Reading & Misreading

Flannery O'Connor writing nook at AndalusiaFlannery O’Connor appeared on “‘Galley Proof,” a program about books, broadcast by WRCA-TV Workshop, the week before the publication in 1955 of her collection of short stories, A Good Man is Hard To Find and Other Stories. The television program dramatized scenes from one of the stories, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” not the best story in this collection of mostly masterpieces of ground breaking Southern literature, but it satisfied television expectations, a stupid country girl, a gullible widowed mother, and a traveling slicker. The actors, in cornpone costumes, spoke their lines in a stilted stage style out of fashion soon after the 1950’s. Between scenes the New York television interviewer asked:

Q: “Flannery, would you like to tell our audience what happens in that story?”
A: “No, I certainly would not. I don’t think you can paraphrase a story like this. I think there’s only one-way to tell it, and that’s the way it is told in the story.”

In the WRCA-TV interview, Flannery O’Connor wore black, or so it appeared in the grainy black and white recording. Her shirtwaist dress had short sleeves and pointed collars. She kept stiffly posed, her left hand resting on her right forearm. Today, all the authors appear on tv so glib and relaxed. In the 1950’s, Flannery O’Connor did not even own a television set. She answered pretentious questions with a seriousness they did not deserve but a sardonic edge, from behind which a smile flashed, surprising herself and checking if the listener might smile back. It was a beautiful smile, explosive, deeply believable, easy to imagine her sitting at her typewriter occasionally breaking into laughter, shamelessly cracking herself up.

Flannery O’Connor, who did not truck with sentimentality, died in 1964, too young, too soon, of crippling lupus. By the time I enrolled at Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1967, my avant-garde liberal left-wing professors were already teaching Flannery O’Connor’s stories in writing workshops alongside Faulkner and Joyce.

A Good Man is Hard To Find and Other Stories includes, in addition to the title story, “The River,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “The Artificial Nigger,” “A Circle of Fire,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” “Good Country People,” and “The Displaced Person.” “A Good Man is Hard to Find” would never be mistaken for a flirtatious Bessie Smith song but rather tells of a muti-generational family vacation car trip interrupted by a homicidal sociopath, freshly escaped from prison. In England the book was published under the title The Artificial Nigger and Other Tales.

“The Artificial Nigger,” Flannery O’Connor’s favorite story of her own (my favorite, too), describes a boy and his grandfather on a day-trip from rural Georgia to the city of Atlanta, where they eventually discover a lawn statue, an African-American in a cart and eating a watermelon. The grandfather says, “They ain’t got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one.” Throughout the story, the grandfather is ignorant, untrustworthy, and irresponsible. When the grandson is lost and gets in trouble, the grandfather denies knowing the child. The grandfather’s vocabulary freely employs the N-word. The Georgia on Flannery O’Connor’s mind elected Gene Talmadge Governor four times, his son Herman twice, some said three times, followed by Marvin Griffin. If those names do not mean anything to you, just think of the current crop of rightwing Republicans without a veneer of suburbia.

The twanged vocabulary and speech of Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia consisted of much that was thoughtless and hateful, deeds even worse. Her depiction of it was realistic, condemned by its context, the snakebite of her ridicule everywhere along the path. It is easy to fail to distinguish between realistic depiction of a culture and advocacy or apology for it. Still, misreading her work depends on the eye of the beholder. Her large and devoted following among Catholic intellectuals talks of what Flannery O’Connor herself called the “state of grace” in her stories. For example, the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” sees the Misfit, who is about to murder her, as one of her children. Southern intellectuals, savoring the flavor of redneck bitterness and knowing their own kin, remember the closing line from the Misfit: “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Flannery O’Connor occasionally contributed reviews and articles to The Georgia Bulletin, the official publication of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta. In 1963, she wrote there about schools banning books:

In two recent instances in Georgia, parents have objected to their eighth and ninth grade children’s reading assignments in modern fiction. This seems to happen with some regularity in cases throughout the country. The unwitting parent picks up his child’s book, glances through it, comes upon passages of erotic detail or profanity and takes off at once to complain to the school board.

The (modern) author has for the most part absented himself from direct participation in the work and has left the reader to make his own way amid experience… The modern novelist merges the reader in the experience; he tends to raise the passions he touches upon.

It is here that the moral problem will arise. It is one thing for a child to read about adultery in the Bible or Anna Karenina and quite another for him to read about it in most modern fiction… modern writing involves the reader in the action with a new degree of intensity, and literary mores now permit him to be involved in any action a human being can perform.

And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.

By the beginning of the new century, the 21st, the Catholic Bishop of Lafayette, Louisiana, banned “the racist texts of Flannery O’Connor” from the schools in his diocese. An English teacher at Opelousas Catholic, which serves parishes in the Catholic Cajun country of southern Louisiana, included on the summer reading list for high-school seniors “The Artificial Nigger.” Some parents of African-American children complained about the title to the Holy Ghost Catholic Church pastor, also African-American. The pastor then met with his Bishop demanding the removal of Flannery O’Connor’s work from the high-school curriculum, as well as disciplining the teacher. The Bishop directed “that the books in question should be removed from the reading list immediately” but did not fire the teacher.

