Comments to Flannery’s “Good Country People”

1. Tell that boy to give me back my glass eye!

2. Oh, Flannery! Such a perfectly purply bleak tale of this sad potato sack of a young woman taken every advantage of as she struggles with her permanent defects physical and mental to walk in a world where we may engage and intercourse authentically with others.

3. A hoot and a holler in a hay loft!

4. Kisses sourer than vinegar.

5. I wonst knowd a woman just like that busy body Mrs. Freeman and she warnt free atall but was so cot up in everybody elses bizness but I will say she was probably free of her man but that woman wood knot bee welcome on in my kitchen, no sir we.

6. Poor Joy, I shall pray for you, that you got home safe and sound without your you know what. I do wonder, though, how did you ever get down that ladder? But you are such a strong girl. Keep it up, and you go, girl!

7. It’s about sin and redemption and people who wear their hearts on their sleeves.

8. Who’s Flannery tryin’ to kid here she ain’t never been up in no hay barn.

9. It sounds like Flannery is going to give us some pornography. Well, she does, in a way, with those playing cards of the bible salesman. But it’s all turned around. He’s the one who says she must say how she loves him. That’s backwards from what we are used to. It’s usually the girl must say this, and ask, will you still love me tomorrow? But this is no normal sex scene. What does the leg represent?

10. Yes, the kisses. First like a truck, then like tiny fishes sucking. It’s an absurd view, a distorted view, but the girl does lose it up in that barn.

11. You all missin’ the point here. It is tragic to have such a big nose, so he takes her nose and off he goes. So the tragic becomes comic. We must learn to laugh, even if we must cry to get there.

12. Yes, kind of. Sanctifying grace has fallen, and Joy has received a gift, the gift of grace. But we must be careful what we pray for. She was obsessed with her leg. Her leg was inseparable from her. It was her identity, her self-image, her poor but large and strong picture of herself that no one else saw, and so the gift she got was to be rid at long last of the leg.

13. She is her own antagonist, struggling against her self, but dynamic, for she changes from beginning to end, and all the others in relief remain static.

14. Look at the words, people! Mrs. Freeman’s “neutral” expression as she barrels down the road like a trash truck, Joy Hulga “lumbered” about like bats falling in a dugout, her leg made of wood. This is irony: textual and situational, and the one gives way to the other.

15. I think it’s about how Joy turns so sour on account of the hunting accident. That’s real. But then it becomes unreal, like a bad dream, like a nightmare, when Manley Pointer, the fake bible salesman, comes along. At first he seems real, though obnoxious, but then it’s obvious that he is there to do the devil’s work. He’s a cad.

16. No, no, no! He’s there to do the Lord’s work! For the Lord does work in strange ways in a Flannery O’Connor short story. Don’t you see? He frees Joy from her obsession with her leg.

17. I just want to say that I think Flannery is so courageous to try and write something like this.

18. Tell that boy to give me my glass eye back!

19. We all have our faults, but who would have thought a person can hope too much, and though ever hoping well, come to such ruin.

20. It was a very colorful story. I counted over 30 colors, and then lost count.

21. I’m reminded of the time my great uncle Leroy, this was when we was all still living down in Gulleytown, over the creek bridge and on out Smithy Road, up past the Gilclumps place, before it got so runned down after Olaf passed, and around the sharp curve where the railroad tracks veer off down toward the river where Charlene Apple lost control of her Mustang that year it rained so hard people said it must be the end of the world coming, and Leroy, suddenly one Sunday appears in church, though he had not stepped a foot near it in 40 years, and him with a tie around his big fat neck his face so red and bumpy like a fat spoiled strawberry and he’s holding one crimson red rose on a long stem and he walks up the aisle and you could hear a feather twist in the air as a mosquito flew near it and Leroy he stops at the third row on the left where of course in the aisle spot Mrs. Flanmph always sat, had sat every Sunday for the past 40 years, and Leroy genuflects and pauses and old Mrs. Flanmph won’t look nor budge, but Leroy gently insists his leg into the row and old Mrs. Flanmph she don’t move down but moves back twisting her legs sideways like a body does when someone wants by and Leroy steps over her and plops down and everything is still as a summer creek in the country and then Leroy hands Mrs. Flanmph his crimson rose and she looks at it for a good country moment and then takes the rose, and the uproar in that church like to wake the dead out in their graves and pretty soon people was dancing in the aisles and Preacher Justin he declared a good country pot luck supper later that afternoon back in the church backyard where Leroy cooked up his ribs for the first time in 40 years and all kinds of folks showed up to see what all the commotion was about and were told that Uncle Leroy and old Mrs. Flanmph were finally going to tie the knot. Thank you all for reading and commenting. Comments are now closed.

