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Entries in flannery o'connor (6)


In Which John Huston Rewrites Flannery O'Connor



Wise Blood
dir. John Huston
108 minutes

John Huston’s Wise Blood is a film without a memory. Early on, its protagonist, Hazel Motes — played like a lit matchstick by Brad Dourif — declares, “I’m going to the city, to Taulkinham. I don’t know nobody in Taulkinham.…I’m gonna do some things I ain’t never done before.” This line is one of the few accurate predictions in a story chock full of sham prophets, disappointments, and deceptions: once in the city, Motes will do an awful lot that he’s never done before. He will preach a new, nihilistic faith ("The Church of Truth without Christ Crucified"), be seduced by a preacher’s teenage daughter, kill a man, blind himself with lime, die. But the line might also serve a tag for the film itself, which operates in a shocked present tense, treating everything that happens as an event with neither precedent nor consequence. The individuals of Wise Blood are apparitions that speak to each other with intensity, even conviction, but little sense of history or motivation — as though everything they said were a non-sequitur.

Taulkinham is a purgatorial freak show, a livid surface upon which characters swirl and react, but do not interact. There is a sense of history that flecks around its edges, but the prevailing impression is that Taulkinham is a place where everyone flares into being and diminishes without leaving a mark. Even Motes’s death comes lightly, falling with barely a shiver at the end of the film.

This is in stark contrast to Flannery O’Connor’s novel, a grotesque, comic allegory that has its protagonist play Catholic saint to an audience of Southern Protestants. Satiric and wicked as the book can be, its primary impulse is to show the forces pushing Hazel Motes ineluctably toward devotion, no matter how stridently he renounces his belief. O’Connor famously describes Jesus moving “from tree to tree in the back of [Hazel’s] mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark….” The association of faith and darkness here clearly prefigures Motes’s self-blinding, but more important are the correspondences this image draws between interiority, history, belief and space. Jesus resides inside Hazel, but also behind him; to give himself to faith is to turn around and step backward — into himself, his past, the faith that abides within him, however furiously he disowns it.

Huston’s film makes no attempt to evoke Motes’ interiority. The chief difference between the book and the movie is the obvious one: the novel deals in depth, the film with surfaces. Huston takes this basic difference and applies pressure to it, forcing his adaptation into a subtle but thorough-going subversion of its source material, and bringing it in line with the lost-man movies of 1970s existential American cinema: Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Taxi Driver, etc. Wise Blood is a novel that asks us to plunge inside and back in order to find meaning, but it is a film that wants us to glide along its surface and discover that nothing lies inside.

This distinction is easy to miss, since the events depicted in the movie scarcely diverge from those in the book. In the essay accompanying the Criterion release of Wise Blood, Francine Prose sounds what has become the common note about the film: "In spite of himself, he had made a film about a Christian in spite of himself, groping his way toward redemption." As an avowed (one might say cranky) atheist, Huston was not the obvious interpreter of O’Connor’s novel. He signed on to the project only after producer Michael Fitzgerald (a devout Catholic and the son of O’Connor’s literary executor, the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald) had raised all the money to fund it. Huston then proceeded to shoot the movie with a kind of sour-pussed blindness to the source material, apparently under the impression that he was filming a cross between Don Quixote and Green Acres. In Huston’s vision, the troubled young man at the center of the story is the victim throughout of derangement, a madness planted in him by his holy fanatic grandfather (portrayed, almost too suggestively, by Huston himself). And this plays out as a zany satire of the zealous South, in which Motes renounces Jesus to preach the Church of Truth without Christ Crucified, but relents in the final act, committing acts of self-mutilation in the name of asceticism, and passing, one guesses, at last into unclouded oblivion.

Huston had envisioned these sequences as the film’s last belch in the face of religion, an acrid joke exposing the absurdity of belief. In his view, by the end of the film, Motes’s mental disease has finally aligned itself with the notion that humanity’s debt of sin must be settled in self-sacrifice. He dies not so much a saint as a sucker. But the punchline, as Prose notes, is that these scenes refuse to unfold this way. No matter how tawdry, there is a dignity, a resolve, to Motes’s death, and here even Huston ends up a convert: "According to Huston biographer Lawrence Grobel, a hasty script conference about Hazel’s fate persuaded Huston that at 'the end of the film, Jesus wins.'"

What the above story really underlines is how unusually faithful the film is to the novel’s broad story and many particulars. This probably has something to do with its origin as a sort of Fitzgerald family project: after securing the rights to the book from his father, Michael Fitzgerald hired his brother, Benedict, to write the script. Their mother, Sally, handled set and costume design. The Fitzgeralds had known O’Connor personally (Sally Fitzgerald was in the middle of writing O’Connor’s biography when Flannery died), and conceived the film out of respect for her work. Perhaps as a consequence of their fidelity, the chronology of the movie matches that of the novel almost exactly, and virtually all of its dialogue is a word-for-word transplant grafted directly from the page to the screen. Poetic license seems never to have occurred to the Fitzgerald brothers. The differences in plot and talk amount to a few demure compressions.

But the script’s exceptional devotion to its source material is the wrong yardstick by which to measure Wise Blood. Although the story of Huston’s begrudging "conversion" draws a neat ironic squiggle for the film’s footnotes, it underplays the degree to which he carries O’Connor’s plot to a very different existential conclusion. Jesus may “win,” but only in Hazel Motes’s mind, and Huston is committed never to let us in there.

Take, for example, a scene near the very beginning of the film, in which Motes stumbles through a dilapidated farmhouse before heading off to Taulkinham. The house is more than just a shambles: it’s post-apocalyptic, a welt on the landscape. Its walls are singed, soaked, splintered, spooked. Its décor makes a monument to disrepair. What happened here? The film gives no indication; nor does it go out of its way to relate Hazel to this building by way of any expository detail. This is the closest that the film will come to giving Hazel a home, and, even here, it seems perversely bent on denying him a biographical connection with it.

Hazel stumbles around, still wearing his army uniform (another biographical tease, since the war he’s returned from will never be named) and finally scribbles a note on a piece of furniture: “This shiffer robe belongs to Hazel Motes. Do not steal it or you will be hunted down AND KILLED.” Then he visits his grandfather’s tombstone, which sits crumbling out back. These are the only threads to tie this place to Hazel’s previous life — it’s no coincidence that both allude to death. Wise Blood is a film that wants to disavow its characters’ history, severing it like a diseased limb.

