Maureen Howard: Leaps of Faith
Dear Miss O’Connor,
I should say Flannery. You once wrote to “A,” your unidentified correspondent, that Miss O’Connor was too proper. Your letters had settled into friendship, and you wrote that you were learning to walk on crutches and felt like “a large stiff anthropoid ape who has no cause to be thinking of St. Thomas or Aristotle.” But you surely did think of both those gents, as you stalked about on aluminum props. And in writing to A, you thought clearly about matters of faith, but your most intimate words to A—and I’d say to critics, mentors, and the just plain curious—were about your work, your art and your craft. For a writer to consider her doubts about a half-written story, or reconsider a published one, even in the closed circuit of personal letters—that takes spunk. It smacks of the magician’s calculated risk, displaying the techniques of the trick, then fooling our very eyes.
In the mid-fifties, you were writing a lecture on the freak in modern fiction, which was finally titled, “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” A lecture for those university types, and you did wonder out loud, so to speak, if you shouldn’t be writing, not talking about writing. Lord knows it was an appropriate subject. You were drawn to the carnival, to a view of distortions and excess in humankind. There’s not a Flannery O’Connor story (that’s how we tag these works so particular to your spirit and your fine mind), not one in which you don’t portray bodily disfiguration, the visible manifestations of imperfection—what is marred or missing in all of us in varying degrees. From the view of the tramp in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” (“his face descended in forehead for more than half its length and ended suddenly with his features just balanced over a jutting steel-trapped jaw”) to “Parker’s Back,” in which O. E. Parker’s tattoos are the sign of his self-beautification (decoration’s only skin deep), there’s not one soul who escapes dire limitations, physical, cultural, spiritual. Your characters seem a commedia dell’arte troupe called upon in story after story to play out their follies. Mrs. Cope, in “A Circle in the Fire,” and Julian’s mother, in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” are plain ridiculous in their ladylike pumps, their Sunday hats. You let it be known that Mrs. Cope’s hat was “still stiff and bright green,” while Mrs. Pritchard’s identical hat was “faded and out of shape.” But then, Mrs. Pritchard is hired help, who makes it clear with her ghoulish chatter that she is in no way white trash. As for the very large Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation,” what you convey in the bloat of Ruby Turpin is her self-inflation. All her horrendous judgments on class and race, spoken and unspoken, are the pronouncements of a clown, who is finally not to be laughed at.
I would add to your celebration of the grotesque that your depiction of gentility is grotesque, as powerful in its crippling moral view as fumblings in the fiery field of sin and redemption that you so often assign to the lame, the halt, and the blind. I, too, was raised in gentility, though in the North. For my wedding, the maiden aunts presented me with arcane objects that I might crumb my table to render my linen, if not virginal, always presentable. In an early story, “The Crop,” this task is given to Lucia Willerton. “It was a relief to crumb the table. Crumbing the table gave one time to think, and if Miss Willerton were going to write a story, she had to think about it first.” Her task hankers back to manners that are as stale and meaningless as the romantic story she is writing, which is blown right out of her head by the sight of lovers walking too close for refinement. The woman is garishly dressed, her face set in an insane grin, the man long and wasted and shaggy—minor figures in your gallery of misfits and the merely unlovable. Yet their very presence reads like a note to yourself to put aside Miss Willerton’s nonsense and get down to the business of discovering your material, what will be extravagant and often cruel, yet always genuine in your stories.
“It’s not necessary to point out,” you wrote of the grotesque, “that the look of this fiction is going to be wild, that it is almost of necessity going to be violent and comic.” In writing of the grotesque in gothic sculpture, John Ruskin begged his readers to examine once more those ugly goblins and formless monsters: “But do not mock at them, for they are the signs of life and liberty in every workman who struck a stone, a freedom of thought.” Such freedom to fashion your characters, no matter how flawed in body, misshapen in spirit, and at times unredeemable, you understood to be dangerous. Taking yet another risk, you wrote that “if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious . . . what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself.” You spoke of your belief that the writer of the grotesque fiction looks for one image that will embody the concrete, what is not visible to the naked eye, but which is just as real, more real to you. You asked a good deal of the strong, exfoliating images in your stories, though no more than Hawthorne, whom you so admired, asked of a birthmark, or a carbuncle.
Often you found that one image—a hat, a shoe, a skeleton, a bull, a fire. To me your most powerful image is the boxcars. In one of your last letters to A: “I am reading Eichmann in Jerusalem. Anything is credible after such a period in history. I’ve always been haunted by the boxcars, but they were actually the least of it.” Those boxcars show up in several stories. In the mealy-mouthed words of Mrs. Cope, “Why, think of all those poor Europeans, that they put in boxcars like cattle and rode them to Siberia. Lord, we ought to spend half our time on our knees.” In “Revelation,” Ruby Turpin’s demonic sociological review of the breakdown of class and race ends in a nightmare in which “all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a boxcar, being ridden off to be put in a gas oven.” In the end, that bestial woman sees into the life of things in a pigpen, and is afforded an apocalyptic view right out of the Book of Revelation. You worried about the grandeur with which you finished that story, but you surely brought it off—the panorama of salvation in which all classes and kinds are freed in a processional, the Negroes in white robes. Ruby Turpin is included, though her sort no longer leads the pack. And of course the camps, the boxcars, are central to the displaced person. Though you did go on in your lecture about the need for fiction to reach beyond any instructive message, political or social, you wrote from the South, from the farm, this most wonderful story that knows no region in its excoriation of man’s silent complicity in evil.
I believe that you would loathe e-mail, and just hate coming in from feeding the birds to find a fax poking up on yet another machine. Not because you rejected the new, though you did not much admire the moderns, but you believed in the careful consideration of each letter you wrote, even quick notes carried the life of your voice. (The last entry in The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor, “Judgement Day,” is a rewrite of the opening story, “The Geranium.”) I love the scolding letters, written as though to yourself, your impatient confession that you didn’t get it right. And till the very end you were troubled by the final stroke in “The Enduring Chill,” in which the stain on the ceiling becomes the Holy Ghost. You suspected that the ending was not earned, that your belief may have determined the sighting of that sacred bird. I’ve just returned from Florence, and you were surely on my mind: so many saints, so many devils on view. You would take pleasure in Ghirlandaio’s “Last Supper,” where they, the usual suspects, are all assembled for the sacramental moment while a peacock, poised above the table, takes no notice. He’s arrogant, unconcerned; his gorgeous tail feathers are some kind of miracle. And I thought of you when I looked long at Masaccio’s “Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise,” those poor, disfigured creatures, because that’s what you wrote about in all your stories: the fall from grace of humankind. Salvation in your world of grotesques is acrobatic, requires a leap of faith like the leap of faith you ask of yourself and your readers, a belief in fiction itself.
Catholic girls of our era were instructed in humility. We were not allowed laurels. Well, now you’ve taken your place with Poe and Hawthorne, Faulkner and Welty, in a distinguished Library of America edition of your work. Preen your feathers, Flannery.