends up paying a poor drifter to marry the girl.

Although mute and simple, Lucynell is so beautiful that when a young man sees her asleep at a diner counter, he comments that "She looks like an angel of God." Her husband abandons her, then later, while driving as a storm is breaking, he notices a road sign that says "Drive carefully - the life you save may be your own."

O'Connor's novels took her distinctive style even further. They both painted dark portraits of religion and faith. Wise Blood (1952) was a dark comedy about an American soldier, Hazel Motes, who returns home from Korea.

After carousing with a prostitute, Motes embarks on a new career path - after meeting some religious hucksters, he decides to become one himself. Motes' war experiences convinced him that the only way to escape sin is to have no soul.

So, he founds the "Holy Church of Christ Without Christ," casting himself in the role of prophet. He begins to believe in his own false prophecy, which leads to his tragic and surreal downfall.

The Violent Bear It Away (1960) told an even darker story of the perversion of religion and faith. The novel opens with the death of Mason Tarwater, an insanely religious old man. Tarwater had been grooming his great-nephew Francis (whom he kidnapped shortly after he was born) to be a prophet.

After Tarwater dies, Francis goes to stay with his anti-religious uncle Rayber. Despite Rayber's intentions and Francis' own determination to resist his calling, the boy can't escape the fact that he's losing his mind.

Francis ultimately accepts his "destiny" to become a prophet and goes completely mad - both of which occur after he is drugged and raped by a man who had given him a ride.

In 1951, Flannery O'Connor was diagnosed with lupus - the disease that killed her father. The doctors gave her five years to live, but she lived for fourteen years, writing two novels and over two dozen short stories.

She also wrote over a hundred book reviews which appeared in two local Catholic newspapers. She died of lupus complications in 1964 at the age of 39. More than forty years after her death, she remains one of America's most celebrated writers.

Quote Of The Day

"All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, and brutal." - Flannery O'Connor

Vanguard Video

Today's video features a rare recording of Flannery O'Connor reading her classic short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find. Enjoy!

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