Contrast this to the same sequence in the book. O’Connor packs a short story’s worth of background detail into a few sentences: “There was nothing left in the house but the chifforobe in the kitchen. His mother had always slept in the kitchen and had her walnut chifforobe in there. She had given thirty dollars for it and hadn’t bought herself anything else big again.” O’Connor dives from backstory directly into Motes’s psyche, and through that into still deeper background: “He thought about the chifforobe in his half-sleep and decided his mother would rest easier in her grave, knowing it was guarded. If she came looking any time at night, she would see. He wondered if she walked at night and came there ever. She would come with that look in her face, unrested and looking, the same look he had seen through the crack of her coffin.”

When O’Connor handles this scene, only the thinnest membrane separates Hazel’s experience of his environment from contemplation and memory. In this respect, O’Connor’s Hazel has a properly Modernist mind. The Modernist consciousness always inhabits at least two places at once; sensation, thought, and memory are separate-but-inseparable facets of a single subjective experience. Its present is a pliant surface always giving to memory, while its external world holds the keys to its subjective interior, and vice-versa.

For O’Connor, this is more than a stylistic choice. Along with its close cousin, metaphor, she envisions the Modernist consciousness as fiction’s way of grappling with the problem of faith. And O’Connor’s faith is persistently troubled. Like Kierkegaard, Flannery O’Connor saw the believer’s mind as a site bedeviled by struggle, beset by civil war. In faith, the reasoning mind struggles, paradoxically, to ascertain that which is essentially mysterious, irrational. The devout writer’s job is to portray this struggle experientially.

O’Connor’s stylistic manifesto "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction" declares, "if the writer believes that our life is and will remain mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself... The meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted." A novelist interested in the mysterious (which, for O’Connor, always means the divine) must therefore write with a peculiar double-vision, seeing depth in every shallow thing.

The surface of this fiction will look strange, even grotesque, full of pocks, growths, and lapses. Once pressed, however, it will plunge the reader full-tilt into the mysterious, the lunatic divine. This type of novelist is "looking for one image that will connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete, and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye, but believed in by him firmly, just as real to him, really, as the one that everybody sees."

In a way, the novel Wise Blood dramatizes the gradual convergence of these two points in the character of Hazel Motes. Motes' attempt to reject religion realizes itself as a zealous commitment to immediacy, to common sense. “I’m a member and a preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way,” he declares to an audience of disbelieving believers. “No truth behind all truths is what I and this church preach!” Motes, ironically, is at his maddest when he preaches common sense.

In O’Connor’s spiritual model, any point of view that stops at what’s in front of it will apprehend only a distortion of the truth. To be down-to-earth is to go only halfway; the spiritual (and literary) perspective seeks the infinite through the immediate. This is a solitary, subjective conception of Christianity — to an outside observer, a person haunted by faith will look insane. Hazel Motes achieves authentic insight only after blinding himself, an act that estranges his few companions. "If there’s no bottom to your eyes," he tells his landlady just before death summons him, "you see more." Imagine a Don Quixote whose windmills are also real giants.

How does this spiritual ethos translate to the screen? It doesn’t. Not in Huston’s adaptation, at least. In Wise Blood, Huston takes every opportunity to suppress the novel’s manifestations of depth — history, interiority, spirituality. Taulkinham becomes a kind of amnesiac limbo for Hazel Motes and the other characters to float through, instead of the crucible of belief that it is in the book. This creates as an odd flattening effect, perhaps best seen in two of Huston’s more flamboyant stylistic decisions in the film.

Huston self-consciously blurs the period setting, retaining elements of O’Connor’s early 1950s, but confusing them with contemporary signifiers. He dresses the players in period garb, lets them speak in O’Connor’s voice (language so antiquated and stylized it’s bronzed), arranges a few key scenes around a mid-century movie premiere, and even rushes Motes into Taulkinham on a steam locomotive. But he makes no attempt to disguise the location shots of late-1970s Macon, GA, lets incidental characters (many of them local non-actors) wear contemporary clothing, and drives them all around in 60s- and 70s-era cars.

This lapse has a financial explanation: Fitzgerald simply could not raise enough money to set the whole film in the 50s. And the steam engine, according to Brad Dourif, was contracted at deep discount, and used in the film as a matter of convenience. But I think it is reasonable to guess that Huston reveled in the historic schizophrenia these compromises attain. By muddying its temporality, Huston severs the movie from a larger sense of historical context. Motes’s uniform, for example, pretty clearly denotes the Korean War in O’Connor’s novel, but Huston’s film transforms it into a question mark. Has Motes returned from Vietnam, Korea, Europe, or somewhere else?

The fuzzy periodization raises questions about the motivations and convictions of all the story’s characters. Both the novel and the film have a tendency to veer uncomfortably close to delighting in their portrayal of idiots run amok, but O’Connor’s book at least grounds them in a definite historical moment. The grifter tactics relied on by many of the characters, not to mention the stew of prophecy and belief in which Taulkinham seems mired, make one kind of sense if we imagine the film’s main characters were born at the height of the Depression. The characters seem odder, more singular and freakish, if we imagine that the film takes place in the late-70s, and that its characters grew up in the relatively more affluent 50s. (This does not even touch on the subject of race, which the film itself only glancingly notices, but whose Southern context is of course very different in 1950 than in 1979.)

Hazel’s relationship with Sabbath Lily Hawks is a good example of the strangeness the film’s undecided setting imposes on its characters. Sabbath Lily — wonderfully portrayed by Amy Wright as a kind of squirming, engorged naïf — is the teenage daughter of Asa Hawks, the sham preacher that Motes makes his first nemesis in Taulkinham. Sabbath Lily’s innocence never really comes into question. She makes it clear right away that she has designs on Hazel’s pants.

In a telling scene that marks the midpoint of the film, Sabbath Lily persuades Hazel to drive her into the woods, where she presumably intends to have her way with him. In the car, she delivers a long monologue that amounts to a calculated confession of her perversity. Wright plays this scene feisty and syrupy, leaving no doubt that she means the speech to be part of her seduction routine:

Do you read the papers? Well, there’s this woman in it named Mary Riddle that tells you what to do when you don’t know. I wrote her a letter and asked her what I was to do. I said, ‘Dear Mary, I am a bastard, and a bastard shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven, as we all know. But I have this personality that makes boys follow me. Do you think I should neck or not?...' Then she answered my letter in the paper. She said, ‘Dear Sabbath, Light necking is acceptable. But I think your real problem is one of adjustment to the modern world. Perhaps you ought to re-examine your religious values to see if they meet your needs in life….’ Then I wrote another letter. I said, 'Dear Mary, What I really want to know is: Should I go the whole hog or not? That’s my real problem. I’m adjusted OK to the modern world.'

