Literary Birthday Celebration: Flannery O’Connor

>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington D.C.>>Anya Creightney: Well thanks
again for joining us today to celebrate the birthday of a very
special writer, Flannery O’Connor. My name is Anya Creightney and I am
the program specialist of the Poetry and Literature Center at
the Library of Congress. I am also a proud partner
in this series, representing and celebrating the careers of many of our most valuable
literary voices. I’m especially happy
today as this event, Flannery O’Connor’s literary
birthday celebration, has been two years in the making. The event was originally
slated for last year and due to scheduling conflicts we
initially abandoned our concept of celebrating Flannery. But ultimately genuine
curiosity and admiration of O’Connor kept Flannery
in our minds. So it’s with unique, so it
is with this unique pleasure that I welcome our
participants Emily Mitchell and Bonnie Jo Campbell here today. Before sharing a little bit about
the organization of today’s program, I just want to tell you a
little bit about our authors. Bonnie Jo Campbell is
the author of two novels. Once Upon a River, a national
best seller, and Q Road. Her critically acclaimed short
fiction collections include American Salvage, Women and Other
Animals, and most recently, Mothers Tell Your Daughters,
published in the fall of 2015 and also on sale in the back. Emily Mitchell’s debut novel,
the Last Summer of the World, was published by Norton
in 2007 and was a finalist for the New York Public
Library Young Lions Award. Her first collection of
short stories, Viral, was published in June 2015 and was
described by the New York Book, excuse me, New York Times
Book Review as quote alluring, the best stories here pushed
towards true heartbreak, end quote. Emily teaches locally at
the University of Maryland. And now, just for a
little event breakdown so that you’re all with us. Each writer will lecture
for approximately 20 minutes and both will conclude by
sharing excerpts of her work. Afterward we will break
slightly with tradition and both authors will take
questions from the audience after their reading, so be thinking or notating your questions
during their lecture. And lastly before I turn it over,
I just want to remind everyone to turn off their cell phones
or anything that would interrupt with today’s programming. And let me also remind you that the
Poetry and Literature Center puts on 30 to 40 public programs
just like this one every year. So, if you’re interested
to find more out about this particular series
or others, please put your name on our email list in
the back of the room. And without further ado, you guys
will help me welcome our writers. And first up is Emily Mitchell,
followed by Bonnie Jo Campbell. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Emily Mitchell:
Gosh, thank you to Anya for that lovely introduction. I am so pleased and a little
daunted to be here today. In Flannery O’Connor’s story, A
Late Encounter with the Enemy, the reader meets General
Tennessee Flintrock Sash, a 104-year-old Confederate veteran. And the 64-year-old granddaughter with whom he lives,
Sally Poker Sash. Thank you. General Sash we learn
was in fact not a general in the Civil War or
in any other war. He acquired his much admired uniform
as part of the promotional pageantry from a movie premiere
just 12 years earlier. Now, in the narrative
present of the story, the wheelchair bound general is
attending Sally Poker’s belated graduation from teaching college. He has been left in the care of
a young boy called John Wesley who has been tasked to bring him
up onto the stage for the ceremony. The graduates in their heavy
robes, looked as if the last beads of ignorance were being
sweated out of them. The sun blazed off the
fenders of automobiles and beat from the columns of
buildings and pulled the eye from one spot of glare to another. It pulled Sally Poker’s toward
the big red Coca Cola machine that had been set up by
the side of the auditorium. Here she saw the General parked,
scowling and hatless in his chair in the blazing sun,
while John Wesley, his blouse loose behind
his hip and cheek pressed to the red machine was
drinking a Coca Cola. She broke from the line and galloped
to him and snatched the bottle away. She shook the boy and
thrust in his blouse and put the hat on
the old man’s head. Now get him in there, she
said, pointing one rigid finger to the side door of the building. For his part, the General felt as if
there were a little hole beginning to develop and widen
in the top of his head. The boy wheeled rapidly down a walk
and up a ramp and into a building and bumped him over
the stage entrance and into position where
he had been told. And the General glared in front
of him at heads that all seemed that to flow together and eyes that
moved from one face to another. Several figures in black robes came
and picked up his hand and shook it. A black procession was following
up each aisle and forming to stately music in a
pool in front of him. The music seemed to be entering
his head through the little hole and he thought for a second
that the procession would try to enter it too. He didn’t know what
procession this was, but there was something
familiar about it. It must be familiar to him since it
had come to meet him and he didn’t like the black procession. And any procession that came to
meet him, he thought irritably, ought to have floats with
beautiful girls on them. Like the floats before the premier. It must be something
connected with history like they were always having. He had no use for any of it. What happened then wasn’t anything to a man living now
and he was living now. When all the procession had
flowed into the black pool, a black figure began
orating in front of it. The figure was telling something
about history and the General made up his mind he wouldn’t listen. But the words kept seeping through
the little hole in his head. He heard his own name mentioned and his chair was shuffled
forward roughly, and the boy scout took a big bow. They called his name
and the fat brat bowed. God damn you, the old
man tried to say, get out of my way, I can stand up. But he was jerked back again
and before he could get up and take his bow, he supposed
the noise they made was for him. If he was over he didn’t intend
to listen to any more of it. If it hadn’t been for the little
hole in the top of his head, none of the words would
have gotten to him. He thought of putting a finger up
there into the hole to block them, but the hole was a little wider
than his finger and it felt as if it was getting deeper. Another black robe had taken
the place of the first one and was talking now and he
heard his name mentioned again, but they were not talking about him,
but they were talking about history. If we forget our past,
the speaker was saying, we won’t remember our
future and it will be as well for we won’t have one. The General heard some
of these words gradually. He had forgotten history and he
didn’t intend to remember it again. He had forgotten the name and
face of his wife and the names and faces of his children. Or even if he had a
wife and children. And he had forgotten the name and
places and the places themselves. And what had happened at them. He was considerably irked
by the hole in his head. He had not expected to have a
hole in his head at this event. It was the slow black music