Related: Flannery’s Joy

The Postman Always Rings Twice, the Plumber Rarely More Than Once

I read a book this week, “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” There is no postman, but plenty of rings. The title page of my copy is stamped “WITHDRAWN,” and below that, “CIRCULATION STORAGE,” and above the publisher info., “SIERRA MADRE PUBLIC LIBRARY.” When a library “withdraws” a book, perhaps some helpful librarian might add a note of explanation as to why the book is being withdrawn. My copy, a casual gift from an old, steady friend, is still in decent condition, 187 pages of hardback, hard read, not to be confused with hard to read, but hard in the deadpan noir sense, where none of the characters are likeable, not even the so-called good guys, and all are static characters – no one changes from beginning to end.

I also repaired a toilet this week, having to drive to the hardware store only twice, which is par for home repairs in my neck of the woods. To drive to the hardware store only once in the process of a repair job like fixing a toilet is a hole in one. A real plumber rarely requires more than one trip to fix a toilet. A real plumber is a master of the hole in one repair job.

A cat plays a prominent role in the “Postman” book, illustrating the randomness with which animal nature creeps about, often spoiling plans with ironic gifts from the cosmos, like Flannery O’Connor’s grace (the cat in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” comes to mind, too, reading “Postman”). The lead prosecutor in the “Postman” case, Sackett, calls the anti-hero, Frank Chambers, a “mad dog.” Frank Chambers is an interesting name, a formal place of serious purpose. There is also rank in the chambers, and, in the tradition of the Naturalist writers, one cannot change the rank into which one is born. There’s only one murder, but two attempts, perhaps the twice ringing of the title. I found no evidence that a cat played a role in the toilet failure business mentioned above, but I wouldn’t have been surprised. Meanwhile, I was also thinking ahead to Flannery’s “Good Man” anti-hero character’s name, “The Misfit.” The Misfit would be a good name for a cat.

“Postman,” by James M. Cain, was originally published in 1934. My copy is a tenth printing, October 1945. Edmund Wilson thought that perhaps it was the hard times that seemed to call for some hard writing. But some are born into hard settings, others into easy chairs, and the postman seems to ring indiscriminately, without regard for regal versus rough. And he can find you on Route 66 just as easy as out on Highway 61. My copy has library markings on the inside back cover. There are two sets of 5 vertical lines crossed diagonally left down to right in the upper left corner. Under that, vertically down the inside back cover, 82 with 4 hash marks, then 82 with 1 hash mark, and so on: 84, 4 hash marks; 85, 2 hash marks; 89, 1 hash mark; 90, 1 hash mark; 91, 2 hash marks; 92, 2 hash marks; 93, 3 hash marks; 94, 1 hash mark; 95, 1 hash mark; then, a new column: 98, 2 hash marks; 99, 1 hash mark; 02, 1 hash mark; 03, 1 hash mark; 04, 3 hash marks. I’ve added, below the 04, 12, and 1 hash mark. If someone else reads it, I’ll add a second hash mark under 12. Maybe I’ll start my own library of library discards, “The Used, Used Library.” We find ourselves in hard times for libraries.

I don’t know if Cain was ever at the Sierra Madre library, but maybe he was. And if he was, I wonder if he checked out and read Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” which came to mind as I was reading “Postman,” later in the book. Dreiser’s book, published in 1925, also tells of lives and plans of deception all gone awry thanks to chance occurrences but that result nevertheless in crime and punishment. Dreiser, though, filled his book with background and foreshadowing, motivations and cross-purposes, not to mention long sentences. Cain’s book is terse, devoid of metaphor. But what links “Postman” to “Tragedy” is the notion of Naturalistic purpose, helpless humans trying to create some sense of reason in a reasonless and unreasonable world, and of the influence of chance in ruining the seeming reasonableness of planning for something, for anything. Camus’s “The Stranger” also comes to mind, particularly given the parallel scenes with a priest at the end of both “Stranger” and “Postman.”