OK, but what constitutes the modern world for Sabbath Lily? Depending on which of the film’s period clues we choose to follow, she was either born between the wars or just before the Summer of Love. To be the bastard child of a preacher, to write the local paper with questions about the ethics of going “whole hog,” and to seduce a grown man — the level of scandal these transgressions imply depends on their degree of perceived sinfulness, and this is, in large part, a factor of historical circumstance. Huston’s decision to deprive these characters of historical context undercuts the story’s religious subtext. O’Connor is too lively a writer to let her characters sit on the page as pure allegorical symbols, but each of them certainly represents something: saint, sinner, temptress, innocent, lost soul. Released from their historical footholds, they have a harder time fitting snugly into these categories.

It is not that Huston portrays these characters as more plainly human, exactly. In fact, the contextual decoupling has the opposite effect, flattening the characters, making them seem sketchier, more conditional. There are times in which the movie seems like little more (or less) than a parade of freaks, and one has a difficult time imagining these people living lives outside the credits.

But this is part of the point: to ratchet up the ambiguity until the people onscreen appear phantasmic, unreal, unsettled. It is almost as though Huston, sensing the spiritual conceit of the novel and the script, retaliates, not by swinging the other way and producing a work of didactic realism, but instead by merely refusing to put his foot down. This would help explain the film’s smallest pleasure, its soundtrack, which alternates between a ponderous instrumental version of “The Tennessee Waltz” and zippy, zany original intrusions that seem designed to replace a laugh track. Even at its sweetest, the film’s score sidles in with remarkable self-consciousness (it is too loud, too sappy), never failing to draw attention to itself as a film score. The effect, once again, is to heighten contextual ambiguity. Are these real people? If so, why the swelling strings? Even if we take this to be an artificial story — what kind of story is it? Is it a philosophical film, a melodrama, or a boggy comedy? The soundtrack refuses to settle, always charging in and tossing its characters back into the air.

Even Wise Blood’s sole gesture to a definite past — its use of flashbacks — feels yanked from its grounding context. The flashbacks, which are candy-pink, as though seen through the eyelids, occur three or four times over the course of the film. Each time, they feel as startling and unprovoked as images from a dream. O’Connor uses her flashbacks both to provide basic exposition and to build Hazel’s interior, showing the continuity between his experience, thought, and memory. We learn about the tyranny of Hazel’s grandfather, the trauma of his mother’s death, the persistence of sexual temptation inside him, the shame and punishment he has endured as a result of sexual exploration. Though Huston’s images depict nearly all of this backstory, they do so in a manner somehow both abrupt and unexplanatory. They are shot at extreme angles through the pink glaze, and Huston muffles the audio, making it gauzy, dreamlike, inconclusive.

Like the score, the flashback sequences do more to disrupt the feeling of unity or wholeness than they do to create it. At best, they seem like shards of memory, which point to some past while at the same time illustrating its inaccessibility. There is something cynically comical about the fact that Huston casts himself as Hazel’s grandfather. He stands at the center of these memories, his finger outstretched in a scold, barring entry.

One of the odd repercussions of the film’s ambiguity is to draw attention to a theme that the novel’s religious preoccupation tends to overshadow: if identity is uncertain, then it is up for grabs. The novel wants to suggest the opposite. Hazel may try to deny Jesus, but he cannot shake the wild, ragged figure in the back of his mind. “Some preacher left his mark on you,” one character tells him, and this mark goes deep — Hazel’s fervent protestations lead him only to become what he already is.

Huston’s adaptation rejects this fatalism. Unrooted, contingent, these characters exist in a charged present that allows them to refashion themselves moment-by-moment. The novel drives Hazel toward a predestined end. The film, by contrast, stresses Hazel’s chameleon quality, allowing him to slide without much comment from guise to guise. Now he is a soldier, now he is a preacher-hater, now he’s preaching, now he’s a murderer, now an ascetic. Because the film does not concern itself with depth, none of these personas carries more weight than the others. If “Jesus wins” at the end of the film, this salvation does not feel like the culmination of a journey, but instead another of Hazel’s outfits. O’Connor’s Hazel Motes spends the novel orbiting a denied but central devotion; Huston’s Hazel spends the film adrift, and ends it lost.

Viewed in this light, Wise Blood looks less like religious allegory and more like an exploration of fluid, indeterminate identity. Asa Hawks enters the film a blind preacher, leaves it a sighted charlatan. A mummy from a museum finds itself christened the new Jesus, then adopted as Hazel and Sabbath Lily’s impromptu child.

We first see Ned Beatty — at his smarmy best as the singing, dancing, bonafide hustler Hoover Shoates — heaped at the edge of the frame like a rag soaked in gasoline. After watching Hazel preach and seeing dollar signs, Shoates quickly assumes the identity of a devotee, then just as quickly hardens into Motes’s arch-nemesis. After Hazel rebuffs his invitation to team up and shuck the townsfolk, Shoates finds a local drunk and refashions him — by way of a speedy costume change — into a prophet. And so on: these characters are always in flux, shedding their skins and adopting new identities as opportunity suits them. When they do betray a conviction, it seems impulsive and improvised. Sabbath Lily decides she is ready to run off with Hazel literally on sight: “I’m just crazy about him. I never seen a boy I like the looks of any better.” Watch the way she fusses in front of Motes, as though his very presence made her skin giggle. Huston is at no pains to motivate Sabbath Lily’s infatuation, to explain why she finds herself so suddenly besotted, to let this part of the performance be anything more than one-note. Motivations do not apply in Taulkinham. Awry and unmoored, these characters live in states of emotional non-sequitur.

No character inhabits his fluid identity better than Enoch Emery, an eighteen-year-old wanderer and mental child with a fascination for monkeys, mummies, and Hazel Motes. Enoch latches on to Hazel early in the film, and trails him with a canine loyalty, despite persistent slapping-down from his would-be friend. It is Enoch who introduces Hazel to the shrunken mummy on display in Taulkinham’s sleepy museum, then steals it in a misguided attempt to bring Motes the new Jesus he’s been preaching about (“all man, without blood to waste”). Enoch also witnesses Hazel’s introduction to Asa Hawks and Sabbath Lily, and helps him track down where they live. But something strange happens two-thirds into the film. Enoch — up to now a sad, ardent follower — gets waylaid, his plotline branching from Hazel’s in distraction. What diverts his attention? A gorilla named Gonga — in truth, a man in a monkey suit, traveling from theater to theater to promote the latest matinee movie.