Flannery O’Connor faithfully followed the orthodox teachings of her church. She was no liberal, even for her day. Neither does her work qualify as racist. She lived the first 13 years of her life in the genteel townhouse on Savannah’s Lafayette Square, with live oaks and Spanish moss, an easy walk for a child across the street to her parochial school and the inspiring Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Her family moved briefly to Atlanta, a block behind Christ the King Cathedral in upscale Buckhead, where she attended the public school, nearby North Fulton High School, then Sacred Heart parochial school next to the parish church of the same name at Courtland Street and Forrest Avenue downtown. Most of her life she lived in Milledgeville, in the matriarchal family home with white columns on the edge of the campus of the Georgia College for Women and later on the farm she called Andalusia out on U.S. Highway 441.

I fear and tremble for Flannery O’Connor’s literary future because of her incisive depiction of the South in which she lived. I fear and tremble for Mark Twain’s greatest achievement, Huck Finn’s musings about the runaway slave Jim. A literary sentiment not shared by African-Americans, I am told: “They don’t want to “valorize” Nigger Jim. They want to forget him,” North Carolina author Hal Crowther declares in Cathedrals of Kudzu, with the ring of inconvenient, disturbing truth.

Jack Nelson, Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter for The Atlanta Constitution, covered the civil rights 1960’s for The Los Angeles Times. He quoted an Alabama county sheriff ordering his deputies: “Get those niggers off the courthouse steps.” When he dictated the story over the telephone, his editor told him that he could not use that word in the L.A. Times. Nelson protested, “You mean you want me to quote Sheriff Jim Clark as saying, ‘Get those KNEE-GROES off the courthouse steps?’” The quote was printed as Nelson filed it.

Photo of Flannery O'Connor's writing nook at Andalusia by article author.
William Cotter

William Cotter

I actually remember when THE ATLANTA JOURNAL claimed it "Covers Dixie Like the Dew," because 50 years ago, when I graduated from high school, I landed my first full-time job there as a copy boy. Thanks to city editor Harold E. Davis, I was promoted to city desk clerk, then later became the youngest of his young reporters, when they were still located at 10 Forsyth St., next to the train station (have I preceded your memory yet?). Before I left journalism in the 1970's to try and earn a living, I also had worked for THE DAILY JOURNAL of Elizabeth, N.J., had been a stringer for NEWSWEEK, and had written articles for Atlanta weeklies CREATIVE LOAFING and THE ATLANTA GAZETTE. In 2006, I was hospitalized with meningitis, three weeks in a coma, waking up with 100 percent hearing loss in both ears. I received a cochlear implant, which provides me a miraculous electronic approximation of hearing, although everybody sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks announcing the subway stops at the Atlanta Airport. After I was discharged from the hospital, I began to write a blog to see if anything about my brain still worked and if I could still type. In addition to my own blog COTTER PEN, I have been a contributor to the arts blog SOUTHERN CREATIVITY and helped design and launch other blogs about writers and artists.

  1. Frank Povah

    William I loved this. I am constantly amused by the use of “N-word” by teevee “journalists”. What are they trying to achieve? Do they want not to be banned from the airwaves for the use of vernacular? Brian Williams once apologized to his viewers for displaying a book with “hell” in the title.

    We Australians were once described as people who call their closest friends a bastard and pronounce Jesus Christ without capital letters – I now realise how fortunate we are.

    1. William Cotter

      Thank you for your comment. TV journalists are indeed an amusing minority.

  2. Excellent essay, Bill. So much of what you say can be paralleled in other 19th and 20th century works, even kiddie lit. Dr. Dolittle and The Bobbsey twins, for example, are tainted by prejudicial racial references. New editions of Agatha Christie’s works may have been cleaned up a bit, but some of the older editions that I have downloaded to my Kindle have antisemitic comments and stereotypical descriptions of Jews. As for what should be taught in high school classes, as a former English teacher, my recommendation would be to save Flannery O’Connor for college.
    The average high school kid is not going to understand O’Connor . (Or Woolf, or Joyce, or Melville, or Henry James.) Advanced teenage readers are going to read whatever they can get their hands on anyhow whether assigned or not. I know I did!

    1. William Cotter

      In point of fact, as much as I admire Flannery O’Connor’s writing now, it left me pretty puzzled when I read it for the first time, when I was barely out of high school. Still, I regret school, church, and publishing officials who want to stand between a writer and reader.

    2. I think in communities where they find pushback on teaching Flannery O’Connor in high school, they should set up a book club and encourage the parents to come read and learn about O’Connor’s writings. The parents could bring the students if they thought it appropriate.

  3. Thank you for your essay. The woman captivates me.

    1. William Cotter

      Thank you for reading the article and for your response. The line of Flannery O’Connor capitives is long and growing.

  4. Interesting article. I have just recently become a captive of Flannery O’Connor. But I think it is important to note that Gene Talmadge Governor , his son Herman and Marvin Griffin were all Democrats. Even if you admire Dems above Repubs today, it is important not to re-write history – I think that is part of the point of your article here, isn’t it?

  5. Which five writers-commentators know what they are talking about in discussing Flannery O’Connor?

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