Literature Review

My thesis (working title “A Circle in the Text”) will examine the fiction of Flannery O’Connor through her relationship with the New Critics, with particular attention paid to how her writing can be read as both a blueprint and a critique of the New Critical formalist text. Since O’Connor’s development as a writer over the course of her career is an element in this, I will be looking at the complete range of O’Connor’s fiction, including Wise Blood (Faber and Faber, 1980), The Violent Bear It Away (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007), and Complete Stories. (Faber & Faber, 2009), as well as various other collections of her writing such as The Habit of Being (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988), Mystery and Manners (Faber and Faber, 1972), A Prayer Journal (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2013), and Kinney’s annotated bibliography of her library, Flannery O’Connor’s Library: Resources of Being (U of Georgia P, 2008).

While the New Critics are not themselves the subject of my study, I will still need to consider a broad cross section of their work as background. This will include John Crowe Ransom’s “Criticism Inc”, Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy” and “The Affective Fallacy” (all in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), Cleanth Brooks’ The Well Wrought Urn (Dobson, 1960), and his later retrospective of the movement in The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton UP, 2012), the Southern Agrarian’s I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (LSU Press, 2006), and, perhaps most importantly, Brooks’ and Warren’s Understanding Fiction (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1971). I will supplement these primary texts with critical perspectives on the movement such as de Man’s in Blindness and Insight (Routledge, 1983), Eagleton’s in Literary Theory: An Introduction (U of Minnesota P, 1996), Malvasi’s in The Unregenerate South: the Agrarian Thought of John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson (Louisiana State University Press, 1997), Mark Jancovich’s “The Southern New Critics” in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism vol. 7, (Cambridge UP, 2000), and Leitch’s in American Literary Criticism Since the 1930s (Routledge, 2010).

The first task of my thesis will be to examine the extent to which O’Connor’s writing was shaped by interaction with the New Critics during her time at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and this subject has been most notably broached by Mark McGurl in The Program Era (Harvard UP, 2009), which was in turn subject to a rebuttal from Eileen Pollack in American Literary History, Vol. 19.2 (Summer, 2007). Related to this line of enquiry are texts like Andrew Levy’s The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story (Cambridge UP, 1993), Kasia Boddy’s The American Short Story Since 1950 (Edinburgh UP, 2010) and Mann’s The Short Story Cycle (Greenwood, 1989), which I will use to further contextualise O’Connor’s work within the American short story tradition and its associated techniques.

My next step is to consider the ways in which O’Connor’s expression of her Catholicism through her writing, and especially the line of Thomist thought that her concepts of transcendence, mystery, and grace are derived from, might interact or interfere with the idea of text as a distinct ontological object that her formalist style points towards. Here, I’ll consider O’Connor’s reading of Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism (Sheed and Ward, 1930), as well as a few of the huge selection of critical texts on O’Connor’s Catholicism, such as Baumgaertner’s Flannery O’Connor: A Proper Scaring (H. Shaw Publishers, 1988), Brinkmeyer’s The Art & Vision of Flannery O’Connor (Louisiana State UP, 1989), Browning’s Flannery O’Connor (Southern Illinois UP, 1974), Cofer’s The Gospel According to Flannery O’Connor (Bloomsbury, 2014), Eggenschwiler’s The Christian Humanism of Flannery O’Connor (Wayne State UP, 1972), Giannone’s Flannery O’Connor and the Mystery of Love (Fordham UP, 1999), and Kessler’s Flannery O’Connor and the Language of Apocalypse (Princeton UP, 1986).

Having established this, I would like to then think about the ways this might open up O’Connor’s text to political, social, and historical readings. Framing this argument will be revisionist readings of the American and Southern literary canons such as those in Pease’s Revisionary Interventions into the Americanist Canon (Duke UP, 1994), Patricia Yaeger’s Dirt and Desire (U of Chicago P, 2000), Kreyling’s “Toward A New Southern Studies” (South Central Review 22, 2005) and Ford’s response (“Listening to the Ghosts: The New Southern Studies” South Central Review 22, 2005), and Ladd’s “Literary Studies: The Southern United States” (PMLA 120, 2005) and Smith’s response (“The State of United States Southern Literary Studies”, PMLA 121, 2006). While there have been many critiques of O’Connor’s construction of race, class, and gender, I would like to push for a more intersectional understanding of how these aspects of her work interact. To do so, I will attempt to bring some of the previous writing on these subjects together in new ways, as well as adding my own critical interpretation of O’Connor’s texts.