If “Postman” is good, it’s because it accomplishes its purpose. Whether or not that purpose is good is another matter.

I discovered the problem with the toilet had to do with the overflow tube, which was higher than the critical level mark on the filler valve. Thus when the float stuck, the water spilled out the handle hole before it reached the overflow tube. The toilet never even had a chance to run. I replaced the filler valve and flapper, and took a hacksaw blade and cut the overflow tube down to 1″ below the CL line on the filler valve, which, I discovered, is code. The toilet had been out of compliance. Then I had to make the second trip back to the hardware store, to buy a new handle, which is what broke to begin with – there were two problems at once – but I had so focused on the sticking float problem that I had forgotten about the broken handle. This is how noir plots are constructed.

Flannery’s Joy

A Bible salesman who is a non-believer, a confidence man, and a cad, outwits his most atheistic opponent in a twisted tryst game of leg up. The leg at risk is real, though symbolic of a self-image, the protuberance we can’t hide from others so we hide behind, that part of us we exaggerate in caricature fashion until it grows so large in our imagination it takes over our picture of ourselves completely. We are inseparable from our self-portrait, until the bible salesman comes along and steals it away, stripping us of our identity, that picture of ourselves probably no one else shares, anyway, or cares, in a flash of insight that does not blind but gives us vision, a gift, grace, what we need, not what we want, the lake in the distance green, the liturgical color of hope. And who better to present the gift from God than a Bible salesman? But it may not be the Bible we need, but no matter, for it’s not bibles he’s carrying in his case. The Bible salesman appears out of nowhere to resolve a theme of appearances.

We are deep in the heart of Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic story, an inversion of standard romantic ritual, “Good Country People.” Ironies pervade the atmosphere, taking the place of the usual Southern humidity. The intelligent but naïve Hulga (she’s changed her name from Joy to better suit her self-image) falls prey to the Bible salesman’s pitch, and figuratively loses the virginity of her self-image, that part of her that no one touches, rarely even herself. He takes it off and keeps it. He’s persuaded Hulga that he loves her, and slowly extracts a kind of commensurate affirmation of her love for him, then he throws down the trump card, and, in spite of all the foreshadowing, if we’re reading the story for the first time, we are just as shocked as she at his next request, for in the gender role switching going on in the good country hayloft, she must now “prove” her love, not by allowing him to take away her virginity (that becomes, in yet another twist, the figurative reading, exaggerated to cartoon dimensions), but allowing him to take off her leg, literally, and he gets the leg up.

Flannery encouraged us to read literally, and not to think of literature as a puzzle to solve. That’s because she’d already done the puzzle solving for us, bringing us Joy.

Related:

Flannery O’Connor and the Coen Brothers

Susan Sontag and a Valentine for Flannery O’Connor

Where Flannery O’Connor meets Julia Roberts on Late Night Talk Shows

Theodore Dreiser and Flannery O’Connor were Neuroscientists, too

All Stung Over By Links of Googled Grace

We are stung by it, in Flannery O’Connor’s world, where grace is a holy bee attracted to the colors of the soul’s peacock-like feathers, or we are brushed by a mere grace singing like a wind, stirring Wallace Stevens’s “gold-feathered bird” in “The palm at the end of the mind”; its “fire-fangled feathers dangle down,” and we become grace when we are satisfied to merely be. In any case, we can not know if grace will, like Portia’s mercy, “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,” or if grace, like Flannery’s wooden leg, will smack us between the eyes as we roll casually under a mellow blue wave.

So it seemed when we were close to rest last evening, checking our Gmail, and noticed, in the sidebar, links, to ads, whose words appeared pulled directly from our text. After a few clicks, we got to the bottom of this, for Google explains: “Ad targeting in Gmail is fully automated, and no humans read your email in order to target advertisements or related information.” As if we should be comforted by the fact that no humans read our email; it’s not the humans we are worried about, we thought, and thought again of Richard Brautigan’s (1967) “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.” We are living with the machines now, their grace as palpable as bees whose dance would show us the way to an immortal light, which is to say a mere mortal light, but which might be enough to light us a new path to an old palm.

