Friday, May 27, 2016

The Comforts of Home, 900 Miles Away

I had the pleasure this week of exploring the Flannery O’Connor archives at Emory University, reading through the letters that my favorite writer sent to her mother Regina while attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. That pleasure was doubled by the opportunity to attend the monthly Book Club that takes place at Andalusia and is led by Dr. Bruce Gentry of GSCU. As one might imagine, the club discusses one story or another written by O’Connor. This particular Thursday we turned our attention to the winner of the 1957 O’Henry Prize, “Greenleaf.”

In preparing for the meeting, I had printed up a copy of the story from the internet (no use in making my luggage any heavier than it already was) and re-read the piece, making notes throughout the text (Dirt! Chaos! Control!) a day or so before I set foot on Emory’s campus. And while I did make good use of those notes as I contributed to the group discussion, I have to admit that my thoughts were of Regina as I rocked on that famous Andalusia porch.

It’s been coming on for a while, I think, this heart-felt contemplation of Regina, a strong personality who was an independent woman before it was fashionable, someone who knew the sorrow of not only burying her husband (age 45) and daughter (39), but seeing them through the ravages of the illness that took them both. Though I read nary a word written by her (save for one letter scratched on the back of a relative’s letter she was passing on to her daughter), in reading the letters written to her I became, oddly enough, filled with thoughts of the woman Flannery wrote to daily. There were no dates at the top of the letters, only the day of the week, each day following the next as one letter followed the other as predictably as beads on a string. The only exception was written, occasionally, on a Sunday, with Flannery sending a small postcard to say she had nothing to say.

Each letter began Dear Regina – or, later Dear R – or, sometimes, simply R –.

Each page was covered, front and usually back, with long and loopy strokes, in blue ink or in black.

Each note ended with regards to kin, sometimes individually named, and love from the writer to the reader.

She would thank Regina for one thing or another. She would ask Regina for one thing or another. She spoke of money and often noted how much an item cost, whether it was an ice cream pint or a dressy blouse or a special gift for a relative. She spoke of what her teacher had said, and what her roommates had done, and worried over whether she should take a plane or train back home. She summarized, with enthusiasm, what she had eaten that day, a menu dated by midcentury favorites -- Vienna sausages, crushed pineapple -- and jars of her mother’s mayonnaise, the latter a condiment she craved.

And she commented on, or answered, that which Regina had obviously mentioned or asked in her own daily notes that were quite often mailed in pairs, a fact that seemed to annoy Flannery as it disturbed the flow of conversation. For a conversation it was, this back forth between them, this ebb and flow of the mundane, all evidence of a great intimacy that, in time, may have become a little too wearing.

If Facebook had existed then, they surely would have “liked” each other’s statuses.

If texting had been around, we would not have these letters, and that would be a loss to those who come to read them, all these decades later, hungry not so much for the trail of words but the evidence of affection that existed well before O’Connor used her pen to gore an iron-handed woman.

Katheryn Krotzer Laborde is a writer who teaches the craft of writing at Xavier University of Louisiana. Her essay “Hazel Motes is Not Black” is forthcoming in the next issue of The Flannery O’Connor Review.

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Warm Day at Andalusia

My family talks about the weather. This can be annoying. When my grandparents called my childhood home from Montana, they’d tell my dad about the latest snowstorm or the latest lack of snowstorm, and then my mom, and then my brother and then they’d tell me. My mother’s family in California spoke of droughts; there is a forty-year joke about their desire to steal our Oregonian water. Perhaps it was the bland climate in which I grew up that hid from me the purpose of this ‘weather talk.’ After I moved away, I began to understand weather’s place not only in the construction of our family narrative, but also as a way to connect over great distance.

I’m thinking about weather because I’m thinking about Andalusia Farm, which was hot and bright the summer I visited. Of course Northerners always imagine the South as unbearably hot, oppressively humid, fans spinning uselessly in air that will not cool. It’s even easier to do so from Green Bay, Wisconsin— there are rumors that it might snow tomorrow and my tulips are still blooming. Thinking about the weather at Andalusia, or the picnic hosted there for our “Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor” NEH Summer Institute, evokes over much time and distance the shared experience of a sweaty body that responds to weather. When I think about walking the trails of Andalusia, in long pants to avoid the ticks, or sitting in the parlor, fanning my face with a paperback Mystery and Manners, I can’t help imagining the O’Connors and their visitors doing the same.

O’Connor is not a weather writer. There are no hurricanes like the one Zora Neale Hurston wields in Their Eyes Were Watching God or that leave an aftermath to struggle through as in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. We find none of Melville’s lightning or the much parodied gothic insistence on a stormy heath. No rain of meatballs is ever predicted. Weather so often carries a heavy symbolic weight: fog for confusion, storms for passion or danger, sun for joy and peace. (For a really lovely treatment of weather in literature and art as a way to understand climate, see Alexandra Harris’ Weatherland). Perhaps this easy symbolism is why Mark Twain began The American Claimant with a commitment that no weather would be included in the novel— and then included various weather in an appendix worthy of David Foster Wallace.