In terms of race, I will consider Crawford’s “An Africanist Impasse: Race, Return, and Revelation in the Short Fiction of Flannery O’Connor” (South Atlantic Review 68, 2003), Edmund’s “Through a Glass Darkly: Visions of Integrated Community in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Wise Blood’” (Contemporary Literature 37, 1996), Fowler’s “Aligning the Psychological with the Theological: Doubling and Race in Flannery O’Connor’s Fiction” (Flannery O’Connor Review 13, 2015), Schroeder’s “Desegregation and the Silent Character in O’Connor’s ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’” (Flannery O’Connor Review 10, 2012), Alice Walker’s essay on O’Connor in In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (Women’s Press, 2001), and Williams’ “Black and White: A Study in Flannery O’Connor’s Characters” (Black American Literature Forum 10, 1976). In terms of class, the texts I’ll look at will include Martin’s “Flannery O’Connor and Fundamental Poverty” (The English Journal 60, 1971) and Tedford’s “Flannery O’Connor and the Social Classes” (The Southern Literary Journal 13.2, 1981). Finally, in terms of gender, I’ll examine several of the essays in Flannery O’Connor: New Perspectives (University of Georgia Press, 1996), as well as Hoberek’s “Liberal Antiliberalism: Mailer, O’Connor, and The Gender Politics of Middle-Class Ressentiment” (Women’s Studies Quarterly 33, 2005), and Smith’s “Flannery O’Connor’s Empowered Women” (The Southern Literary Journal 26, 1994).

I will access the above materials through a combination of use of the UCC library, my own library, online databases such as JSTOR, and UCD and Trinity College libraries in Dublin, which I will access with my ALCID card. In terms of organisational software, I’ve been using Zotero as an effective way to manage my somewhat unwieldy bibliography. This is obviously quite a large range of texts, and I’m well aware that this approach runs the risk of my study becoming overwhelmed with secondary sources, rather than my own original reading of the primary texts. However, I’ve purposely attempted to keep the breadth of my study quite wide at this early stage of research, and, accordingly, the range of texts above will shrink as my study progresses and I hone in on specific aspects of the texts, and also as I begin to select certain paradigmatic or illuminating stories of O’Connor’s for discussion, while excluding others. As O’Connor herself put it, “I suppose you come to know yourself as much by what you throw away as what you keep and at times it is appalling” (195). As the range of texts narrows, I hope that the framework of the approach outlined above will remain flexible enough to accommodate my needs. In doing so, I aim to build meaningfully on the body of O’Connor scholarship that has come before me, while also developing my own critical skills.

Works Cited

O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being: Letters, ed. Sally Fitzgerald. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1988.

Towards an Academic Imperative

I’ve been finding it hard to write lately. Writing has never come easy to me – the things I have to say which are worth saying come slowly, and with difficulty, if at all. I’ve spent the last few weeks researching a piece on anthropocentric narratives in nature documentaries, but given the chaos unfolding in the wider world at the moment, I’ve had a hard time pushing myself to finish it. As I watch the systematic destruction of the values I hold dear from afar, a deep hush descends, blanketing all. How can I justify holding forth on literature when fascism, white-supremacism, and mob rule are in ascendancy? And yet I know as well as anyone, silence is complicity. So I must act, act now and not later. I’ve always thought I believed deeply in the power of literature, and yet, submerged in the maelstrom of the now, I can feel those foundations start to quiver. Make no mistake, we are already at war, and if we in academia (and especially those of us in the humanities) do not now learn to use the critical tools at our disposal to defend ourselves and those around us, our side is already forfeit.

Academic writing at the end of 2016. Credit: KC Green

Just before Christmas I ran into someone from the English department in Waterstones buying John Williams’ Stoner as a gift for a relative, and I wondered if this was not some secret expression, a subtle cry for help from the humanities as a whole. Like William’s ordinary academic, we must struggle to live with dignity, compelled to sacrifice ourselves to the commercial machinery of the academy, which cares for us not a jot. I think of Stoner’s Archer Sloane, broken by the war and his failure to save the young men in his care from throwing their lives away. Looking at that harrowed face, preserved in the tomb of a department office, I see the reflection of our own.

