In Lee Smith’s tribute to Flannery O’Connor, she wrote of the transformation she experienced as a college student when she read O’Connor’s fiction for the first time. I thought of those words of Smith’s—and of the words of O’Connor’s that inspired them—when I received a gift from a woman who was a student of mine more than a decade ago. Last Saturday I was working at my desk when the mail carrier dropped the package on the porch. What I found inside was a picture of O’Connor in a gold-colored peacock frame, the bird wreathing O’Connor as her own pet peacocks had circled the writer on her farm, Andalusia, where she lived the last years of her short life.
Along with the framed picture, the student enclosed a note with these words: “I think of you often. Thanks for changing my entire academic life by introducing me to the amazing Southern women writers!”
Those writers included Smith, whose whole notion of the short story was upended when she read O’Connor for the first time. In Smith’s words:
[S]omehow I had got the idea that a short story should follow a kind of recipe, like a Lady Baltimore cake. Conflict, suspense, resolution; a clear theme; an ending that tied it all up in a neat little bow. Yet when I read that famous last line of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” I realized that nothing was wrapped up here—instead, a whole world opened out before my astonished eyes, a world as wild and scary as life, itself. (19)
A world opened before my eyes, too, when I first read O’Connor and Smith. And for me as a teacher, there is no greater honor than the opportunity to witness whole worlds open before my students’ eyes as they read those writers for the first time.
And Aine, what can I write of your expression of thanks? That it’s as exhilarating and astonishing as the words of those writers. Thank you!
Smith, Lee. “Revelation.” Flannery O’Connor: In Celebration of Genius, edited by Sarah Gordon, Hill Street, 2000. 19-20.
While I was writing my previous post about Zadie Smith, a t-shirt that I’d ordered arrived in my mailbox. Though I don’t often wear graphic tees, this one wooed me just as the Southern women writers whose names it bears captivated me when I first encountered their writing. Zora & Eudora & Harper & Flannery.
In her essay on Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes were Watching God, Zadie Smith writes:
This is a beautiful novel about soulfulness. That it should be so is a tribute to Hurston’s skill. She makes “culture”–that slow and particular and artificial accretion of habit and circumstance–seem as natural and organic and beautiful as the sunrise. She allows me to indulge in what Philip Roth once called “the romance of oneself,” a literary value I dislike and yet, confronted with this beguiling book, cannot resist. She makes “black woman-ness” appear a real, tangible quality, an essence I can almost believe I share, however improbably, with millions of complex individuals across centuries and continents and languages and religions. . .
Almost–but not quite. That is to say, when I’m reading this book, I believe it, with my whole soul. It allows me to say things I wouldn’t normally. Things like “She is my sister and I love her.”
Smith, Zadie. “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?” Changing My Mind. Penguin, 2009. pp. 3-13.
Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein assert that the most effective writing about literature takes the form of a conversation, whether it’s a dialogue with a published literary critic, a classmate, a hypothetical reader, or the literary text, itself. Graff and Birkenstein observe that what distinguishes literary analysis from other types of academic writing–which are also forms of conversation–are the subject’s lack of an explicit thesis (poems and stories show rather than tell) and the central role of conflict (problems move stories forward).
A close reading of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Everything that Rises Must Converge” offers a case in point for Graff and Birkenstein’s guide for literary analysis, which itself–intentionally or not–may raise questions in readers’ minds about what happens to Julian’s mother.
The title story of O’Connor’s posthumous collection Everything that Rises Must Converge chronicles the conflict between Julian, a recent college graduate who embraces the changes brought on by the Civil Rights movement and his mother, who clings to the racial hierarchy of the old South and refuses to travel alone on desegregated buses.
One evening as Julian accompanies his mother en route to her reducing class at the Y, he takes a seat beside a black man–an act that Julian perceives as a lesson for his mother–and witnesses her annoyance increase when she realizes that the large black woman who has boarded the bus with her young son, Carver, is wearing the same purple and green hat that she wears, as Julian sees it, “like a banner of her imaginary dignity” (277).
Later, as the two mothers and sons exit the bus, Julian’s mother rummages in her purse for a coin to give to Carver, an act that Julian anticipates will fuel the ire of Carver’s mother, believing that she will see the gesture as yet-more-condescension-by-the-bigoted-white-woman. When Julian’s mother offers the little boy a penny, Carver’s mother’s frustration and anger escalate, prompting her to swing her purse at Julian’s mother and knock her to the sidewalk. Julian helps his mother to her feet, but she remains mobile only briefly. Delusional, she asks Julian to tell her grandfather and her childhood nurse–both long dead–to come get her, and she collapses on the sidewalk.