This plot thread is entirely independent of Hazel’s, and never reconnects. True, Enoch is still a hanger-on, but the object of his devotion has changed. After noticing a line of kids waiting outside a theater in runny-nosed anticipation, Enoch spies the gorilla, gets in line, tamely shakes his hand — then gets back into line and does it again, ultimately following the promotional van to four separate movie houses. By the final handshake, Gonga gets fed up and tells Enoch to go to Hell. Instead, the boy waits until nightfall, creeps onto the Gonga-mobile, bludgeons the performer, and gets into his suit. Enoch’s final scenes are spent as a gorilla on the loose, terrorizing the inhabitants of Taulkinham.

Silly as it is, Enoch’s story is worth deeper consideration. O’Connor makes Enoch something of a counterpart to Hazel, devoting a number of chapters to his point of view and investing him with the story’s eponymous power, “wise blood” (impulses behind which the boy sees a divine hand). Huston’s Enoch is both shallower and trickier. Because very little of the film takes Enoch’s point of view, he initially appears to be a tag-along minor character, no more central than Hoover Shoates, and certainly not as important as Asa Hawks or Sabbath Lily. Which is what makes the Gonga storyline so perplexing. Why would Huston suddenly give a minor character such a goofy subplot, this frivolous intercession into the main story’s climactic scenes? And — even odder — why, after Enoch has stolen the costume, does the film promptly and utterly forget about him? What might be mistaken for sloppy storytelling is actually Huston’s second major stylistic assault on O’Connor’s spiritual message.

Like Hazel, Enoch has drifted in from out of town, an alien among outcasts. “My daddy made me come,” he complains. “I ain’t but eighteen years old and he made me come and I don’t know nobody and nobody here will have nothin’ to do with me. They ain’t friendly.” This is another effect of the characters’ haphazard rootlessness, and what remains of O’Connor’s story when belief is stripped away — an abiding, unbridgeable loneliness. The word ‘friend’ sits in Enoch’s mouth like a sore. “People ain’t friendly here. You ain’t from here, but you ain’t friendly, neither! And you don’t know nobody, neither! I knew when I first seen you that you didn’t have nobody or nothing but Jesus!” Friendship, as a matter of fact, is an ulterior theme in both the book and the movie. It balances precariously alongside faith, a second and sometimes opposed yearning. The word suffers abuse from Hoover Shoates when he tries to jump on Hazel’s preaching: “Listen to me, friends. Before I met this prophet, here, I didn’t have a friend in this world. Do any of you know what it means not to have a friend in the world?” It makes sense that friendship would be the bait in Shoate’s lie, the word he uses to coax listeners into his fellowship, and so ensure his prophet’s profit.

In O’Connor’s vision, friendship represents a temptation that threatens to lure a person away from proper faith. This faith, after all, is a struggle carried out in solitude by the person who has “nobody or nothing but Jesus.” The authentic believer plunges away from external things toward a solitary, internal contemplation of mystery. Everything around him points back to himself, and, by way of himself, to God. Notice that Hazel’s attempts to reject faith take the form of public acts of communication (i.e., preaching), while his devotion at the end is such a lone experience that, in blinding himself, he shuts the visible world out completely. Friendship is the watchword of sham faith in Taulkinham. Social desires are diversions from belief’s stringent path.

What happens, then, when salvation is also taken off the table? Huston is left with a portrait of loneliness and isolation scaled up to encompass an entire town. This film is haunted by the friendless. No one connects. Hazel’s few moments of warmth occur in the arms Ms. Leora Watts — American cinema’s dullest, fattest prostitute — whose address he gets from a bathroom wall advertising “the FRIENLIEST bed in town.” Apart from this, there is hardly a smile shared between two characters in the entire film. Hazel and Sabbath Lily do commit some act of sex, but no affection seems to follow, at least on Hazel’s part. Sabbath Lily and her father represent the story’s sole kin relationship, but their bond, too, is one of opportunity and accident rather than loyalty or love; Asa curtly rids himself of his daughter as soon as Hazel comes into the picture. And, though Hazel’s landlady proposes marriage to him near the film’s end, she does so in a naked spasm of despair: “I got a place for you in my heart, Mr. Motes. I don’t want anything but to help you, and if we don’t help each other, there’s nobody to help us. Nobody. The world’s a empty place, Mr. Motes!” Hazel responds with what must be the ultimate rejection. He runs away without a word, collapses, dies.

O’Connor’s novel opposes companionship and faith, seeing salvation in the latter and diversion — even fraud — in the former. Huston’s film finds little hope in religion, but no greater hope in friendship. Belief on O’Connor’s terms is never really an option since these characters have no interior — at least none that Huston lets us see. But friendship is equally untenable.

Huston wants us to look at Hazel and Sabbath Lily as two dead ends, each representing an aborted attempt at escape from loneliness. Hazel tries faith, and seems committed enough. However, if Jesus does win, what are the terms of the victory? Hazel forsakes company, speech, sight, and eventually life. In O’Connor’s arid landscape, this gives him a proper religious orientation. But in a world where only surfaces matter, there is little to suggest that Hazel has not given up everything. Take a look at Hazel’s face after his blinding, when he is able at last to look inside himself without distraction. Here is what the interior looks like in Huston’s world of surfaces: a blank screen. It is no accident that the first shot of Hazel after his collapse is a fake-out meant to make us believe he is dead. Turned toward a vacant interior, there’s little difference between death and life.

But Sabbath Lily fares no better. Huston and Wright transform the character from something of a hussy to a lively, lonely, libidinous young woman aching to connect. Undeniably, the character is both wild and vulgar, but Wright plays her with a sadness, too. She does seem genuinely to want to be with Hazel, and virtually all her screen time is spent trying to reach out to him, getting nothing in return. And her devastation when she discovers Hazel’s self-mutilation is visceral, horrifying. This is not merely someone who has stumbled into a scene of grotesque violence. It is also a person who has had her fantasy of companionship graphically exposed as a lie. In Huston’s Taulkinham, both faith and friendship are false prophecies. The characters are trapped in isolation: they cannot turn inward, and they cannot turn to each other.

Enoch Emery overcomes this apparent dilemma by turning into something else. Whereas he spends the majority of the film, like Sabbath Lily, desperately trying to connect with Hazel, his last scenes reel out in radical isolation. As a movie monster come to life, he is in a sense the ridiculous opposite of a preacher. A street preacher seeks to draw people toward him; Enoch’s final montage follows the gorilla as he frightens people away. In his last shot, he sits on a park bench alone, staring expressionlessly ahead as the camera zooms in.