that had put it there. And though most of the
music had stopped outside, there was still a little of it in
the hole going deeper and moving around in his thoughts,
letting the words he heard into the dark places of his brain. He had heard the words, Chickamauga. Shiloh, Johnston, and Lee. And he knew he was
inspiring all these words that meant nothing to him. He wondered if he had been a
General at Chickamauga or at Lee. Then he tried to see himself and
the horse mounted in the middle of the float full of beautiful
girls being driven slowly through downtown Atlanta. Instead, the old words began to stir
in his head as if they were trying to wrench themselves out
of place and come to life. The speaker was through with that
war and had gone on to the next one. And now, he was approaching another. And all of his words, like the black
procession were vaguely familiar and irritating. There was a long finger of music in the General’s head
probing various spots that were words letting in
a little light on the words and helping them to live. The words that, the words began to come towards him
and he said, Damn it. I ain’t going to have it. And he started edging
backwards to get out of the way. Then he saw the figure in the black
robe sit down and there was a noise and the black pool in front
of him began to rumble and to flow towards him from either
side, like the black slow music. And he said, Stop, damn it. I can’t do but one thing at a time. He couldn’t protect
himself from the words and attend to the procession too. And the words were
coming at him fast. He felt that he was
running backwards and the words were coming
at him like musket fire. Just escaping him, but
getting nearer and nearer. He turned around and began
to run as fast as he could, but he found himself
running towards the words. He was running into a
regular volley of them and meeting them with quick curses. As the music swirled towards him
the entire past opened up on him out of nowhere, and he felt his
body riddled in a 100 places with the sharp stabs of pain. And he fell down, returning
a curse for every hit. He saw his wife’s narrow face
looking at him critically through her round gold
framed glasses. He saw one of his squinting
bald headed sons and his mother run towards
him with an anxious look. And a succession of places,
Chickamauga, Shiloh, Marthasville, rush at him as if the past
was the only future now and he had to endure it. Then suddenly he saw that the
black procession was almost on him. He recognized it. For it had been dogging
him all his days. He made a desperate effort
to see over it and find out what comes after
the past and that. He made a such a desperate effort to
see over it and find out what comes after the past, that his
hand clenched the sword until the blade touched bone. The graduates were crossing
the stage in a lone file to receive their scrolls and
shake the President’s hand. As Sally Poker was near the end,
crossed, she glanced at the General and saw him sitting fixed and
fierce, his eyes wide open and she turned her
head forward again and held it a perceptible degree
higher and received her scroll. Once it was over, and she was out of
the auditorium and in the sun again, she located her kin and they waited
together on the bench in the shade for John Wesley to
wheel the old man out. That crafty scout had bumped him
out the back way and rolled him at high speed down a flagstone path
and was waiting now with the corpse in the long line at
the Coca Cola machine. As I said, I am pleased and a
little daunted to be here today. I’m by no means an expert on
Flannery O’Connor and I’m certain that there are people here
listening who know a great deal more about her life and works than I do. But what I am is somebody
who writes short stories and aspires to write them well. And in that capacity I want to
talk a little bit about O’Connor and what her work means to me. The passage I just read exemplifies
some of the aspects of her work that I admire the most and
that I found the most valuable to my own development as a writer. O’Connor is justly known
as a writer who evokes with tremendous precision
the conventions and manners of her own time and place. But she’s also I think a
great writer of ghost stories. She is a great observer
and chronicler of the ways in which human beings and perhaps
American human beings especially are haunted. We are haunted by the past and
we are haunted by those aspects of the world that we are least happy
to acknowledge and quickest to deny. And this haunting in
only intensified and perhaps is even caused by
our concerted efforts to escape, to be reborn and renewed, to
transcend, to overcome by an act of personal determination. The more we insist
that we have moved on, that we are as General Sash puts
it, living now, the more what we, what we wish to deny dogs us. O’Connor characters draw to
themselves the vary things that they dread the most. The people and events which disrupt
their comfortable assumptions. And in O’Connor’s view, of course, such disruption is precisely
what we need in order that we might have the
possibility of experiencing grace. I first came across O’Connor’s
stories and essays in college and I found in her uncompromising
depictions the permission that I needed to pursue
my own fledgling fiction. I learned from her that
your characters need not to likable to be fascinating. That the purpose of
a story is to reveal and not necessarily to resolve. I learned that the
meaning of a story must be to use O’Connor’s words,
experienced meaning. A story she says is a
way to say something that can’t be said any other way. I learned that a story
must grow its own meaning over the course of its unfolding. The characters and the objects
in the story accumulating meaning from the action of the story itself. But most importantly, I learned that
the boundary between the present and the past is very thin indeed and sometimes it disintegrates
altogether. So I’m going to finish with a short
story from my first collection that I think owes its existence
to O’Connor in this respect. It’s called, A Boy My
Sister Dated in High School. A boy my sister dated in
high school slapped her across the face during an argument. They were sitting in the
front seat of his car, parked by the basketball
court behind our house, and she made a sarcastic reply
to something he had said. And before she knew what was
happening, he’d raised his hand and swung it, open-palmed,
against her cheek. She didn’t tell me about
this until years later after we had both left home. When she did tell me, I felt at
once angry and then strangely guilty because the boy in question was
extraordinarily good-looking and I remembered having been
impressed in a shallow way that I never spoke about that
my sister was dating someone so handsome. I was jealous of a lot of things
about my sister in those days: her beauty and her ease with people, how spontaneously funny she
could be, how well she was liked. She fit in at our school and
in our town, in her own body, in a way that I could not seem
to manage, quiet and bookish and peculiar as I was
then and remain. Still, there was never a time
when I didn’t love her very much and when I wouldn’t have
done whatever I could to support and defend her. Why didn’t you tell me sooner? I asked, when she finally told did. When the boy she was
dating hit my sister, it made a sharp cracking sound,
just like it does in the movies. She raised her hand and touched