Perhaps O’Connor took seriously Twain’s attempt to exclude the weather. A casual dip into O’Connor’s fiction finds few mentions. In The Violent Bear it Away, the sun makes a valiant showing, sometimes “a furious white, edging its way along the tops of trees” (44), often chasing people and animals into the forest or brush— or appearing as part of the biblical prophetic story of the sun standing still. The moon also appears as a menace in this book, though, so it is unclear whether this is weather as much as threatening celestial bodies. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the cloudless, sunless sky is frequently mentioned (and an interpretative puzzle). In “A View of the Woods,” the red sunlight plays an important role, and we get a direct, if brief, discussion of weather from the perspective of Mary Fortune:

The weather was as indifferent as her disposition. The sky did not look as if it were going to rain or as if it were not going to rain. It was unpleasant and gray and the sun had not bothered to come out (The Collected Stories, 349).

While this tells us a bit about Mary Fortune, and perhaps sets up the final scene where the trees, bathed in a blood-like light, take their turn as evocative symbols, O’Connor steadfastly avoids the weather as grand symbol— even as she continuously uses landscapes and horizons. One exception is the early story “The Crop,” which tells the story of a lady-writer longing to write about poverty; she uses the rain heavily, to move the plot (it destroys the titular “crop”), cover up the birth of a baby (delicately implied) and symbolize the relentless poverty of the characters. That O’Connor is mocking this writer may say something about her position on “weather talk” in fiction.

The weather gets more play in her letter-writing, where she does seek connection. It changes behavior; after nine days without sun, “Jack drew a knife on Shot and my mother says it is all the weather.” (The Habit of Being, 245). Sometimes, the peacocks respond to “a little decent weather”-- “mistaking the season, [they] have got their tails up,” (HB, 432). When it was cold, they “came down from the tree in the morning with their tails frozen stiff” (HB, 379). After getting two new swans, she complains that “the weather has been too bad for me to get out and commune with them much” (HB, 566).

Weather kept her indoors from her birds, but also limited her travel, perhaps because of her illness. After a visit north to Chicago, she writes, “[a]nd the weather was revolting.” (HB, 327). When intending to visit Missouri, she asks local Cecil Dawkins: “What will the weather be like there then?... I could come any time this semester but I can’t do anywhere that there is ice on the ground.” (HB, 268). Weather communicates the edges of her experience in her body, something she rarely discusses directly. and (whether her mother is right that weather causes violence) shapes our experiences of the world.

That O’Connor won’t bother with the weather in her fiction reminds us that, despite the vividness of her settings, her fiction is not designed to connect us with our memories of the South. It’s not to orient us to a place or to help us feel our embodiment, but to make ourselves strange and attune us to somewhere else. It’s the opposite of a phone call from your grandmother. Yet, as a correspondent, O’Connor let the place-making work of weather do a bit of its magic. And so, a visit to Andalusia can bring you closer to the O’Connor of her letters, who just might be willing to engage in some weather talk on the covered porch.

Alison Staudinger is an Assistant Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin— Green Bay, and a proud alumni of the 2014 “Rediscovering Flannery O’Connor” NEH Summer Institute at Georgia College. She is currently working on a manuscript putting O’Connor and Hannah Arendt in dialogue.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Summertime in Milledgeville

In this space back in August, I wrote about the air of freshness and vitality that permeates Milledgeville when the new class of Freshmen arrive at our local colleges. That sense can only arrive, however, after experiencing a Milledgeville summer.

Graduation at Georgia College was last Saturday, May 7. The influx of friends and relatives for what may be their first visit to our town is a fitting last hurrah for the academic year. Some of my friends at the local restaurants call it “Black Saturday,” for the stream of people in and out will be almost constant over the afternoon. These visitors and their graduates take in what they can of the town’s history, too; visitors to Andalusia, the Old Capital Museum, and the Old Governor’s Mansion last weekend frequently had graduation on their agendas.

But come Monday, the hustle of graduation gives way to the calm of the Summer term and the return home of many of the undergraduates. Some remain, of course, but the summertime population hearkens back to the earlier days of Milledgeville, before the era of large dormitories and apartment complexes. The usual hustle and bustle remains; those of us that remain will often have more on our plates now that there’s fewer workers around. Nevertheless, there’s a relaxation in the summer months that isn’t around during the regular academic year. To a point, I blame the heat; there’s no sense in moving too quickly if it’s 110 degrees in the shade. But even now, as I type this on a wonderful 78-degree afternoon on the front porch at Andalusia, the sense that the town can breathe a little is difficult to ignore. We’ll be ready for our band of Misfits to come back, of course, by August, once the slow pace has become too slow.

