Friday, November 4, 2016

A Real Hillbilly Girl

I wanted to write about Flannery O’Connor around the time of the Bluegrass Festival. She did not herself have tons to say about the music, though I found the following paragraph when I went looking for the word “banjo” in her letters: “We have got the bull, this one from Perry, the Mulachee Farms … My mother has named him Banjo. I couldn’t say why. I always thought that if she had a dog she’d name him Spot—without irony. If I had a dog, I’d name him Spot, with irony. But for all practical purposes nobody would know the difference.” So, there you are: a precedent for banjos at Andalusia.

It is commonplace to say that one does not know O’Connor’s fiction till one has visited Andalusia. It is true that you will see a number of sights that have inspired some of the greatest fiction in American history: the barn, the tenant house, the artificial pond, the sunset, the woods, the ladder leaned against the barn. What you won’t see, however, are mountains. I’ve looked and looked and once startled a prominent scholar (sorry, Bob Donahoo) by appearing out of the Milledgeville night and asking, “Where is the nearest mountain?” Yet O’Connor carefully sets a great deal of her work in the mountains or makes mountaineers her protagonists. What I mean is that the very absence of mountains at Andalusia makes you think that O’Connor must have put them in her fiction for a reason: the facts were not enough for the truth she needed to tell. Thus, in both of her novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, psychopathic mountain boys with preacher complexes descend upon modern cities where they homicidally albeit futilely resist God’s call. In the short story with the purposefully offensive title “The Artificial Nigger,” an old man and a boy come from the mountains to a city and in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” a con man whose name may be Shiflet (or that may be an alias) invades a mountain farm where two morally lost women sit looking at the same sunset and same mountains every day.

A promising new writer in 1956, Cecil Dawkins attracted the attention of O’Connor, who was typically generous with her advice as well as with her constructive criticism. Dawkins had drafted a short story, “Eminent Domain,” in which two African-American characters travel from Alabama into Appalachia. O’Connor liked the story very much, but she had concerns about it as well:
When I read [the story a second time] I realized something else. Negroes just don’t go live in the mountains. At least there are no Negroes in the Georgia or North Carolina mountains. Negroes never lived in the mountains in slavery times and now most mountain people are hostile to them. … In Georgia the sun doesn’t set on a Negro in a mountain county. The people run them out.
I want to reach into the past and correct O’Connor vis-à-vis the demography of southern Appalachia. African-Americans “never lived in the mountains in slavery times”? But of course they did, as some of Appalachia’s most impressive historians (Gordon McKinney, Wilma Dunaway) have conclusively shown. But I want you to focus not on O’Connor’s factual accuracy but on the certainty with which she posits the myth. What does the stereotype of a monocultural Appalachia, full of violent whites (the term sundown town hovers near the surface of the quotation I just read) tell us about why O’Connor sets stories in a region she never lived in, that she passed through mainly in transit on a train? Why does it matter that The Grandmother grew up in a “hillbilly dumping ground” and that The Grandmother’s beau, “Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden” hailed “from Jasper, Georgia”—that is, from a “mountain county”?

On May 18, 1955, O’Connor was preparing to travel to New York City for an appearance on Galley-Proof, an “NBC-TV” television program hosted by “Mr.” Harvey Breit. In a letter to Robie Macauley, O’Connor pretended to be an American comic archetype, the backcountry yokel:
Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas I would like to create the impression over the television that I’m a hillbilly Thomist, but I will probably not be able to think of anything to say to Mr. Harvey Breit but “Huh?” and “Ah dunno.” When I come back I’ll probably have to spend three months day and night in the chicken pen to counteract these evil influences.
Excellent analyses of this passage, like the one Jolly Kay Sharp does in Between the House and the Chicken Yard, focus on the variables in the “hillbilly nihilist” / “hillbilly thomist” binary. For a few paragraphs, however, I want to focus on the constant, on the word hillbilly. The construction of my phrase “hillbilly novelist” is designed to evoke O’Connor’s own phrases and her humorous rejection of nihilism for her Thomist form of the moral uplift of literature and also to focus attention on the word hillbilly that O’Connor playfully deploys in anticipation of how an urban audience will see her or any of the rural folk who slackjaw their way among city sophisticates.

