Faulkner & Flannery Notes – Week 1
Spring 2014 Books & Film Class
Topic – Faulkner & Flannery: Exploring the Southern Gothic
Held Wednesdays through February 19 at UL Lafayette
Instructor: Dr. Mary Ann Wilson
Notes will be updated each Friday through February 21; comment to join in the discussion.
I arrived to a full classroom on Wednesday, and English professor Mary Ann Wilson began with an introduction to the Southern Gothic and the parallels between Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. Both Southern Gothic writers working in the 1950s and early 1960s, they certainly used similar techniques in storytelling and were inspired by their surroundings, while at the same time turning out very different work. It’s easy to say that Faulkner is the more famous of the two, but O’Connor’s Library of America volume of collected works outsold Faulkner’s.
Southern Gothic – a style of writing practiced by many writers of the American South whose stories set in that region are characterized by grotesque, macabre, or fantastic incidents.
Although living two states away in central Georgia, while Faulkner was in Oxford, Mississippi, O’Connor was aware of him, as he was a giant in American literature when she was just getting started. Her best known quote about him is “I keep clear of Faulkner so my own little boat won’t get swamped,” but she also made reference to Southern writers like herself being haunted by him. It didn’t take O’Connor long to develop her own voice though. The year he was awarded the Nobel Prize (1949), she was 24 years old and finishing her stint at Iowa Writers Workshop. She would publish her first novel, Wise Blood, three years later and go on to write a plethora of short stories that are still extremely popular today and no doubt Southern Gothic.
The assignment for this first class was to read three of those stories: “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “Parker’s Back” and “Judgement Day.” Readers familiar with her work may remember the character of Tom T. Shiftlet in “Life You Save.” He’s typical for her, with a name that his telling of his character, a physical deformity and despicable actions. The story was written as a companion to her most famous “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” According to Dr. Wilson, Tom T. Shiftlet represents passive evil while The Misfit represents active evil. “Life You Save” is O’Connor’s only story with a comic tone at the end, evident in lines like “She was ravenous for a son-in-law,” referring to the mother. Re-reading it this time, I got a different view of the characters. I realized that the mother is just as cunning and hypocritical as Tom, basically selling off her only daughter. We also discussed the story’s Gothic touches, from Tom’s half an arm to Lucynell’s own grotesque qualities.
As for the title – something O’Connor writes so well – it’s taken from a highway sign that was popular during that time and meant to promote safe driving.
If you haven’t read “Parker’s Back,” it’s like a modern-day version of A&E’s reality show “Bad Ink.” Main character O.E. Parker is addicted to tattoos and only has one spot left to fill on his back. After wrecking a tractor and seeing a vision in a burning bush while on the job one day, he has an epiphany and chooses his final tattoo – a religious image that he is sure will please his devout wife. One of O’Connor’s few portraits of a marriage, this story is about so many things: a man looking for meaning, obsession, desire, saving another person and how we treat our bodies.
According to Dr. Wilson, O’Connor read the 1958 book “Memoirs of a Tattooist” while writing this story and was fascinated by London’s “King of Tattooist” and his designs. This should come as no surprise, since O’Connor was obviously interested in the physical body, which she presents in so many forms in her stories.
“Judgment Day” is the final story in Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories and one she worked on during her entire career. Its original version is as “The Geranium” (the first story in the book), and it’s said that O’Connor finished it as “Judgement Day” on her deathbed. Her only story not set in the South, it is about an elderly man from Alabama living in New York City with his daughter who desperately wants to return home to die. O’Connor had her own mortality on her mind and, in 1964, was also witnessing the height of the Civil Rights Movement. She pits black against white, North against South and young against old in this story, which took on different meanings to several members of the class. As with most of O’Connor’s work, it’s a story to read over and over again.
Praying to Be a Fine Writer, a review of O’Connor’s Prayer Journal