Reading O’Connor’s story closely reveals that Julian, though on the right side of history, doesn’t place himself there through compassion but instead through “an evil urge to break [his mother’s] spirit” (277).
After reading Graff and Birkenstein in conjunction with O’Connor, what lingers in this reader’s mind aren’t the interpretive possibilities that the story invites but rather the one that Graff and Birkenstein seemingly ignore or dismiss. When they write that the “mother’s death [. . .] could be seen as evidence that we are supposed to disapprove of her” (195), they acknowledge the open-endedness of her character but not of the story’s conclusion, itself. The underlying assumption that Julian’s mother is dead precludes the ambiguity that Graff and Birkenstein illustrate with the duck-rabbit drawing. Is Julian’s mother (a) dead (duck), or has she suffered (and survived) a massive debilitating stroke?
O’Connor writes that one of Julian’s mother’s eyes came “unmoored” and the other “closed” (291), but she doesn’t state that she died. The fact that Graff and Birkenstein refer to her death serves as a reminder–apparently an unwitting one–that we as readers need to keep our own eyes open.
Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. “‘On Closer Examination’: Entering Conversations about Literature.” “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. Ed. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. 184-201. Print.
O’Connor, Flannery. “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. Ed. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. 272-91. Print.
Before Nadia Bolz-Weber spoke yesterday at Lenoir-Rhyne, the students in my 8 a.m. class and I read an excerpt from her memoir Pastrix: The Cranky and Beautiful Life of a Sinner and Saint (2013). The excerpt, “La Femme Nadia,” depicts the events in late 1991 and early 1992 that led Bolz-Weber to sobriety and to God. For my students and me reading in a “writerly” way, “La Femme Nadia” served as an instructive model for its apt sensory detail (“My skin felt like the rough side of Velcro”), and its graceful shifts from summary to scene:
Margery, a leathery-faced woman with a New Jersey accent, was talking about prayer or some other nonsense when suddenly a sound like a pan falling on the tile floor came up from the kitchen below us. I jerked out of my seat like I was avoiding shrapnel, but no one else reacted. Without skipping half a beat, Margery turned to me, with a long slim cigarette in her hand and said, ‘Honey, that’ll pass.’ She took a drag and went on, ‘So anyways, prayer is. . .’
I did not revisit those details from “La Femme Nadia” with my 12:15 students because their class period coincided with the first of Bolz-Weber’s two March 5 appearances as one of the featured writers in the university’s Visiting Writers Series.
In lieu of our scheduled class, we attended the presentation—one that Bolz-Weber nearly missed due to weather-related travel woes that she recounted with humor and grace.
Her remarks focused on faith rather than writing—she would turn her focus to writing at 7 p.m.–but her 12:15 talk was relevant to writers nevertheless. In response to a question about the Eucharist, she paraphrased Flannery O’Connor and spoke eloquently in her own words: “You have to be deeply rooted in tradition to innovate with integrity.” The same is true of writing and of all other art.
Elisabeth “Betsy” Muhlenfeld, president emerita of Sweet Briar College (1996 – 2009) and Mary Boykin Chesnut scholar, joined the class for our final Tuesday-morning meeting on May 24. Her remarks on Chesnut brought to life a woman whose incisive diary, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, offers not only one of the most important historical accounts of the Civil War years but also a document of considerable literary merit.
Muhlenfeld’s biography of Chesnut sustained me while I was icing a sprained ankle back in March and renewed my interest in the diarist, so I added Muhlenfeld’s edition of Chesnut’s novel manuscripts (UVA Press, 2002) to my summer reading list. Chesnut’s unfinished apprentice novels, The Captain and the Colonel and Two Years—or The Way We Lived Then, don’t place you in her world the way her diary so beautifully does, but they reveal how she fictionalized her life as she taught herself to write, and in her developing voice you can hear a hint of what’s to come.
Other notable summer reads include the first chapter of colleague Mary Lou Hall’s Dogs and Heroes, whichreceived the third annual Best Unpublished Novel prize, sponsored by James River Writers and Richmond Magazine. Mary Lou read the opening of the novel at the Focused Inquiry Faculty symposium on Friday, November 12, and I enjoyed reacquainting myself with the first chapter–in the pages of the July issue of RM–which introduces a boy named Clarence and his new friend Mona, the albino Great Dane “all white with the baby blue eyes” (66). Congratulations, Mary Lou!
Still lingering in my mind is the closing image of the writer learning to dance in the personal essay “Lady Lessons” by Lee Smith in the June/July issue of Garden and Gun. Studying with Smith in 1989 filled me with the love that Bobbie’s dancing lesson gives the young Lee. And her writing continues to delight and instruct me.