Blues to Be there
I have a prepared statement, and then there’ll be an improvisation. I hate to do a fully prepared speech in New York, because you never know. This is called “Blues to Be There, or, A Bitch on Bitter Wheels.”
Any talk of the South means that we must look at a special region of our nation, one in which we have had many institutions that were the same as those in the North but that have spun out their own variations on the national ethos and the national blues. There was slavery in the North and in the South. At the end of the eighteenth century, there was a popular black dance band from Philadelphia that was the talk of the North, and they traveled south to put the happy hotfoot on the plantation owners. There were racists in the North, and in the South, and there were those supposedly above who looked down on those supposedly below, whether for racial or class reasons. But for all the northern rogues and all the race riots and all the crime in the big urban battlefields, where monsters like New York’s Monk Eastman was a Grand General of the bloody night, we tend to think of the South as something special when it comes to violence and hatred. We forget the draft riots of 1863, when the Irish balked at the idea of ducking bullets to free some darkies. . . . We forget how black people were pushed aside through prejudicial hiring so that European immigrants could come over here during the great tide of immigration and take jobs American Negroes should have gotten.
The South seems less complex to us than the North—a dark fairyland in which something called slavery determined its identity for centuries. A dark fairyland in which something called the Civil War was fought, taking 600,000 into the silent world of death. A dark fairyland where plantation owners who set the style of upper-class manners thought themselves the extensions of Greco-Roman grandeur, and gave their slaves names like Pompey, after the general who preceded Julius Caesar in the grand days of Roman Empire. But the South’s darkness was more extensive than we sometimes know. Think of serial killers like Micajah and Wiley Harpe, known as Big and Little Harpe, who are mentioned in Moby-Dick because they were still famous sixty years later for their murders on the Natchez Trace, where they killed men, women, and children. Flannery O’Connor would have understood them because, as she wrote in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “It’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”
Yet there’s also the Southern light of actual charm: true religious charity, eloquence, and a tragic sense of life forever under threat by the lower sides of the human soul, no matter the social register from which that soul arises. It is out of that context of refinement, pretension, violence, class hatred, resentment, sadism, lyric impulses, and compassion that the writings of Flannery O’Connor arise, fully informed by the freedom that comes out of art. O’Connor had to fight through many things that most of us do not have to, but she was like the blind man in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur who explains that he loves the piano because “it doesn’t do me any favors.” When she was writing, she was equal to or inferior to others only on the basis of her talent and how well she focused it. That may be why there’s such freedom in her work, even if her characters were caught inside rituals and presumptions and the classic resentments that arrive not only in a Southern context but within the problems unleashed by upward mobility. In fact, one might say that no American writer has done a better job of expressing envy and resentment than O’Connor, who always took into consideration how difficult it was to accept what seemed an unfair fate. She also understood that the question of the spirit is about whether or not a caustic fate, even a brutal victory of evil in the moment of absolute humiliation of death, is ever the point. If we can only understand God when all is well with us, then we do not truly believe. Faith is most difficult to sustain when one who loves the light of the world has been blinded by accident, by genes, or by the hand of another.
Now, that’s the written part. I would also like to say that Flannery O’Connor anticipated our period perhaps more than people in her time recognized. See, she didn’t have a Jerry Springer Show, but she did, obviously, because many of her characters would have been on Jerry Springer. I mean, that is the show where the guy who goes to bed with his daughter’s boyfriend ends up impregnating her boyfriend’s sister and comes on the show and says, “Well, we’ve worked it all out.” But at the same time, O’Connor recognized that perhaps the hardest thing to handle in America is the idea that you are not going to get beyond where you are. Maybe that’s not as hard a fate in other countries as it is in this one, because so many people in America have, as they say, come from nothing. But in Flannery O’Connor’s world, if you start off as nothing, and it looks as if that’s how you’re going to end up, then you’re a very resentful person. We in New York of course understand resentment as easily as anybody in the South—resentment is a New York trait. Maybe that makes us the penthouse of the South, spiritually speaking: “Why him, not me? Why didn’t I win that prize instead of her? How come he got that apartment? Who do they think they are?” And on it goes.
Flannery O’Connor also understood something that all of us in America need to understand as well as we can, which is that bigotry, any form of prejudice one uses to protect oneself from true personal revelation, is the thing out of which the great dangers come. I’ll read the passage in “Revelation” that Maureen Howard referred to, about all those people ending up on a train. The kind of train that Eichmann and his friends made us all remember is not abstract. Anti-Semitism is a term, racism is a term, sexism is a term, homophobia is a term. But in a sense they’re all abstract. What happens to people is specific: someone actually has someone else’s hand put on him or her with not a good intent. And when that happens, it’s often the result of objectifying problems and blaming them on another group of people. This is what Flannery O’Connor says in “Revelation”:
Sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them. Then next to them—not above, just away from—were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged. Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land. But the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her, for some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there were colored people who owned their homes and land as well. There was a colored dentist in town who had two red Lincolns and a swimming pool and a farm with registered whiteface cattle on it. Usually by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed together in a boxcar, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven.
Now, that’s the real story of the Jews in Europe. No matter how much conflict there was among them, how varied they might have been—that wasn’t what the Nazis were thinking about. You being a poor Jew, you being an upper-class Jew, you being a land-owning Jew, you being an educated Jew, a partially educated one, a magnanimous one, a selfish one, none of that made any difference. You were boxcarred and removed because you had been reduced to an abstraction. This statement from “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” says as much about evil as anything I’ve read: “‘Yes’m,’ the Misfit said as if he agreed. ‘Jesus thrown everything off balance. . . . I call myself The Misfit,’ he said, ‘because I can’t make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment.’”