Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Flannery O'Connor's First Six Stories-Her Master's Thesis

"Across on the river bank the Lord was waiting
on him with a troupe of angels and golden vestments for him to
put on and when he came, he'd put on the vestments and stand there
with the Lord and the angels, judging life."-from "The Wildcat"

O'Connor 1948 Iowa
Flannery O'Connor (1925 to 1965, Georgia, USA) received a MA degree from the very famous University of Iowa Writer's Workshop in 1947.   (I guess the degree was from the University, with the workshop being a division of the school.)   As her required thesis for her degree she submitted six short stories.   Upon completion of her degree, she spent another year at the workshop on a fellowship.   I have already posted on her very first story, "The Geranium".   I will today briefly post on the other five stories in her thesis The Geranium and Other Stories.   Three of the six stories were published on their own and three were published for the first time in  the posthumous 1971 The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor, edited and with a very good introduction by Robert Giroux, who was her publisher and knew her well.  (There is a good article on her time at the Iowa workshop on the webpage of the workshop.)   There are thirty one stories in the collection (I think there is one story not included in the collection but I will worry about that latter.)  I have already posted more or less at random on seven of them.   I have now been given an e-book of the full collection by a very kind follower of my blog from Calcutta.   I have decided I want have her stories in the "read" category" before much more time goes by.   I will be reading through them in sequence and posting at least something on each one.  I know there is deep religious symbolism and really profound themes in her work.   .   The symbolism in her stories may be rooted in her Catholic theology  but the very far from Catholic Kenzaburo Oe treats her work as a near holy text.    Many consider Flannery O'Connor among the very best short story writers of all time.   I am among those of that opinion already.

"The Barber" (written when O"Connor was twenty one-1947-6 pages) will be a bit hard to read for a lot of people.   This is partially because the story is almost entirely told through conversations in the rural dialect of Georgia in the 1940s.  (When O'Connor attended the workshop some, including the workshop's director, could not at first understand her because of her own spoken dialect.)    I have said before I am not over all a fan of dialect but maybe that is just because it takes a master to do it without seeming as if they are condescending to rural "hicks".   Henry Green is another master of this.  Many will be shocked over the constant use of very politically incorrect racial expressions by the characters in the story and the extremely racist  milieu of the story.    Basically the story turns around an argument in a barber shop about who one should vote for.  One white candidate is seen as coddling the blacks and the white people in the barber shop, but for one man who is a teacher, all hate him.  There is a black young man that works in the barber shop that is sadly oblivious to the constant racial comments of the white men.  

"Wildcat" (1947, seven pages) also is a story about race relations and shows the extreme contempt and hatred that whites in region by and large had for blacks.    One of the characters says several times that he can smell blacks a long way off (only he uses a very ugly term).   The story is set like most of her others, in rural pinewoods Georgia.   There were still wildcats in the area and one of them had recently killed a cow.  Here is a good sample of the prose of the story and it shows what I am talking about pretty clearly.

"How many wildcats you killed, Gabrul?" Their voices, rising to
him through the darkness, were full of gentle mockery.
"When I was a boy, there was a cat once," Gabriel started. "It
come 'round here huntin' blood. Come in through the winder of a
cabin one night an' sprung in bed with a nigger an' tore that
nigger's throat open befo' he could holler good."

The religious themes of O'Connor are also developed in this story.

"The Crop" (1947, six pages) starts out at a meal in a household.   O'Connor does a great job in just a few paragraphs of bringing a whole family history to life.
The man character, a young woman, is trying to write a story.  She has chosen for her theme the lives of sharecroppers, basically a very poor class of mostly white rural Georgia people.   You can see the young woman knows nothing about the people and dehumanizes them into violent troglodytes.   It is a brilliant account of prejudice.

"The Turkey" (1947, eight pages) seems the most interesting of the stories.   There is nothing immature about it.   It centers on a family with two sons.   One of the sons seems, according to his father, "destined for the penitentiary".   He sometimes listens outside his parent's bedroom at night as they argue about what is wrong with him.    I really don't want to tell any of this story.   You just need to read it.

"The Train" (1948, eight pages) is  the most complex of the stories in terms of narrative action.   It centers on a train ride in the old days when people slept on trains and when riding one  a long distance was a special event.   It tells us a lot about class consciousness and status.   Like all of her stories, there is a world of symbolism and meaning in the smallest details.

The next three stories in the collection became part of her first novel Wiseblood.  I will post on "The Peeler", "The Heart of the Park" and "A Stroke of Good Fortune" soon.   As her stories go on from here her work is considered to become even more brilliant and very rich in meaning.   I will post on each one and will decide latter how to do it.

I am very glad I am at last reading through the short stories of O'Connor.

Please share your experiences with O'Connor with us.

Mel u


AJ said...

O'Connor was a writer of prodigious gifts and a real fearlessness in her work ... she must have known how many of her themes, plots, and characters would be off-putting to many readers. Her letters (published under the title = The Habit of Being), are, I think, a necessary addition to the library of any admirer of O'Connor.

She is one of a very very few writers (Muriel Spark is another -- at least her early works) whose novels I have read and then immediately reread to try to see how she does it.

Also, I think she is one of those writers who has been enormously well served by her publisher, FSG -- the cover art/design for both her novels wonderfully captures the spirit of the text.

@parridhlantern said...

Have you seen that Stu (Winstonsdad) is hosting a Henry Green week in 2012, You can also get some of his work on Kindle.

Buried In Print said...

My experience with O'Connor is in buying her books and not reading them. Sigh. I should make room for her in 2012. (There was a quote very similar to the one you've alluded to appearing in "Wildcat" in Margaret Mitchell's 1936 Gone With the Wind, which I recently re-read, and about which I feel completely differently than I once did.)