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.
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.