The porch here at the farm, never a place at any point in the year for speed of movement, is an especially pleasant shady spot. I like to call it my “office” for behind-the-scenes work here at the farm. Perhaps more than any other place I know, the front porch here can make the summer’s slow pace a habit for all seasons. Those who have been here on recent Thursdays to watch a sunset have certainly understood. And what’s more, a new resident: Leora, a wonderfully talkative and charming black cat who enjoys the nice cool bricks of the front steps when she’s not holding court at the rear landing. (She’s no doubt rehearsing a story for Thursdalusia, our Third-Thursday Microphone-free Open Mic.) We’ve got a chair saved for you each Thursday this Spring and Summer until dusk, in addition to our regular hours. See you soon!

Daniel Wilkinson is a Visitor Services Assistant, Feline Nomenclature Specialist, and Bon Vivant at Andalusia. When not discussing art and world events with Leora, Manley Pointer II, and Joy/Hulga, he can be found likely doing the same at Georgia’s Old Capital Museum and the Brown-Stetson-Sanford House.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Seeing Far Things, Close Up?

In the novelist’s case, prophecy is a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up. The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that you find in the best modern instances of the grotesque. -- Flannery O’Connor

What are the “far things” O’Connor is talking about? She is concerned with the connection between close-up realism on Earth and a higher spiritual Truth. God’s incarnate presence in the world, and our relationship with it, however weak or strong or strange: this is what O’Connor writes about. As an author, this is what I strive to write about, too.

A writer who wants to bring far things close up often creates characters and situations that are strange, outlandish, or evil. O’Connor called it the "grotesque." Fifty years ago, when she wrote, not only the South, but most other areas recognized the outlandish as just that. But today, the rules concerning what is strange, and actually evil, have changed. Some of them have become almost normal. Yet God hasn’t changed, and He is just as apparent in our world, so the time is ripe for more of Flannery O’Connor-like stories of grace at work in the grotesque.  

Most readers have a desire for some redemptive act in a novel or story, the same as many of us yearn for a chance of restoration in our personal lives—a moment of grace that will turn us, or better us, or lift us up to higher place in our own eyes and in the eyes of those we love. But what is that mysterious moment of grace coming out of evil?

Take the old lady in "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

The old lady's gross imperfections are opportunities for grace, just as are our own imperfections, because they offer a person a choice, by way of free will, to choose to act otherwise. In the Catholic Church's view, there are two kinds of Grace--Sanctifying Grace and Actual Grace. Sanctifying Grace, inherited from the God who made us, lives in the soul and stays in the soul—it’s what gives us our dignity as human beings. By contrast, Actual Grace doesn’t live in the soul. Rather, throughout a lifetime, it acts in the soul as divine pushes from God toward His goodness—often when a character, or a person for that matter, is far from goodness. These fallible human opportunities can be our push toward God. However, those pushes must be noticed, and must require cooperation, as happens with both the Misfit and the old lady. A Catholic imagination like O'Connor's translates that tenet of grace in fiction.

The following is from Flannery O'Connor to John Hawkes, April, 1960:

"Perhaps it is a difference in theology, or rather the difference that ingrained theology makes in the sensibility. Grace, to the Catholic way of thinking, can and does use as its medium the imperfect, purely human, and even hypocritical. Cutting yourself off from Grace is a very decided matter, requiring a real choice, act of will, and affecting the very ground of the soul. The Misfit is touched by the Grace that comes through the old lady when she recognizes him as her child, as she has been touched by him in his particular suffering. His shooting her is a recoil, a horror at her humanness, but after he has done it and cleaned his glasses, the Grace has worked in him and he pronounces his judgment: she would have been a good woman if he had been there every moment of her life. True enough. In the Protestant view, I think Grace and nature don't have much to do with each other. The old lady, because of her hypocrisy and humanness and banality couldn't be a medium for Grace. In the sense that I see things the other way, I'm a Catholic writer."

We often forget that the price of restoration sometimes takes the grotesqueness of a crucifixion. And that means suffering. Just as God’s grace in our lives is a mystery, the suffering we sometimes endure is mysterious as well. We cannot figure out the why of it, same as the old lady in "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

The old lady was a Christian, a follower of Christ. But Jesus Christ was crucified. Does it mean we, or a character we write about, will be crucified, too? It may. At the least, we will surely suffer; life sees to it. And realism in writing will mimic that suffering.

At times, we cause our own suffering by the bad choices we make, like the old lady. Other times, another person, or a circumstance out of our control, may cause it—like the Misfit. But that moment of grace is available. The faith that grace is available is key in the writing of Flannery O’Connor and others who have a Catholic world view. Her faith empowered Flannery to live in the midst of suffering and yet recognize grace and its ability to restore. So why wouldn’t her writing express it as well?

Kaye Park Hinckley is the author of the novel A Hunger in the Heart, short story collection Birds of a Feather, and novelette, Mary’s Mountain. She frequently speaks about her writing in venues such as keynote speaker for the 2015 Saint Louis Marian Conference, St. Louis, MO., and most recently, a guest lecturer for the Christus Series at Spring Hill College in Mobile, AL.  Her daily blog is Her books may be found here.