the side of her own face. The expanse of skin where
he’d struck her buzzed and tingled, felt weirdly alive. It didn’t hurt or, and even
the actual slap itself hadn’t really hurt. Instead, she was shocked, surprised
because she had not expected this, and then confused about
what she should do next. She looked over at the boy she
was dating, who had just hit her. He was leaning way back against,
away from her against the car door as if he was afraid, either of
her or of what he had just done. In her eyes was an expression of
shock and remorse much more intense than anything she herself
seemed to be feeling. He too had been surprised, and he looked like he
might be about to cry. At that moment it came
into her mind that maybe, in punishment for what he had done,
the gods had magically frozen him in his current physical position:
curled up like a frightened fetus with his eyes bugged out and
his mouth hanging slightly open. Perhaps he would be
stuck like that forever. In her mind she envisioned
having to explain to the boy’s mother how her
son had come to be paralyzed in this posture: He hit me,
she would say, and then, well, now he doesn’t seem
able to move or speak. I’m sorry. She thought of him in various
scenes over the course of his life to come-in school, at home, in
church-still fixed in that attitude. And the absurdity of
these images together with the amazement she still felt at what had just occurred made
her suddenly snort with laughter. Her laughter seemed to free
the boy from his paralysis. “Oh, God,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t mean-” He reached out
towards her as though he wanted to take back what he’d done,
but then he withdrew his hand. “I’m sorry,” he said again. He hung his head. “I guess you should take
me home,” my sister said. Suddenly she felt like crying. He nodded and started the car. When they pulled up in
front of my parents’ house, he turned off the engine. He looked over at her mournfully. She suddenly thought that
he was making a huge, self-centered melodrama
out of something that really wasn’t so important. He wanted to be a terrible,
unforgivable villain and she did not want to
give him that satisfaction. “Look,” she said. “I’m okay. It doesn’t hurt. I’m not, like, scarred
for life or anything.” “Really?” he asked. “Really,” she said. She leaned over and
kissed him on the cheek. He clasped her hands gratefully. They smiled at each other because that was what
they were used to doing. When they smiled, it
felt for a moment, it felt as if a moment before they
had been drowning in some cold, unpleasant sea, and now they
were back on solid ground, back in the world they knew. A wave of relief swept over them. “You were being kind
of a bitch,” he said. “I was,” she conceded. “And you were being
a class-one a-hole.” She opened the door and got out. “Can I call you tomorrow?” he said after her. “Yes,” she said and went inside. She could hardly even feel where
he had hit her at all anymore. Because they had made up and because
she wasn’t hurt, she didn’t feel like she needed to mention
to anyone what had happened. If she said anything to
our mother, she thought, she would only overreact. She would call the school,
and maybe the boy’s parents. She would say things about violence
against women and the patriarchy, the kind of embarrassing things
that my sister had to do her best to ignore so she would
not be an outcast in the conservative
suburb where we lived. If she told our mother and
she started making a fuss, it would definitely mean that she and the boy would break
up and stop dating. They were both part of
a big group of friends. And she did not want to
cause problems in that group over something that was
really, truly no big deal but that might become a big deal
if the parents were involved. It wasn’t like she was some
battered or abused woman, like she saw on television
talk shows or heard about on the local news. Probably, in a few months, she wouldn’t even remember
that it had happened. So she said nothing and
the boy never did it again and after a while they broke
up for unrelated reasons and started dating other
people without much drama or distress to either of them. They finished high school,
went on to different colleges. They didn’t keep in touch. But during that time, unlike
what she had expected, the memory of being hit by the boy
didn’t just fade away and vanish. It wasn’t that she thought
about it all the time or that it ruined her life or that she could never trust a
man again or anything like that. But from time to time it would
come into her mind, that day, the moment of surprised
confusion afterward. And she came to feel, especially
as she got a little older, that she had let herself down
by the way she had reacted. This was the feeling that
grew incrementally inside her. She should not have tried
to make him feel better by telling him it was no big deal. She should not have kept
it from their friends just so they could all continue
to get along. From the beginning she had
failed to stand up for herself, and now she knew, or
felt like she knew, about herself that she
would let someone do that and do nothing about it. She would be obliging. She would comply. This guilt about how she
hadn’t stood up for herself was like a small stone that
she had to carry around. That was how she pictured it. Small and round, but heavy. And she came to believe, she
said, when she finally told me about it all those years later. That maybe if she told people
about it, as she was doing now, it would get smaller and lighter. That sharing would diminish
it, make it, make it smaller, make it maybe even vanish. And I thought, but
did not say: maybe, or maybe it will make it multiply. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Bonnie Jo Campbell:
That was awesome. I can never figure out if it’s
right with the glasses or without. Some middle age or something. Okay, when the Library of
Congress asked me to talk about Flannery O’Connor I shouted
into the phone, I’m unworthy. And I fanned myself
with a very short story. And I’m not an academic, I said,
I’m just a gal who loves stories and chickens and the work
of Flannery O’Connor. And the truth is when I think
about Flannery O’Connor, I think about a barnyard fowl
and I will stand by my claim that each chicken is
a unique individual. And I’m hoping someday to write a
book about women and their birds. And the essay, in the essay
called Flannery’s Fowl, I will describe how she smuggled
ducklings onto the airplane for the children of her
friends, the Fitzgeralds. And how as a kid she taught
a chicken to walk backwards. It was the high point of her
life she said decades later. She was wrong that nobody, wrong
in saying that nobody would want to hear about her life
in the future. A life lived quote between the
house and the chicken yard, which I think is the name of the
biography, the recent biography. She wrote in an unsentimental
essay called The King of the Birds. About the arrogance and
beauty of her peacocks and she wrote a poem, too. She sent a copy to her friend,
this is my first and last poem. I think poetry is a filthy habit
for a fiction writer to get in to. Let me read a little bit
from The Displaced Person, which I think is the best depiction
of the peculiar sort of farm life that Flannery knew so well. It was reflected in
a lot of her stories. So this is from The
Displaced Person. The peacock was following Mrs.