There is a critical distinction to be drawn between Hazel’s blank face after the blinding and Enoch’s gorilla mask, though both lack expression. Hazel diminishes himself as the end of his story closes in: he sacrifices his vision, digs into his flesh with barbed wire, stops eating, and, of course, eventually gives up even the ghost. By gouging into the surface of his character, Hazel exposes the void within. By contrast, Enoch’s transformation is one of addition, or translation: he slides over to a new identity. Enoch has always been one for dress-up; before heading to the museum to steal the mummy, he spends several minutes in front of the mirror, arranging the goofy wig and mustache that make up his “disguise.” By the end of the film, he has fully embraced his predilection for shifting identity. The final shot of Enoch/Gonga’s unreadable face shows a character who has accepted his nature as a creature of surfaces.

It is possible that Enoch is Huston’s central character — a grim cartoon meant to illustrate the thinness and absurdity of Taulkinham. One imagines him staying in the costume for a while, trading it in when another becomes available — all the while alone, all the while adrift. Enoch Emery represents cynical conclusion that Huston’s reading of Wise Blood eventually comes to. Conviction is a dead end: the pursuits of faith and companionship both lead to desolation. The only alternative is to give oneself to the current, drifting alone and anonymous. By embracing flatness, fluidity and the rejection of context, Enoch illustrates, not the way out of Taulkinham, but the correct way to stay inside.

Spencer T. Campbell is a contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

"One Way" - Rose Cousins (mp3)

"Go First" - Rose Cousins (mp3)

The new album from Rose Cousins is called We Have Made A Spark.


In Which We Hang On Flannery O'Connor In Blind Trust

This is the final part of a three-part series.

The Newspaperman and the Housewife

I really have respect for Freud when he isn't made into a philosopher.

The last letters of Flannery O'Connor are no more filled with evidence of her faith than usual. Although she was dying and profoundly sick during these years - and she did on occasion write about just how long she was bedridden as a result of complications from lupus - she sought no special solace from God or her spiritual advisors. She was one of the most well-known writers in the country in her lifetime, but she never thought of herself as some kind of prophetic individual who deserved any more pity than the next person. In her writings to her best friend Betty Hester and one of her favorite correspondents, Maryat Lee, the pain she endures seeps through like light against stained glass.


To Alfred Corn

I think that this experience you are having of losing your faith, or as you think, of having lost it, is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith; or at least it can belong to faith if faith is still valuable to you, and it must be or you would not have written me about this.

I don’t know how the kind of faith required of a Christian living in the 20th century can be at all if it is not grounded on this experience that you are having right now of unbelief. This may be the case always and not just in the 20th century. Peter said, "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief." It is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.

As a freshman in college you are bombarded with new ideas, or rather pieces of ideas, new frames or reference, an activation of the intellectual life which is only beginning, but which is already running ahead of your lived experience. After a year of this, you think you cannot believe. You are just beginning to realize how difficult it is to have faith and the measure of a commitment to it, but you are too young to decide you don’t have faith just because you feel you can’t believe. About the only way we know whether we believe or not is by what we do, and I think from your letter that you will not take the path of least resistance in this matter and simply decide that you have lost your faith and that there is nothing you can do about it.

One result of the stimulation of your intellectual life that takes place in college is usually a shrinking of the imaginative life. This sounds like a paradox, but I have often found it to be true. Students get so bound up with difficulties such as reconciling the clashing of so many different faiths such as Buddhism, Mohammedanism, etc., that they cease to look for God in other ways. Bridges once wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins and asked him to tell him how he, Bridges, could believe. He must have expected from Hopkins a long philosophical answer. Hopkins wrote back, "Give alms." He was trying to say to Bridges that God is to be experienced in Charity (in the sense of love for the divine image in human beings). Don’t get so entangled with intellectual difficulties that you fail to look for God in this way.

The intellectual difficulties have to be met, however, and you will be meeting them for the rest of your life. When you get a reasonable hold on one, another will come to take its place. At one time, the clash of the different world religions was a difficulty for me. Where you have absolute solutions, however, you have no need of faith. Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge. The reason this clash doesn’t bother me any longer is because I have got, over the years, a sense of the immense sweep of creation, of the evolutionary process in everything, of how incomprehensible God must necessarily be to be the God of heaven and earth. You can’t fit the Almighty into your intellectual categories.

I might suggest that you look into some of the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man et al.). He was a paleontologist - helped to discover Peking man - and also a man of God. I don’t suggest that you go to him for answers but for different questions, for that stretching of the imagination that you need to make you a sceptic in the face of much that you are learning, much of which is new and shocking but which when boiled down becomes less so and takes place in the general scheme of things. What kept me a sceptic in college was precisely my Christian faith. It always said: wait, don’t bite on this, get a wider picture, continue to read.

If you want your faith, you have to work for it. It is a gift, but for very few is it a gift given without any demand for equal time devoted to its cultivation. For every book you read that is anti-Christian, make it your business to read one that presents the other side of the picture; if one isn’t satisfactory read others. Don’t think that you have to abandon reason to be a Christian.

A book that might help you is The Unity of Philosophical Experience by Etienne Gilson. Another is Newman’s The Grammar of Assent. To find out about faith, you have to go to the people who have it and you have to go to the most intelligent ones if you are going to stand up intellectually to agnostics and the general run of pagans that you are going to find in the majority of people around you. Much of the criticism of belief that you find today comes from people who are judging it from the standpoint of another and narrower discipline. The Biblical criticism of the 19th century, for instance, was the product of historical disciplines. It has been entirely revamped in the 20th century by applying broader criteria it, and those people who lost their faith in the 19th century because of it, could better have hung on in blind trust.

Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It's there, even when he can't see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there. You realize, I think, that it is more valuable, more mysterious, altogether more immense than anything you can learn or decide upon in college. Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian scepticsm. It will keep you free - not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you.

I don't know if this is the kind of answer that can help you, but any time you care to write me, I can try to do better.



To Maryat Lee

We will be plumb charmed to put you up but as soon as we do your kinfolks will come out here & storm the fort to get you away as they are dying for you to come. Your invite here is always open.

As for the story, you worry about the wrong things.

The South is the place for you if you can keep yourself from running off to every sit-in or wade-in or knee-in that is being held. Break a leg. I couldn't write any better prescription for your writing than to tell you to get out of New York and come South.

