The Library of America’s “Story of the Week” this week is Flannery O’Connor’s “The Train,” a story from her M.F.A. thesis at University of Iowa, which later became the basis of chapter one of her first novel Wise Blood. If you have not read it, you might be interested. You can sign up for the Library of America’s “Story of the Week” at loa.org
I am currently editing a collection of essays on Flannery O’Connor for the Critical Insight Series published by Ebsco/Salem Press. The book will contain four original essays that I contracted O’Connor scholars to write for the volume, as well as twelve previously published essays on O’Connor that focus on her two novellas and her two collections of short stories.
The volume also includes an essay I wrote on O’Connor’s contribution to the romance/short story tradition within which she created her work. You may recall that last year when the National Book Award Committee asked readers to vote for the Best of the National Book Award winners since the fiction Award began, the winner was Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories. Given the fact that publishers are reluctant to take on short story collections, it is worth noting that four of the six books nominated—The Stories of John Cheever, Eudora Welty’s Collected Stories, Collected Stories of William Faulkner, and The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor—were short story collections. The only two novels to make the shortlist were Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.
One of the many things I admire about O'Connor is how determined she was from the beginning of her career to write symbolic short fiction in the Hawthorne tradition rather than conventional realistic novels as her publishers continued to urge her to write. When she was working under contract to write Wise Blood, O’Connor was unhappy with the kind of editorial response she received from Holt Rinehart and asked to be released from her contract, complaining that a letter to her from the editor John Selby “was addressed to a slightly dim-witted Camp Fire Girl.” She wrote Selby: “I feel that whatever virtues the novel may have are very much connected with the limitations you mention. I am not writing a conventional novel, and I think that the quality of the novel I write will derive precisely from the peculiarity or aloneness, if you will, of the experience I write from.”
And she stuck to this insistence on writing symbolic short fiction rather than realist long fiction throughout her too short career. My essay in this new book tries to place O’Connor in the romance/short fiction tradition to which she belongs and discusses her unique contribution to that form.
If you read “The Train,” you might find it interesting to compare it with the first chapter of Wise Blood, in which Hazel (named Wickers here but changed to Motes later) is just out of the army and on the way home. The primary difference between the two versions are the additions O’Connor makes to Haze’s conversation with people on the train, and his remembrance of his preacher grandfather, all of which point to the religious themes which O’Connor later makes uniquely her own. Haze tells a woman in Wise Blood, “Do you think I believe in Jesus? Well I wouldn’t even if He existed. Even if He was on this train.” In thinking about his childhood, “He knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure…” The first chapter of Wise Blood ends with Haze feeling that the berth where he is sleeping is like a coffin, and he cries to the porter to let him out. “Jesus, Haze said, Jesus.” The porter only replies, “Jesus been a long time gone” in a sour triumphant voice.
If you have not read Flannery O’Connor in a while, she is worth reading again. In preparation for editing this book, I just finished reading all of her fiction and nonfiction. If you like her work, you might want to read the collection of essays and talks entitled Mystery and Manners and the wonderful big collection of her letters entitled Habit of Being. She was a wise and witty woman.
The book I am editing won’t be out for a while. I am currently writing the introduction and compiling the bibliography. But I will let you know when it is published. There is no doubt that Flannery O’Connor is one of the great short story writers of the twentieth century. I admire her dedication to that underrated form. I would be happy to hear your own opinion of O’Connor.