Shortley up the road to the hill where she meant to stand. Moving one behind the other, they
looked like a complete procession. Her arms were folded as
she mounted the prominence. She might have been the giant
wife of the countryside come out at some sign of danger
to see what the trouble was. She stood on two tremendous legs with the grand self-confidence
of a mountain. And rose up narrowing bulges of
granite to two icy blue points of light that pierced
forward, surveying everything. She ignored the white afternoon sun that was creeping behind
a ragged wall of clouds as if it pretended
to be an intruder. And cast her gaze down
the red clay road that turned off from the highway. The peacock stopped just behind her. His tail glittering
green, gold and blue in the sunlight lifted just enough so that it would not
touch the ground. It flowed out on either
side like a floating train. And his head on the long, blue,
reed like neck was drawn back as if his attention were
fixed in the distance on something no one else could see. Mrs. Shortley was watching
a black car turn through the gate from the highway. Over by the toolshed about 15 feet
away two negroes, Astor and Sulk, had stopped work to watch. They were hidden by a mulberry tree, but Mrs. Shortley knew
they were there. Mrs. McIntyre was coming down the
steps of her house to meet the car. She had on her largest
smile but Mrs. Shortley, even from her distance, could
detect a nervous slide in it. These people who were
coming were only hired help, like the Shortleys
themselves or like the negroes. Yet, here was the owner of
the place out to welcome them. Here she was, wearing her best
clothes and a string of beads and now bounding forward
with her mouth stretched. The car stopped at the
walk just as she did and the priest was
the first to get out. He was a long-legged black-suited
old man with a white hat on and a collar that he wore backwards, which Mrs. Shortley knew
was what priests did who wanted to be known as priests. It was this priest who had arranged
for these people to come here. He opened the back door of the car and out jumped two
children, a boy and a girl. And then stepping more
slowly a woman in brown, shaped like a peanut. Then the front door opened and out stepped the man,
the displaced person. He was short and a
little sway backed and wore gold-rimmed spectacles. Mrs. Shortley’s vision
narrowed on him and then widened to include the woman and the
two children in a group picture. The first thing that struck
her as very peculiar was that they looked like other people. Every time she had seen
them in her imagination, the image she had got was of
three bears walking single file with wooden shoes on like
Dutchmen and sailor hats and bright coats with
a lot of buttons. But the woman had on a dress
she might have worn herself. And the children were dressed
like anybody from around here. The man had on khaki
pants and a blue shirt. Suddenly as Mrs. McIntyre
held out her hand to him, he bowed down from the
waist and kissed it. Mrs. Shortley jerked her own
hand up toward her mouth. And then after a second,
brought it down and rubbed it vigorously
on her seat. If Mr. Shortley had
tried to kiss her hand, Mrs. McIntyre would have knocked
him into the middle of next week. But then Mr. Shortley wouldn’t
have kissed her hand anyway. He didn’t have time to mess around. Everybody in that story,
The Displaced Person, can be judged by that last peacock
that roams Mrs. McIntrye’s farm. The priest, who is probably the most
likeable character Flannery ever wrote, is obsessed by its beauty. And this is a quote,
this from the book. The priest let his eyes
wander towards the birds. They had reached the
middle of the lawn. The cock stops suddenly and
curving his neck backwards, he raised his tail and spread it
with a shimmering timerous noise. Tears of small pregnant suns floated
in a green gold haze over his head. The priest stood transfixed,
his jaw slack. Mrs. McIntyre wondered where she had
ever seen such an idiotic old man. Christ will come like that,
he said in a loud, gay voice and wiped his hand over his
mouth and stood there gaping. One of Mrs. McIntyre’s
black employees who she calls only the old man,
drives her crazy by talking to and reminiscing with the peacock. Meanwhile she only
tolerates the remaining cock because she fears her
dead husband, the judge. Never in her 39 years
of Flannery’s life, did she tire of watching her birds. Never did she tire of watching
other people watch them. This from her essay, Some people
are genuinely affected by the sight of a peacock, but do
not care to admit it. Others appear to be incensed by it. Perhaps they have a suspicion that the bird has formed some
unfavorable opinion of them. Flannery shows us that
characters we love in fiction may be precisely
the ones we would not want to spend time with in real life. She shows us that platitudes
and clichés, these things we’ve always taught
to avoid can make great writing. When Mrs. Hitchcock says,
there’s no place like home. Hazel Mulch replies you might
as well go one place as another. And of course, Mrs.
Hopewell it says, it takes all kinds
to make the world. And Mrs. Hitchcock
says, how time flies. Nothing is the way it used to
be, says Mr. Shiflet when talking to the elder, Lucy Nell Crader. Mrs. Freeman says, Well I
wouldn’t have said they was, and I wouldn’t have
said they wasn’t. I’m just going to read a little
section from Good Country People. We’ve just met Hulga,
this sullen, one legged, educated daughter,
called here The Girl. When Mrs. Hopewell said to Mrs.