We will be looking for your face.


from the movie adaptation of 'Wise Blood'


To Maryat Lee

Book on way - a donation to the cause if there is a cause if not, spectacle est gratui anyhow. I put to Helen Nash & after it was wrapped up I got to worrying if it shouldn't have been Dr. Helen Nash, but it was done wrapped up. I ain't supposed to know she's a doctor.

Did I tell you that the Ku Klux Klan met across the road Saturday night before last. They burned a cross - just for the sake of ceremony. We could have seen it out of our upstairs windows but we didn't know until it was over. You ought to go down to observe mid-August politics in Georgia. You would return with curled hair.



To Maryat Lee

According to my tellyvision the stock market is not cheering you up any. The dividends is all I'm interested in and mine haven't gone down. But that man can probably recoup your losses in time...

About old Proust. I read the whole bloody thing and liked the first books best and the last book. In the middle there were some drear spaces. As long as he kept it in society it was strong; great stuff, cheers. I have no desire to read any of it again...


The O'Connors' sitting room


To Betty Hester

I think that's great about going to New York if that's what I make out in the letter. I stayed there once very cheaply at the Y on 38th street or 37th maybe off Lexington Avenue. Fourteen years ago that was and it was $2 a day and you could get your breakfast in the building. There was then a very good co-op cafeteria on 41st Street between Madison and Park. The only place in New York that I could afford to eat downtown where I didn't feel like I was going home with pyoria...

We called B. on the phone when we got the news. He was at the hospital and sounded properly flustered. He told us Jenny was fine and then started right away telling us about his teeth, which it seems had been removed the week before and he had just got out of bed for the event. Not all his teeth removed, that is, just some embedded wisdom teeth. I hope you see him in New York.

On the basis of the fact that you use ten fingers to work a typewriter and only three to push a pen, I hold the typewriter to be the more personal instrument. Also on the basis of that you can read what comes off it.



To Betty Hester

Cecil is waiting to hear whether she is going to be accepted for a job at The New Yorker. I hope for her sake she won't be. I can't imagine anything that would be worse for her.

I found G.E. Sherry to be very nice and willing to listen to my views on his conduct of the racial business in the paper. He says he doesn't know anything about the region, wants to learn and doesn't want to go off half-cocked. He has practically no help and no money and he hopes for gradual improvements. The best thing he's done so far is that movie column. For the book supplement he hopes to get competent people to do the reviews and not any of us that have been doing them. I agree with this. Altogether I found him a modest man and able. The newspaperman has the same kind of job as the housewife, eat it and forget it, read it and forget it...



To Maryat Lee

I have been sick. Fainted a few days before Christmas and was in bed about 10 days and not up to much thereafter. Blood count had gone down to 8 & you can't operate on that. It's up now & so am I but ain't operating yet on a normal load. Ma has been in bed with intestinal flu this last week so if hasn't been one thing it's been another. I'll try to get them nuts off before they get rancid.

Don't know which is worse, CORE or Young Republicans for Goldwater, but I reckon it is inevitable they fall into the hands of one or the other. I guess this will get laid at your door though it is only nature taking its course. Glad you're picking up. Old doctor Greenleaf must not be a quack after all...



To Betty Hester

I'm afraid the television would finish me off for good. Letters I can do, company I can now have for 10 minutes but telephone clobbers me the thought of. Only thing I would be tempted to use it for is to call up & ask how I am & be told I am resting comfortably and have peaceful days & nights! That's the sweetest thing I ever heard, now ain't it. Peaceful days & nights. My.

Why don't you just come to see me this weekend, preferably in the afternoon & only if it is not any trouble whatsoever because you ain't going to be allowed to stay long enough to make it worth the trip...

It sure don't look like I'll ever get out of this joint. By now I know all the students nurses who "want to write," - if they are sloppy & inefficient & can't make up the bed, that's them - they want to write. "Inspirational stuff I'm good at," said one of them. "I just get so taken up with it I forget what I'm writing."


To Maryat Lee

Dear Raybat,

Cowards can be just as vicious as those who declare themselves - more so. Don't take any romantic attitude towards that call. Be properly scared and go on doing what you have to do, but take the necessary precautions. And call the police. That might be a lead for them.

Don't know when I'll send those stories. I've felt too bad to type them.


The Thing She Did Best: The Letters of Flannery O'Connor

Part One: "The largest thing that looms up is The Humerous Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. I am sure he wrote them all while drunk too."

Part Two: "Your mother sounds just like my mother. You should bring her down some time as I feel sure there is nothing they wouldn't agree about."

"Not Just A Girl" - She Wants Revenge (mp3)

"Little Stars" - She Wants Revenge (mp3)

"Suck It Up" - She Wants Revenge (mp3)

Valleyheart, the new album from She Wants Revenge, came out on Monday and you can purchase it here.


In Which We Idealize The Letters Of Flannery O'Connor

What A Long Way A Little Goes

Everything is in the letters of Flannery O'Connor. Everything. She moved to New York when she was in her twenties, thinking she had to escape Georgia to become a writer. Driven back to her mother's home by her illness, she re-rooted herself in the place she had come from, constructing a fiction deeper and more perceptive than any of her peers. In her private writings we find a mind that nothing eludes, who takes no sacred thing for granted except the existence of the God to whom she was devoted.


To Paul Engle

I am in the process of moving. I left Yaddo March 1 and have since been in transit and am now getting ready to go back to New York City where I have a room and where I hope to keep on working on the novel as long as my money holds out, which is not due to be long. Therefore, being in a swivit, I am writing you in brief what I take the situation with Rinehart to be but when I get to New York in ten days I will write you further and send back the letter Rinehart sent you. Thank you for sending it to me.

When I was in New York in September, my agent and I asked Selby how much of the novel they wanted to see before we asked for a contract and an advance. The answer was - about six chapters. So in February I sent them nine chapters (108 pages and all I've done) and my agent asked for an advance and for their editorial opinion.

Their editorial opinion was a long time in coming because obviously they didn't think much of the 108 pages and didn't know what to say. When it did come, it was very vague and I thought totally missed the point of what kind of a novel I am writing. My impression was that they want a conventional novel. However, rather than trust my own judgment entirely I showed the letter to Lowell who had already read the 108 pages. He too thought that the faults Rineheart had mentioned were not the faults of the novel (some of which he had previously pointed out to me). I tell you this to let you know I am not, as Selby implied to me, working in a vacuum.

In answer to the editorial opinion, I wrote Selby that I would have to work on the novel without direction from Rinehart, that I was amenable to criticism but only within the sphere of what I was trying to do.