At the same time, I was researching a piece on Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Reading Benjamin and Adorno, looking at the ways they tried (with some failure, some success) to take a stand against the rise of fascism in Germany using critical theory and cultural analysis, unveiled the shortcomings of my own. I spent weeks abject, unable to work because I could not justify the existence of that work, even to myself. I fell into despair, and worse, self-pity. Today it is not enough just to work, or even to work well. We must now justify ourselves, and the worth of our work, not only to ourselves, and our academic communities, but to the world at large. Though I mean this in an ethical and political sense, in the end I fear the justification must also be a financial one.

The thing that helped me to reconcile my desire to work with the imperative to resist (aside from reading what others have said before me) was an invitation to present at a thesis-in-three conference held by the Undergraduate Awards. I was to present a paper which I had written last year on McCarthy’s The Road, but to an interdisciplinary audience, with just three minutes to speak, and a single slide. While I had been happy with my work as a piece of literary criticism, these new parameters forced me to think seriously about what in it was of real material value in this moment of history. What could I take from it to show to the world and, without hesitation, say “Here. Here is something worth even a short amount of your time”? I do not know if I succeeded, but what I decided on was this:

In a historical moment such as ours, when our systems of language, of knowing, of belief, and of truth have been shattered into countless fragments, it may seem natural to desire a return to the grand old narratives that once cohered our society, and our culture. And yet this return is a purely destructive one, a move towards unbecoming.

Given this, I’d like to look at Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, not simply as a parable of our time, but as illustrative of a potential praxis, which might move us towards reconciliation.

The novel presents a post-apocalyptic landscape, where all systems of community, of law, ecology, and epistemology have failed. Language is fading from existence, as the names of things and their meanings are forgotten. All that is left is a man and his son, who must struggle against this world, and find order.

The road itself presents a type of language, a system for understanding one’s relationship to their landscape, via the medium of travel. For the characters, the road becomes a schema for progress, for perpetual motion towards an increasingly nebulous goal. It also provides linear rendering of spatial dimensions, the only semblance of order that they can aspire to impose on their oppressive landscape. Yet this too seems to be slipping away, as the roads crumble, and so too does their map, broken into tattered fragments.

The structure of the novel itself mirrors this process, the sequence of events becoming only loosely connected at points, while at other times McCarthy inserts elliptical paragraph breaks right into the middle of tense moments of action fragmenting the unity, not only of time and space, but the page itself.

To escape this death of language and landscape, the child must reject the narratives put forward by his father, his “old stories of courage and justice”, in favour of something as yet undreamt of, true only to him, and his world without teleology.

He must also reject systems of commodification, both the old system of capitalistic commercialisation, and its apocalyptic counterpart – cannibalism. For McCarthy, something fundamental is shared by these systems of unchecked consumptive greed, and the child instead chooses to live by an ethical code that encourages equality, breaking the egocentric and anthropocentric boundaries of the old world.

The world that has died in the novel is that of American mythology – of exceptionalism, of the frontier, of survivalism, and of capitalism. These myths are auto-cannibalistic in nature – to propagate, they must feed upon themselves. Paradoxically, for this mythological cycle to continue, it must be destroyed and rebuilt in the shape of the now, and this is the key realisation for our moment in time.

The image conjured by the phrase “make America great again” is not one of birth into a new era, but rather one of regression, of the child being dragged screaming back into the womb, towards its undoing. As McCarthy suggests, the beginning and ending of things are closely linked; “Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made”. So instead, I’d like to suggest that the imperative should be to first make a greatness that is American, to break those grand old narratives down, and find ways in which they might help, rather than hinder, create, rather than destroy.

Academic writing at the start of 2017. Credit: KC Green

So what now? Does this really solve anything? Perhaps I overestimate the value of what we do, but if that’s to be my undoing, I’ll go out with a smile. That said, a critical approach is of no value whatsoever without a counterpart of material praxis. The call to academic action is returned by the call to political and social action on local, national, and international levels. Debate, volunteer, protest, donate, boost the voices of those silenced – these types of action are as vital in the sociopolitical sphere as they are in the academic one. Together, just maybe, we’ll endure.

Works Cited

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Picador, 2007.
Williams, John. Stoner. Vintage, 2012.