Freeman that life was like that, Mrs. Freeman would say,
I always said so myself. Nothing had been arrived
at by anyone that had not been arrived at by her. When Mrs. Hopewell said to her after
they had been on the place a while, You know, you know you’re
the wheel behind the wheel. And winked. And Mrs. Freeman had
said, I know it. I’ve always been quick. It’s some that are
quicker than others. Everybody is different,
Mrs. Hopewell said. Yes, most people is,
Mrs. Freeman said. It takes all kinds
to make the world. I always said it did myself. The girl was used to this
kind of dialogue for breakfast and more of it for dinner. Sometimes they had
it for supper, too. Flannery O’Connor said in her
essay, Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction, I
think if there is any value in hearing writers talk it will be
in hearing what they can witness and not what they can
theorize about. I traveled with Flannery
on my recent book tour. Or rather with a lifesize
two-dimensional foam board of Flannery that I could
carry in my station wagon to bookstores and college campuses. You can see there’s, I
have a Facebook page, called Travels with Flannery. So, she remained upright and modestly dressed in
hotels while I slept. She remained sober while I drank. On Sunday she prayed without me. As in life she did not suffer fools
gladly and kept a stern expression. And always kept her clothes on. I was planning to cut her into
5 pieces and carry her here in my luggage, but I just couldn’t. In her brief life, Flannery wrote
and published two books of stories that portrayed a gritty
strange aspect of southern life, starting with A Good
Man is Hard to Find. And she had two novels,
starting with Wise Blood. Last year, last March, I had
two collections for myself. Mine detailing gritty difficult
lives in small Michigan towns and I was also the
author of two novels. I was having trouble
finishing my fifth book. I was having lots of
trouble and then I realized that it felt not only
difficult, it felt wrong. That I had the opportunity
to publish a third collection of stories and Flannery had not. And I think that’s why I
made the Flannery here. I felt like she needed
another trip out. Nearly everything I want to say about the writing life
Flannery has said more precisely and more cleverly. She addresses the fears writers have about being labeled
regional writers. The woods are full of regional
writers and it is the horror of every serious southern writer
that he will become one, she said. But she also said, The best American
fiction has always been regional. In her essay, The Writer and
His Country, she says simply, in the greatest fiction the
writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense. And most impressively she
made it clear she intended to judge no writing contests. I don’t know if you guys know that
writers are always asked to judge. She something very Bartelby-esque. She said, that is not
something I would care to do. I don’t know if you can ever trust
what fiction writers tell you. After all, we just make
things up for a living. Flannery’s always said her
works were pure fabrication, but in studying her life, we draw
natural lines between her life and her single mother and her life with her single mother
on a farm full of birds. Her brief dalliance with a textbook
salesman, if not a Bible salesman. Her experience with a Polish
refugee working on the farm. It is a lousy thing to do
to a writer, gaping this way at her real life, but
it is irresistible. I think it is a perhaps
our kind of pornography. Last year the Guardian
chose ten books to represent the genre Rural Noir. Rural Noir, Tom Baldwin
wrote, is a term used to describe dark dangerous
stories set in the countryside. He went on to say, if your book
has an all-terrain vehicle chase or a fist fight over a deer
rifle in the middle of a swamp, somebody is going to
call it Rural Noir. Maybe some of you have
watched 30 Rock or they have that show the Rural Juror. Yeah, we should probably
say Country Noir. The Guardian chose Flannery for the
top ten as well as James M. Cain, Larry Brown, and Daniel Woodrell. I’m thinking through an
essay about the connection between the literature of the south
and the literature of the Midwest. Particularly that of the places
like Michigan where folks from the south came
and settled to work in the auto plants
in the last century. In the old days we might have
talked about the literary grotesque, and I wonder if maybe that’s
just what the Rural Noir is, is another word for that. Flannery proposes that the southern
writers were more interesting because the south lost
the Civil War. The south had had its fall. And I kind of wonder if
maybe the upper Midwest, the seat of American
manufacturing and trade unions and that fabulous middle class we
used to have, has had its own plunge and economic fall from grace. Something we writers are asked
to do in our hometowns is to visit book groups at
well-appointed homes. And talk to upper middle class,
middle aged ladies about our books over wine and artichoke
and spinach dip. And there’s a question I am always
asked in one form or another, one that I will paraphrase
for you here. Why do you write about
such awful people? When a reader told Flannery
her stories left a bad taste in her mouth, Flannery replied,
well you weren’t supposed to eat it. And maybe most famously, she said,
the truth is not changed according to our ability to stomach
it emotionally. About her novel, Wise Blood,
she said, I am not afraid that the book will be controversial, I am afraid it will
not be controversial. The publishers have not always
helped promote a thoughtful reading of her work. I saw a cover of the Violent
Bear It Away and it had as an italics subtitle,
a vivid obsessive novel of the depravity of the deep south. Today is Good Friday and
Flannery O’Connor was a devout and good Catholic. Communion with the body of Christ
was not a metaphor for her. Flannery said that after stories
were written and published, they didn’t belong to the author
anymore, they belonged to God. And maybe that’s how she saw it. But how I see it is that her stories
belong to all of us, Catholics and Hindus and heathens alike. And I hope that we can all
agree on Good Friday at the end of the dark season, that
we can thank the Lord for Flannery O’Connor. I’m going to read from the
title story of my book, just a piece of it from the middle. And this story from the book,
Mothers Tell Your Daughters. And this story is told from the
point of a dominating old farm woman who has had a stroke
and cannot talk. She’s furious about her
condition and she is thinking hard at her sullen, over educated
daughter, a woman’s study professor, hoping that the ungrateful
girl can read her mind. So you might say it was
inspired by Flannery. This is just a chunk
out of the middle. It’s one of these stories
nobody should have ever tried to write this story. Like from the point somebody lying
in bed, I kind of want to stage it as a play now, just to be perverse. Oh and one thing that
poor Flannery does, maybe somebody ask the question,
I want to write something about Flannery and sex
and the lack of it. Cause my books are all full of it. All the marbles. So this is all inside her head. All the men added together
made the solid world. They were the marbles in the jar and
women were whatever sand or water or air claim the space
left between them. That’s how I saw things
as a young woman. That was my women’s studies. Now I’ve come to know that women
are like vodka, poured over men who melt away like ice cubes. It was a man who broke my
nose, bent it like it is now. I let you kids think that big
paint gelding had kicked me again. Patchy Pete was that horse’s name,