If we understand the great American writer “Flannery O’Connor” as one of many personae deployed by Mary Flannery O’Connor—daughter of Ed and Regina, born in Savannah in 1925, baptized and christened at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, domestic fowl enthusiast, died in Milledgeville in 1964—then we can also recognize the letter-writing Andalusian O’Connor as a persistent wearer of masks, one of which is the hillbilly. In her collected letters, she uses the term, per Billboard magazine’s usage, to refer to what came to be known as “country music,” adopting a particularly winsome tone when she paraphrases a reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle who compared her first book of short stories to “’a superior hillbilly concert.’” O’Connor drily adds that “the fellow obviously adores hillbilly concerts and advises everyone to read the book” (early 1958, to Maryat Lee). Of more note are the occasions when, as with “hillbilly nihilist/Thomist,” she assumes a performative stance to recognize, ridicule, and disarm the perceptions of outsiders. Thus, for her friend Betty Hester, she describes a radio program she had recorded for broadcast on an Atlanta station, during which O’Connor read from one of her rural fictions:
The recording is supposed to be played November 23 (Friday) 7:30 p.m. station WGKA (FM). It is very bad. [The recorder] played some of it over for me but I couldn’t stand much of it. I sound like a very old woman with a clothespin on her nose and her teeth in a dish beside her. Flat ain’t the word. Dead is better. The voice is a great deal better in the dialogue as I actually sound like a real hillbilly girl.
(It is worth mentioning that, on recordings I have heard, O’Connor’s accent seems perfectly normal to me, an Upstate South Carolinian.)

Another roughly contemporaneous letter—this one also addressed to her friend Betty Hester, with whom O’Connor was alternately playful and deadly serious—likewise hints at an anxiety—or is it a mordantly comic pleasure?—about being exposed to the sophisticates of New York:
A letter from my agent today announces that “The Life You Save” will be presented February 1 on the Schlitz Playhouse at 9:30 New York time. My eager beaver friend in NY keeps sending me clippings of gossip columns, one announcing that [Gene] Kelly will star in Flannery O’Connor’s “backwoods love story.” … Kelly says “It’s a kind of hillbilly thing in which I play a guy who befriends a deaf-mute girl in the hills of Kentucky. It gives me a great chance to do some straight acting, something I really have no opportunity to do in movies.” See? He ain’t had the opportunity before. … [My] NY friend … thinks this is all hilariously funny and keeps writing me, “Has dignity no value for you?” etc. It will probably be appropriate to smoke a corncob pipe while watching this.
I should point out that she seems to be referring to the Schlitz Playhouse when, in a letter to Betty Hester, she jokes that “I am writing my agent to make haste and sell all my stories for musical comedies. There ought to be enough tap dancers around to take care of them, and there’s always Elvis Presley.” (I don’t know about you, but I would kill to see a young, sexy, scary-charismatic Elvis playing one of O’Connor’s rural sociopaths. Manley Pointer leaps to mind.) I should also point out that O’Connor, consistently sneered at the Gene Kelly production, which performs the neat trick of giving a happy ending to a story by Flannery O’Connor, though playing the “real hillbilly girl” this time earned Flannery enough money to buy Regina a refrigerator.

Jimmy Dean Smith directed the Union College (KY) Honors Program from its birth till its demise in 2016. More than 75 students, many of them first generation, benefited from membership in the Honors Community. Sic transit gloria. He has published on T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, and the Soldier-Poets of the Great War. More recently, he has published on Ron Rash, Frank X Walker, Loretta Lynn, and other icons of Appalachia. He edits the Kentucky Philological Review.

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