In New York, a few weeks later, I learned indirectly that nobody at Rinehart liked the 108 pages but Raney (and whether he likes it or not I couldn't really say), that the ladies there particularly had thought it unpleasant (which pleased me). I told Selby that I was willing enough to listen to Rinehart criticism but that if it didn't suit me, I would disregard it. That is the impasse.

Any summary I might try to write for the rest of the novel would be worthless and I don't choose to waste my time at it. I don't write that way. I can't write much more without money and they won't give me any money because they can't see what the finished book will be. That is Part Two of the impasse.

To develop at all as a writer I have to develop in my own way. The 108 pages are very angular and awkward but a great deal of that can be corrected when I have finished the rest of it - and only then. I will not be hurried or directed by Rinehart. I think they are interested in the conventional and I have had no indication that they are very bright. I feel the heart of the matter is they don't care to lose $750 (or as they put it, Seven Hundred and Fifty Dollars).

If they don't feel I am worth giving more money to and leaving alone, then they should let me go. Other publishers, who have read the two printed chapters, are interested. Selby and I came to the conclusion that I was "prematurely arrogant." I supplied him with the phrase.

Now I am sure that no one will understand my need to work this novel out in my own way better than you; although you may feel that I should work faster. No one can convince me I shouldn't rewrite as much as I do. I only hope that in a few years I won't have to so much.

I didn't get any Guggenheim.

If you see Robie tell him to write me.


Early 1950

To Elizabeth and Robert Lowell

I won't see you again as I have to go to the hospital Friday and have a kidney hung on a rib. I will be there a month and at home a month. This was none of my plan...

Please write me a card while I am in the hospital. I won't be able to do anything but dislike the nurses.


To Betty Boyd

Cocktails were not served but I loved through it anyway and remember signing a book for you sometime during it. It was very funny to see relics like Miss N. toting home a copy and to imagine it going on inside particular minds, etc. I got a good review from Newsweek - May 19 - and from the NY Tribune and NY Times but I ain't seen any cash yet.

Who should appear for it - and to spend the night with my aunt Mary - but Miss B. She said she felt should be in New York and I said I felt that way too with the voice she had developed - American Stage or something. She is still violently interested in finding herself a husband and still asks personal questions without any preparation and at the most inconvenient times. I do wish somebody would marry the child and shut her up. I am touched by her but you know what a long way a little goes.

I also saw Lucynell Cunningham Smith who is my idea of a very nice person indeed.

I guess with an enfant stalking your problems you have your hands full? Do you all ever aim to visit Georgia?



To Robert Giroux

I have had a request for a complimentary copy of Wise Blood from Captain W. of the Salvation Army... for their reading room and would be much obliged if you would send them a copy that I get the 40% off of. I'm always pleased to oblige the Salvation Army. According to some of the reviews you have sent me, I ought to be in it.

Thank you for sending me the clippings, and The Groves of Academe.

I am steeling myself for even more dreadful reviews.



To Ben Griffith

As soon as I read your story I thought of two other stories that I felt you should read before you start rewriting this one. One of these is "The Lament" by Chekhov, the other "War" by Luigi Pirandello. Both of these stories are in a book called Understanding Fiction by Cleanth Brooks and R.P. Warren, which you may know but should if you don't. It is a book that has been of invaluable help to me and I think would be to you.

Your story, like these other two, is essentially the presenting of a pathetic situation, and when you present a pathetic situation, you have to let it speak entirely for itself. I mean you have to present it and leave it alone. You have to let the things in the story do the talking. I mean that, as author, you can't force it and I think you tend to force it in your story, every now and then.

The first thing is to see the people at every minute. You get into the old man's mind before you let us know exactly what he looks like. You have got to learn to paint with words. Have the old man the first so that the reader can't escape him. This is something that it has taken me a long time to learn. Ford Madox Ford said you couldn't have somebody sell a newspaper in a story unless you said what he looked like. You have to learn to do this unobtrusively of course. The old man thinks of the daughter-in-law and son talking and recalls their conversation - well he should see them, the reader should see them, should feel from seeing them what their conversation is going to be about almost before he hears it.

Let the old man go through his motions without any comment from you as author and let the things he sees make the pathetic effects. Do you know Joyce's story "The Dead"? See how he makes snow work in that story. Chekhov makes everything work - the air, the light, the cold, the dirt, etc. Show these things and you don't have to say them. I think what the colored man says in your story is very good. But you don't have to say the colored man is about 45 - instead paint him there so the reader will know he's a fat middle-aged Negro and as hurt by the old man as the old man will shortly be by him.

The deaf and dumb child should be seen better - it does no good just to tell us she is seraphically beautiful. She has to move around and make some kind of show of herself so we'll know she's there all the time.

Also in a story like this you don't want to rely on local effects, such as calling the paper he picks up the Macon Telegraph. This is not the kind of story that gets its effects from local things, but from universal feeling of grief that old age and unwantedness call up. I think it could be made into a very fine story if you have the time to work on it. I am a great hand at rewriting myself. It takes a long time to make a thing like this work. Looks simple but is not.

If you do rewrite it, I hope you will let me see it again. This is just the repressed schoolteacher in me cropping out.

Please do bring your wife and children over any time you get ready. Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Bean [ducks] are slated for the deep freeze in August but Clair Booth Loose Goose is going to live a natural life until she dies a natural death. My mother is head of the horse department, so I will have to ask her about an Oveta. I hope you enjoy North Carolina.


P.S. The television was mildly ghastly and I am very glad to be back with the chickens who don't know I have just published a book.


To Betty Hester

I am very pleased to have your letter. Perhaps it is even more startling to me to find someone who recognizes my work for what I try to make it than it is for your to find a God-conscious writer near at hand. The distance is 87 miles but I feel the spiritual distance is shorter.

I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement. However, I am Catholic peculiarly possessed of a modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty. To possess this within the Church is to bear a burden, the necessary burden for the conscious Catholic. It's to feel the contemporary situation at the ultimate level. I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. This may explain the lack of bitterness in the stories.

The notice in The New Yorker was not only moronic, it was unsigned. It was a case in which it is easy to see that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.

I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man brutal and sarcastic. The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.

You were very kind to write me and the measure of my appreciation must be to ask you to write me again. I would like to know who this is who understands my stories.