black and white like a Holstein cow. I bought him for $200 and ended up
selling him for $200 after a year of getting kicked and
bitten and thrown. I would have dressed him out for
dog food or fed him to you kids if he hadn’t been so gorgeous,
but a good looking horse, like a good looking man, can always
find a place in somebody’s stable. Men climbed into my bed after they
fenced my pasture, after they messed with the furnace, and
changed the oil in my Chevy truck and
my Ford tractor. They climbed into my bed after
their wives threw them out. We needed their help. There was so much work to do around
here and mostly they were nice. I’m still alive if barely and a lot of angry wives are long dead
including Bill Thorue’s wife who wore herself out
bitching about me if you want to know the truth of it. When I was a teenager, my
friend Julia said one day, we’ve got to look pretty. I shaved my legs for the first time and it took a long while
to stop the bleeding. Us and two other friends
got ahold of a six pack, though we didn’t like
the taste of beer. We carried the bottles to where
some men lived and reclined on their couch with
our ankles crossed. We didn’t know how to talk to men. So we just smiled and
silence hung above the bag of pretzels they brought out,
until the men started to laugh until we laughed with them. They were older and muscular and
smelled of smoke and solvents from the repair shops
where they worked. One man had a glass eye. He said he’d been shot. When they popped out we were all
possessed by a powerful desire to hold the blind thing
in our hands. Julia touched it first
and passed it around. She got pregnant right away and the
rest of us followed and for a lot of years we raised our children,
fed our husbands worked hard at low-paying jobs, or at
jobs that didn’t pay at all. And learned just how
tired a body could be. Those men took me by surprise
but I never looked back, I never stopped singing love songs, I never longed for
a time before men. Men’s machines still sing to me,
revving chain saw, motor boat, log splitter, roto tiller,
leaf blower, generator humming, cordless drill, rattle trap tractor,
power washer, hedge trimmer, biting grinder, motorcycles
with mufflers torn off, diesel trucks chugging
in the driveway. You remember those men who came to
me after a fishing trip up north and filled my wringer
washer with smelt? Come out with us and
play, men used to call, like tomcats, and out I went. That old wringer washer was never
the same after all them fish. The men who came around never
passed up an easy target so they killed all the rabbits. I meant to sew a blanket from the
soft skins to replace my own skin which I imagine wadded up
under the bed in my room, smeared with menstrual blood, stiff
with sperm, stretched by pregnancy. For years I’d warmed myself
in the borrowed skins of men. I was good at cutting pelts
from flesh, muscle from bone. After partying all night, a passed
out man might resemble a great cut of meat in my bed or
on the couch or floor, leathery brown shoulders
and a fish white behind. Men inhaled great swathes of
oxygen, exhaled smoke and sweat, so sometimes I could
scarcely catch my breath. I remember finding you
and your brothers fishing through a man’s wallet
like grubby elves. Shoo, shoo, I said
and the men slept on. After your daddy left, I tried
to raise you to know man and not to fear them, so you
wouldn’t be taken by surprise. I figured that if any of them
bothered you, you would make a fuss. The way you made a fuss when I
wanted you to get out of bed early and haul buckets of water from
the creek when the pipes froze. Of course, you were
scared of your daddy. He was a fiercesome man
and he scare me too. But you could have whined and glared
at them other men the way you did at your poor, worn out
ma, who tried to feed and clothe you with no money. How was I supposed to know there was
trouble with the way they pulled you onto their laps, if you never
told me, you didn’t like it. It seemed to me like
you were having fun when they said how pretty you were. You never were the kind of kid
who smiled, so I couldn’t tell. [ Applause ]>>Anya Creightney: Thanks again. It was wonderful. So we’re going to go ahead
and open it up for questions. So those who you have
questions raise your hand and we’ll come around to you. Anyone want to start us off?>>Can I just ask about Emily’s? Was your story Pushcart [inaudible]. Was your story published
in the Pushcart series? I’ve read it somewhere.>>Emily Mitchell: No,
can you hear me okay? [ Multiple voices ] Yeah, it was published in Guernica
online and then in my collections. If you’ve seen it anywhere,
you would have seen it there.>>Okay.>>Emily Mitchell:
Online if you did see it.>>Yeah, I did.>>Bonnie Jo Campbell: I know and
if you guys don’t have questions, we’ll just start quoting Flannery.>>Emily Mitchell: We
can certainly do that. I mean, you can’t really
go wrong with her, so.>>Bonnie Jo Campbell: Yeah, and
I can tell you, I can tell you that on the plane, on
the plane coming here, this book set off the detectors
and we could not figure out why. But they kept searching my luggage and they said books never
set off the detectors, but this couldn’t make it through. So –>>I love both of your
presentations and your own stories. They’re so Flannery
O’Connorish, I love them. A Good Man is Hard
to Find as a cliché that gets, that becomes pivotal. I love that you picked
out the element of cliché for humor in her work. I mean, who else does that? It’s just, except maybe, it
sounds like you have the talent for weaving us together too. But I wonder if you’d both of you
talk about, and we laugh out loud at the worst things
with Flannery O’Connor. Woman a woman with this same path
dies on the bus for example or when in a Good Man is Hard to Find, the misfit says, she’d have been a
good woman if there’d been somebody to shoot her every day of her life. We laugh. It turns us into
sort of horrible people, but I wonder if you’d talk
about the role of humor and her blend of it
a little bit more. Because I think it’s so distinctive.>>Bonnie Jo Campbell: Do you
have anything right off the bat? First we can say we love it. I mean, Flannery was famously,
I mean famously funny. You know, and she told
apparently, she, you know, I always read those letters and thought they were
the definitive letters. Apparently not. Apparently many things
were taken out of them. She was very famous for telling
off color jokes, and racial jokes. And so she had a sense of humor that was definitely not
politically correct. And it’s funny what I learned over
time is that we read her differently than she was hoping
we would read her. And because of the
Catholicism, you know, she doesn’t see dying as so bad. You know, as maybe we
more earth bound folks do.>>Emily Mitchell: I mean, I think,
you know, it’s also that you know, that it’s always seemed to me
that one of her great projects is to break us away from
sentimentality. And that the combination
of, you know, I mean, I think it’s interesting, you say
it turns us into horrible people. I mean, in a way that’s absolutely
right, but then in another way, when we’re laughing at something
that’s so kind of out there, and you know, it’s
outside of the bounds of what we normally want
to acknowledge exists. We let go of our assumptions for
a minute and I feel like that’s so important to her stories to
kind of get us to this space where the things we
thought we thought, are no longer available
to us in an easy way. You know, we sort of see the
characters going through that. And then there’s as readers,
we go through it with them. And so those, I think, it’s that