How Literary Critics Think

Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why (2000), James Wood’s How Fiction Works (2008), Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (1980), which he proposed to subtitle “How to be a Good Reader,” are all books about how critics think. Oxford University Press has announced John Sutherland’s “How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts,” due out in March, 2011. We’ve put our order in, never tiring of the How books; in fact, we’re thinking of writing our own: How Literary Critics Think. Of course, slim chance, for as Laura Miller discusses in a Salon interview with Louis Bayard (“Who Killed the Literary Critic,” May 22, 2008), “at a certain point there’s nothing left to dismantle.” Bayard observes “So the only critics left to evaluate most contemporary fiction are journalists, ranging in seriousness from someone like Wood to your average newspaper freelancer who mostly delivers plot summary. There are no critical movements evident today.” Blogging certainly doesn’t count; in any case, Laura says, “I’m not really a reader of blogs.” Sure, and professional literary critics probably don’t watch television, either. Yet Barnard notes that he’s “learned things from Amazon reviews, from letters pages, from literary blogs, from all sorts of non-traditional outlets. The quality of writing is certainly variable, but then so is the quality of traditional journalism.”

Ah, but what about the How school of literary criticism? The how of something is the scientific part. Nabokov puts it this way: “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter…To the storyteller we turn for entertainment…to the teacher…for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts….” And to the enchanter we go “…to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.” This last part Nabokov calls “the intuition of science.” Can literature be taught as a science? Certainly it can, and it may be the only way to teach it. Northrop Frye, in his instructive and influential essay “The Archetypes of Literature,” said, “Art, like nature, is the subject of a systematic study, and has to be distinguished from the study itself, which is criticism. It is therefore impossible to ‘learn literature’: one learns about it in a certain way, but what one learns, transitively, is the criticism of literature. Similarly, the difficulty often felt in ‘teaching literature’ arises from the fact that it cannot be done: the criticism is all that can be directly taught.”

Yes, but that bit about nature: Nabokov says, “Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives…The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.” So the professional critic clues us in on which writers are the most deceitful?

The reader speaks, ignoring the sign “Silence in the Library,” and the amateur spirit in literary criticism is born. Why kill this amateur spirit? Because ( more agreement between Miller and Bayard) “talent is inequitably distributed in all art forms… great critics are even rarer than great novelists or poets, and I wonder if that’s because criticism itself is held in such low esteem…McDonald mentions that one of academia’s last havens for evaluative criticism has been the creative-writing class, and he suggests that universities should offer more in the way of ‘creative criticism’ classes, teaching the craft of interpreting other people’s works. All the same, I’m skeptical this would reverse the current state of affairs. People will only value literary criticism to the extent they value literature.”

Any true experience of reading literature is an experience that calls for a reflective response, and this response can be made without a conscious understanding of how figurative language and connotative meanings (and the often resulting ambiguity) inform how literature works. We might even argue that the less conscious one is of how these things work, the more primal the reading experience. Yet one can see the merging of the effects of literature on cultural, societal, and individual development (of course these effects might also be considered only a reflection of changes already occurring in culture, society, and the individual, changes that become, in turn, the subject of literature – note the latest effort to change Twain’s Huck Finn). In any case, literature as cultural value is key to the interest of adult readers, which is why if we want to read Langston Hughes in a book (since we can’t very well still read him in a newspaper), we will end up wanting to know something about the Harlem Renaissance.

Reading literature can be a perplexing experience. We want to understand the meaning of a story, poem, or play, and when we don’t “get it,” we feel disappointed. But the idea that a work of literature “means” something is part of the problem. Flannery O’Connor once put this problem this way: “…something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many students [readers], the story becomes simply a problem to be solved….” Rene Char put the problem this way: “No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions.” Yet, we can learn to ask the right questions of literature, questions that don’t scare the bird off, and we can through the discussion of these questions discover how literature works. That’s what the general interest reader wants after the reflective response, the discovery of how literature works, for that discovery enables more enjoyable reading and helps us better understand the influence of literature on culture, society, and the individual.