To Betty Hester

What you say about there being two sexes now brings it home to me. I've always believed there were two but generally acted as if there were only one. I guess meditation and contemplation and all the ways of prayer boil down to keeping it firmly in sight that there are two. I've never spent much time over the bride-bridegroom analogy. For me, perhaps it began for me in the beginning, it's been more father and child. The things you have said about my being surprised to be over twelve, etc., have struck me as being quite comically accurate. When I was twelve I made up my mind absolutely that I would not get any older. I don't remember how I meant to stop it. There was something about "teen" attached to anything that was repulsive to me. I certainly didn't approve of what I saw of people that age. I was a very ancient twelve; my views at that age would have done credit to a Civil War veteran. I am much younger now than I was at twelve, or anyway, less burdened. The weight of centuries lies on children, I'm sure of it.



To Maryat Lee

I daresay that being alone in Yokohama for you is equivalent to negotiating passage through the Chicago airport for me. There they also speak a foreign tongue. You have, I trust, arrived in Yokohama? I mean in one piece? Of steady mind and nerve I mean? I hope you have some kind of firearm. A sawed-off shotgun or a Kentucky rifle or something. All I know about the Orient is Terry and the Pirates which I don't read anymore, being too old and advanced in wisdom and knowledge.

I found on arriving at Notre Dame that I wasn't to talk just to the students but was to give a Public Lecture at Night. This added an element of formality but I ignored it. The audience of about 250 or 300 consisted of 25% Bumbling Boys, 25% skirted and beretta-ed simmernarians, 25% higher clergy, 25% faculty and wives, 25% graduate students, 25% ... I am overextending the audience. Anyway, the operation was successful and I have a hundred bucks to compensate for any damage that may have been done to my nervous system.

My parent took advantage of my absence to clean up my room and install revolting ruffled curtains. I can't put the dust back but I have ultimated that the curtains have go to go, lest they ruin my prose. She looks forward to any departure of mine as an opportunity to ravage my room and it always looks shaken when I return to it.

The next Occasion for me will be at the local college on something they call Honors Day and at which me and another worthy are to be "honored." I can do without all honors that do not carry stipends with them but if you convey this crude sentiment to your brother, I shall consider you a Skunk of the Third Water and will declare in public that you are a lier.

Don't forgit my saber-toothed tiger.



To Cecil Dawkins

Thank you for writing me - and for mailing the letter. It is fine to know that freshmen are being introduced to contemporary literature somewhere. I had never heard of K.A. Porter or Faulkner or Eudora Welty until I got to graduate school, but so many do not; they leave college thinking that literature is anything written before 1900 and that contemporary literature is anything found on the best-seller list...

Of course I hear the complaint over and over that there is no sense in writing about people who disgust you. I think there is; but the fact is that the people I write about certainly don't disgust me entirely though I see them from a standard of judgment from which they fall short. Your freshman who said there was something religious here was correct. I take the Dogmas of the Church literally and this, I think, is what creates what you call the "missing link." The only concern, so far as I see it, is what Tillich calls "the ultimate concern." It is what makes the stories spare and what gives them any permanent quality they may have.

There is really only one answer to the people who complain about one's writing about unpleasant people - and that is that one writes what one can. Vocation implies limitation but few people realize it who don't actually practice an art. Your freshman might be improved by a look at Maritain's Art and Scholasticism. He dwells on St. Thomas' definition of art as a virtue of the practical intellect, etc.



To Father J.H. McCown

Your mother sounds just like my mother. You should bring her down some time as I feel sure there is nothing they wouldn't agree about...

If you ever get to read a book these days, read one called The Magic Barrel by a Bernard Malamud. The stories deal with Jews and they are the real thing. Really spiritual and really funny. Somebody was telling me yesterday that the reason Jews are ahead of Catholics in every intellectual pursuit is very simple: they have more brains. I believe it.


photo by joseph de cassares

The following letter is abridged.

5/24/60 & 5/31/60

To Maryat Lee

I'll be pleased to meet your friend. Is she passing through here or what; or do you mean meet through the mail?? My "helping" your writing was largely a matter of your pulling what you wanted out of my head while I sat there. Also a matter of there is a kinship between us, in spite of all the difference there are. But it is unlikely I would be any help to someone else - but anyway I would be glad to converse with her or whatever. I would rather not read the novel of anyone I don't know though because there is too much danger of hurting the person. I don't mean hurting his feelings, I mean hurting his writing. I never keep my mouth shut enough about things that temperamentally aren't to my taste.

I beat my brains out every morning on a story I am hacking at and in the afternoon I am exhausted is why I haven't got down to the type writer. It takes great energy to typewrite something. When I typewrite something the critical instinct operates automatically and slows me down. When I write it by hand, I don't pay too much attention to it.

What do you mean - you were IN Camino Real? You acted in it? You watched it or what?

I don't know how you would tell anybody his writing was mannered, except you say, "Brother this is mannered." I once had the sentence: "He ran through the field of dead cotton" and Allen Tate told me it was mannered; should have been "dead cotton field." I don't hold that against Allen. Give him something good to criticize and he would do better.

I hope you don't have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re: fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.


You can find more of the letters of Flannery O'Connor here. You can purchase her selected letters, edited by Sally Fitzgerald, here.

This Recording Presents How and Why to Write

Part One (Joyce Carol Oates, Gene Wolfe, Philip Levine, Thomas Pynchon, Gertrude Stein, Eudora Welty, Don DeLillo, Anton Chekhov, Mavis Gallant, Stanley Elkin)

Part Two (James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Margaret Atwood, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov)

Part Three (W. Somerset Maugham, Langston Hughes, Marguerite Duras, George Orwell, John Ashbery, Susan Sontag, Robert Creeley, John Steinbeck)

Part Four (Flannery O'Connor, Charles Baxter, Joan Didion, William Butler Yeats, Lyn Hejinian, Jean Cocteau, Francine du Plessix Gray, Roberto Bolano)

Our Novels, Ourselves

Part One (Tess Lynch, Karina Wolf, Elizabeth Gumport, Sarah LaBrie, Isaac Scarborough, Daniel D'Addario, Elisabeth Donnelly, Lydia Brotherton, Brian DeLeeuw)

Part Two (Alice Gregory, Jason Zuzga, Andrew Zornoza, Morgan Clendaniel, Jane Hu, Ben Yaster, Barbara Galletly, Elena Schilder, Almie Rose)

Part Three (Alexis Okeowo, Benjamin Hale, Robert Rutherford, Kara VanderBijl, Damian Weber, Jessica Ferri, Britt Julious, Letizia Rossi, Will Hubbard, Durga Chew-Bose, Rachel Syme, Amanda McCleod, Yvonne Georgina Puig)