combination of getting us to laugh at things that, oh my God, I can’t
believe I’m finding this funny. And yet we do, right.>>Bonnie Jo Campbell: Yeah,
and maybe it was something, I mean she did feel that in her
stories she would have liked to saved us all and
turned us into Catholics. And I think she felt that we had to
go somewhere very extreme in order to get to the place where we could
be acted upon by her stories.>>Emily Mitchell: Yeah, I
think that’s exactly right. And I mean, from time to time I come
across that in other writer’s work. You know, the [inaudible]. And you know, and there’s a young
short story writer called Susan Rebecca who also can do that. And it feels to me and in
both of those cases that comes from Flannery O’Connor, right. So that desire to take the reader
to some place really, you know, quite strange and very,
very unnerving.>>Thank you both. It was so illuminating, the talk. I was struck by both of you kind of
alluding to the notion of the past. And in Cynthia Faulkner’s quote that the past is never really
dead and it’s not even past. And I’m wondering if O’Connor’s
fiction maybe in your own, why she seems to be so interested
in people who are uncomfortable with their present who
are disrupted by it. You know living in the
present state that they’re at.>>Emily Mitchell: That’s
a really good question. And I think, you know, it does seem
to me as though she’s interested in maybe the way we kind of try
to, you know, the discomfort. I mean, I was just thinking
about, you know, I’m just thinking about this as I’m talking
that the discomfort of the present is maybe
related to the way we try to get away from the past. The way, you know, that we
sort of don’t really want to acknowledge but it’s there. I mean, it’s there anyway. So, you know, say, A Late Encounter
with the Enemy, it’s like the idea of the Coca Cola machine. You know, sort of in this, you know,
in this midst of this like very, kind of, you know, what comes
across as this very somber event. And it just seems to
everybody, it seems so wrong that it’s there, right,
that it clashes. So I don’t know, does that seem? I mean –>>Bonnie Jo Campbell: Yeah. I’m not sure and I do think
that it relates to those, the use of clichés which is
the response that you make when you actually don’t want
to take the situation anew. And even in that character
who, that Mrs. Freeman who you can’t even tell her a thing
that she hasn’t already heard of. I don’t know, she does
it better than I do. But I also think it has
something to do with the south. It has something to do with the,
you know, I’m no one to talk about the south, though I did hang out with hillbilly
girls in my youth. Smoked a lot with them, and did
other things with their brothers. Did I just say that at
the Library of Congress? But, in the, I think that Flannery
O’Connor would see that at the kind of the downfall of the south. It has something to do with
that, of always looking back. But yeah, that’s a great
observation, you know, you should write a paper about that. That’s, everything about
Flannery O’Connor makes me want to write a paper. Though I’m not one to write
papers, so if I could teach a class and assign my students to
write all these papers, that’d be really great.>>This isn’t a question really,
but I’m hoping you can kind of since you’ve probably been
researching Flannery O’Connor, you could kind of fill
in the gaps here. I remember a short story she wrote
about a child going to a freak show? And seeing what she called
hermaphrodite, I guess. But that brings to mind,
when you were talking about her not being sentimental and
being objective and just observing and seeing how people react to these
strange grotesque kind of scenes. I don’t even know what
my question is. I was just wondering,
do you know that story, could you tell me more about it?>>Bonnie Jo Campbell: You
know, I can’t remember. Which story was that? It’s not The River, is it? Because I know The
River, I know he drowns, I know the kid drowns at the end. They all do. The minute. Well it’s heartbreaking. For a while I couldn’t read Flannery
O’Connor, because it was like okay, you see something cute,
you know it’s going down. Sweet kid. Yeah, well, I mean, that’s
absolutely a great place for her to be at a freak show where
we, everything has risen to, where we’re taken to
a very extreme place. And I know, what a –>>Yeah, and it allows the reader
to kind of observe these things. Otherwise I think they would
probably hide their eyes or they’d hide behind
a cliché or something. You know, and ignore it or try
to take it as best they could. I don’t know.>>Bonnie Jo Campbell:
Yeah, we can definitely, we could say she is the reigning
queen of the unsentimental.>>Emily Mitchell: Yeah, I
mean I think that she also kind of helps you as a reader to cope
with the truly a horrifying things in the world by setting
them so beautifully. I mean, you know, because, you
know, in preparation for this talk, you know, I was reading, you know,
sort of back through her stories, reading A Good Man is
Hard to Find again. And you know, and one of these
things among the sort of many things where I was saddened
by how well she does, is sort of every aspect
in short fiction. She sets the, the human
world, right. I mean, I think it’s funny,
the point about the way in which character are
first cliché is so apt. But the natural world
is not cliché, right. And so she gives you these kind
of crystal clear, you know, incredibly compelling descriptions
of the setting, the places, you know, the natural
world, the sky. You know, the number of brilliant
ways she describes the sun in just that one collection is so stunning. And yet somehow that allows you to,
you know, this hideousness is set within this world that’s
very complicated you know, sort of that evokes a
variety of feelings. I think that that’s like normally
she couldn’t handle it, as a reader, you know, like you would permanently
be in a state you described like that, sort of
I can’t read this. They’re too hard. You know, but there is a sort
of beauty that surrounds it that gives you some access to that. Helps you through basically,
I think.>>What Emily just said
is exactly what I would. I just OD’d on Eudora Welty. Not just reading but
listening to every single one of her stories and
collected stories. It took weeks. But what you just said, is exactly
what I think what one would say about Eudora Welty. And I wonder if both of you
would comment this group of southern gothic writers? And how you see them. Did they inter, I’m not
sure, whether they interacted with each other or
spoke about each other.>>Bonnie Jo Campbell:
They knew about each other. I mean, she refers to Faulkner, but
I don’t think she refers, I mean, it’s, I’m trying to think. I reread that essay,
the one I mentioned with the southern grotesque and
I think there was another one where she addressed the
Georgia writers or something. I’m not sure, you know, I
just, it’s funny to think that she wasn’t really
interested in a lot of society. I mean, she went to Yaddo once
and did not want to go again. And in fact, she caused
some hullabaloo there that I was trying to read about. She caused some problem. I mean I think she turned
somebody in for being a communist. Something, I don’t know, I
shouldn’t, see I shouldn’t say this at the Library of Congress. Talk to me after, we’ll
go to the bar. But there was something, she was
involved in some scandal there. But she, I know that even when
famous writers came to town, she didn’t necessarily
want to see them. She wanted to read their works and
she didn’t want to visit with them. So, I think she felt, you
know, that we are each other, each other’s colleagues on the page. I think she felt collegial, I mean you like to think why