Where Flannery O’Connor meets Julia Roberts on Late Night Talk Shows

We watched some late night TV last night, after class and before getting back to work on a suspended sestina, flipping back and forth between the two format giants, Letterman and Leno. Polished Letterman is the APA stylist of the late night television talk show. His “Top 10” list, for example, is always delivered according to strict formatting rules. He doesn’t wait for the laugh, but interrupts himself after each number, announcing the next number, tossing each card away – it’s a throwaway joke. He could be reading from a menu announcing the evening specials at a swank restaurant. If Letterman is APA, Leno is MLA, and The Tonight Show proceeds with ethos borrowed from Johnny Carson, the original stylist. For both Letterman and Leno, strict formatting rules govern the fit of suits, the colors and knots of ties (the tie remains the essential costume piece, signifying a governing body) the buttoning and unbuttoning of jackets. They both must sit stage left, slightly elevated above their guest, protected by a faux desk, a prop, but note their desks are at opposite ends of the stage, a stylistic difference that conforms to the meaningless but self-sustaining differences between APA and MLA. Form and content merge into one smooth, purposeful style. Last night, both Letterman and Leno sported purple in their ties, surely an oblique reference to Flannery O’Connor’s use of color as an ecclesiastical prelude to sanctifying grace.

Letterman’s grace last night appeared in the form of Julia Roberts, introduced by Letterman with such gravity one expected the appearance of an angel, and in this the audience was not disappointed.

According to the Inland Register, in a review of Brad Gooch’s biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, Flannery appeared on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen, the original host, which would have put the appearance sometime in the mid-1950’s. We’ve not read the Gooch biography, but any reference to a TV sighting of Flannery on The Tonight Show should be rigorously pursued, cited, and referenced. We’ll see, but a few Google Books searches of other Flannery biographies found no references to Steve Allen or The Tonight Show. Who knows, maybe Flannery had her own TV talk show in a broadcast limited locally around Andalusia, live peacocks walking around the set instead of fake New York City night-lit backgrounds.

Meantime, it appears to be common knowledge that Conan O’Brien, briefly usurping Leno last year as MLA-Tonight Show host, wrote his Harvard thesis on Flannery O’Connor. According to the New York Times (para. 28), O’Brien’s thesis was on Flannery and Faulkner. We’re not sure if Flannery’s appearance on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen is an arcane piece of trivia or if it too, like O’Brien’s Harvard thesis, is common knowledge. In any case, it seems an irony that Flannery would appreciate, her admirer O’Brien hosting the same show on which she appeared, only to be yanked. O’Brien failed to secure the revision of The Tonight Show manual of style because of the cumulative effect of wearing the wrong tie each night.

Last night we took a look at “Good Country People,” later, watching TV, imagining Flannery chatting and laughing about her characters with Letterman (no idea at the time she actually had been on a talk show back in the 50’s), as Julia Roberts was doing, laughing for the audience, maintaining the stylistically approved appropriate authorial distance. Yet Julia commented, referring to the audience, “they want to be part of the experience,” and illustrated by gracefully acknowledging one like-minded woman in the audience who had commented on her running routine. But who wants to be part of a Flannery O’Connor experience? Maybe that’s why O’Brien failed. We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Ah, Flannery; ah, humanity!

Theodore Dreiser and Flannery O’Connor were Neuroscientists, too

Over at The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer has posted his Wall Street Journal article in which he takes the pow out of will power, arguing the busy brain is to blame for human frailties. It’s a classic defense of the human condition (Dreiser used it in An American Tragedy), and a blow to the motivational-speaker market.

The reduction of will power also suggests the neuroscientists may be close to removing the free from free will. No wonder a good man is hard to find. There might be some will left, but not enough to satisfy being saved as a one-shot deal. Flannery O’Connor explains in her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find”: The Misfit, having provided the grandmother with her final jolt of grace, says, “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” This is Flannery’s depiction of the Catholic view of will and grace, and it explains the Catholic necessity of being saved every moment of one’s life, of the necessity of being reborn daily, not just once, for one could live, in the Catholic tradition, a good life for 80 years, but a single hanging curve ball that goes against the signs and you’re yanked and sent down the tunnel, for in Catholicism, as in baseball, it’s not about what you did for me yesterday; it’s what you can do for me today that counts.

Motivation depends on the quote, a bite of sugar; motivation is entertainment – motivetainment, ads directed at the brittle brain. Quotes are empty calories. If losing weight is a resolution for 2010, skip the motivation; instead, read Theodore Dreiser, go for long walks, and eat bananas. Bananas are funny and literary – you’ll need both after reading Dreiser.