Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Flannery O'Connor at Library of America

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.


Sandra said...

I look forward to reading your book. Short Story THeories is wonderful for the overview of the form and the comments covering up to mid 70s. We need an update on that book! But Flannery O'Connor was way ahead of her time. I am curious to know what other writers you would place in the romance/short story tradition beyond Hawthorne, O'Connor and Poe. Carson McCullers? Katherine Ann Porter? Stuart Dybek? Your blog is amazing!

Ulrica said...

As Sandra I also look forward to your book on O'Connor. When I checked your blog to day I was glad to find a discussion about lines in the short story tradition. I'm currently working on an article on Alice Munro where I want to say something about why she often is compared to novel writers, and I don't think that it mainly has to do with an underrating of the short story as a genre. I think there is something in her writing that distinguishes her from a minimalist tradition that has been strong within the genre. Her temporal complexity together with the intricate plot line often featuring parallel plots make her stand out. I guess that she could partly be placed in the romance/short story tradition, because of the Gothic influnces, but in terms of form?? Do you, or any one reading this blog, know of short story writers who would be comparable to Munro?

Charles E. May said...

Sandra, I would place any writer who creates characters that are more representative than real in the romance tradition. In my opinion, the short story as a form has been linked to the romance tradition since its beginning. Both Turgenev and Gogol create characters who seem both real and representative at once. Even Chekhov, who moves closer to the so-called realistic, creates characters whose experiences are symbolically significant. In America, certainly both Poe and Hawthorne are within this tradition, but even in Melville's "Bartleby," in spite of the boss's being realistic, Bartleby is certainly representative. In the twentieth century, Eudora Welty and Bernard Malamud are certainly in that tradition. Nowadays, I would place such writers as Steven Millhauser in that tradition, while such as writers as James Lasdun are more in the Chekhov tradition. I don't think there is such a thing as a purely "reaslitic" short story. Short stories are always, to my mind, representative of some more universal thematic significance. Thanks for your interest, my dear. I always love to hear from you.

Charles E. May said...

Ulrica, thank you for your remarks. I also am interested in the common critical judgment that Alice Munro's work is often called "novelistic." Indeed, it is the most common judgment that her reviewers make. I think it has to do with the notion of "complexity" in narrative. I tried to respond to this a few years ago in an article in the Canadian journal Wascana Review. I will be happy to send that to you if you will give me your email address. The most recent issue of the New Yorker, which I just got today, has a new story by Alice Munro. I am so happy that she is still writing. I will post a blog on the story next week.

Ulrica said...

Hi Charles,
I would be more than interested in reading your article. My e-mail is ulrica.skagert@english.su.se
I knew about the new story by Munro, and will have a copy on Monday, and will be looking forward to your comments about it.

Karl said...

Commenting on an old post here, I know. I only recently found your blog, and I've been working through it in reverse chronological order (4 years and 7 months left to go!)

Harold Bloom (in the book "Short Story Writers And Short Stories") made a comment about O'Connor that made me laugh out loud. First quoting The Misfit's "mordant observation" about the grandmother of "A Good Man is Hard to Find":
"She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
Bloom says,
"Secular critic as I am, I need to murmur: "Surely that does make goodness a touch too strenuous?"

I'm afraid that echoes my feelings about O'Connor. Yes, she wrote wonderful, powerful stories, but dang, she sure did like to pound the pulpit and conjure up the fire and brimstone. I admire her stories, but I always come away from them feeling like someone's been not only shouting in my ear, but also jabbing at my ribs with an accusing forefinger.

Charles E. May said...

Well, Karl, I never read it quite the literal way Bloom does. I think, regardless of whether one is religious or not, living as if each minute were our last might be more sustaining than strenuous; even a secular person might find it revealing. But no doubt about it, Flannery O'Connor does think that if one believes, he or she must not be lukewarm about it.