do we have all these sort of British depictions of all kinds of famous people at
dinners together? We should have at least
a depiction of some kind. Somebody should do a sitcom
that’s all the southern writers, you know the southern writers. It could be called the Rural Juror. And it would be all the
southern writers getting together and we could figure out what
they’d say to one another.>>Emily Mitchell: Yeah, I mean,
whether that really ever happened or not, it should be depicted. But, you know, it’s good to know, I
think when I was also rereading some of her nonfiction, you know, when you’re writing short
stories the writer she brings up is the most prominently
in that essay is Kafka. You know, that was for me, I’m
always, you know, as a writer, and therefore as a reader
looking for the ways in which more realistic fiction
works its way into the work of writers you think of as being
so devastatingly realistic. You know, that, you know, but
that completely makes sense to me that O’Connor would be thinking
about Kafka as you know, as a you know as an influence
and an example of how to write realistically about the
day when you wake up and it turns out that you’re a cockroach. You know, so, so to, I mean I
don’t, I think I don’t know much about her relationships with other
writers but that was very striking to me that that was
who she thought about.>>Bonnie Jo Campbell: I
just, because I happened to remember this quote,
although she did say that for Kafka she felt one only
needs read a little of Kafka. But she, and she admired Kafka, but
she also said he was like a ladder with the bottom rungs missing. And you know, she really
admired Conrad most of all. That really surprised me,
that it was, but maybe it is, he is kind of Old Testamenty,
you know. I mean, is she like
the Old Testament? That’s what I keep coming back to. But that’s, you know, and
sometimes people, you know, they’re, their where there’s reviewers. Even recently. I found brand new reviews of Flannery O’Connor stories
in Catholic magazines. And, you know, one said great, the
season, you know, read in the season of Lent, to show the
darkness of the human soul. And then read, then there was
one that said don’t read it. You know, it’s just awful and, you
know, why must she show violence. And that made me wonder if he
had read the Old Testament. But she, you know, she talks a
little about the writers she loves, but not as much as you would think. I mean, did you find that? And maybe it doesn’t appear
as much in her letters.>>Emily Mitchell: Yeah, you know,
I mean, you know, certainly, yeah, I mean, it’s just it’s not an
aspect of her work or her writing that I’m particularly
familiar with, I’m afraid. You know, but she does seem
as though you know, that she. Before the presentation,
you know, I was talking, to Anya about one thing I had
wanted to work into my talk and wasn’t quite able to was O’Connor’s rejection
of her rejection. You know, where she had submitted
Wise Blood to a publisher who I think was Knopf and then
he come back and said well, we might be interested
if you’re willing to make the following
extensive revisions. And she wrote back and would say no. You know, this is an odd book and if
you want to publish a strange book, then you’re welcome to
do so, but I’m not going to make all these changes
that you are suggesting. Because this is the
book that I wrote, this is how I want
it to be presented. And at that that, that sort of
independence of mind is so striking. You know that she was kind
of committed to her own work and her own vision that, you
know, that she was willing to just, no, this is the book. So you know, so obviously
all writers have influence, but she really seemed like she
knew what she wanted, you know. And whatever other
writers were doing and whatever manuscripts
were saying to her, was less important than that.>>Anya Creightney: So I think
we’ll close with this question.>>Yeah, you were talking about the
Old Testament, about Wise Blood, and things, the way that
she perceived the experience of being raised in the south
and of being of the south. And something really came to me that I thought you guys
might both discuss a little. Which is as a Catholic, but in
Wise Blood, the description is one of evangelical religion,
at least largely. And just in terms of this
very personal experience, this very you know, redemption
was you know, brought up again, and again, in a way that would
be recognizable to anybody who spent time in that
part of our culture. And, yet obviously the Catholic
influence was enormous to her and I wonder if either
of you have thoughts on how she describes this
evangelical tradition as opposed to the tradition of Catholicism?>>Bonnie Jo Campbell: Well,
I can say that Flannery said that she was not a true southern
writer because she was a Catholic. She said that’s the
thing that stops her from truly being a southern writer. And she didn’t think
much of the evangelicals. I mean, she had a quote,
you know, people, she used another writer’s work, and
said, well there was some writer who wrote a book called
the Rotting Hill or maybe she made that
up, I’m not sure. The Rotting Hill, and she
said, you know, people assume, people seem to assume
that one writes about rot, because one likes rot, when in
fact I might write about rot because I disapprove of rot. It was a very harsh
thing she had to say, but I think that she wished these
evangelicals would be pushed to the limit that would make
them turn into Catholics. And it’s funny, I don’t mean to
keep hitting the Catholic thing, but the more you read and the
more you read about what she said, is the work feels very, very
different the more you read it. Feels more of a certain kind of
Catholicism that I don’t know if even, that the Catholics
as a group even accepted. But yeah, she really does want
people to be redeemed and saved in this profound way,
but she as I recall, there are very few
Catholic characters. The priest in The Displaced
Person is one of the very few Catholics
that appear in there. But I know that she that she
is looking for that redemption, and maybe she’s willing to see it
in other places, but I’m not sure.>>Emily Mitchell: Yeah, I mean,
well it seems to me you know, she is so critical in
the religion you know, in evangelical religion
as she depicts it. Is the idea of making a
declaration of being renewed? You know, that the idea
that you say, you know, you’ll say it and then you’re saved. And that, that, you
know, the kind, I mean, the stories in a way you know, as
they’re depicted, you know, people, I mean, I think in Wise Blood, it’s
full of people saying you know, various things about
a transformation that has occurred in them. And then actually what the
stories show, you know, Wise Blood and also again in her short stories, is the way in which the characters
need to be like to be brought to a moment of experiencing
their powerlessness in order to actually be transformed. You know, and that, to me,
that feels very relevant, not to just evangelicalism
but to you know, contemporary culture much
more broadly that we really, we have this great desire to
say that we’ve been transformed through you know, subconsciously,
deliberately, you know, by deciding it. And she really doesn’t buy that
at all, I think that’s a lot of you know, a lot of what the
stories have shown is the way in which that doesn’t work. Right? In which the
epiphany is wrong. You know, and just, you
know, it’s just not true.>>Anya Creightney:
Well, please join me and give our beautiful guests a — [ Applause ]>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at

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