In the age of memoir, essay collections are a tough sell. Like short story collections, books of essays seem destined to be sampled rather than appreciated start to finish. That is a shame. Good essay collections are performances: multiple acts of form and function, threaded together with theme. I have always loved the fiction of Andre Dubus, but it was not until I read Broken Vessels and Meditations from a Movable Chair that I began to understand the mind and heart behind the stories. This is not to say that essays serve an ancillary function, but rather that essays contain the inevitable need to require a point — either one orchestrated by the writer, or one imbued by the reader.
A masterful essay collection is a metered intellectual exercise. It is enjoyable to settle into the novelistic voice of memoir, but it is athletic to sprint, pause, breathe, and start again with the short-range essayist. Here are four essay collections worth reading: writers who challenge, surprise, and eventually reward their readers for staying the course.
1. White Girls by Hilton Als
Als is a literary showman, and White Girls is a masterful routine. The first act, “Tristes Tropiques,” is a nonfiction novella about the writer’s complicated longing for SL (Sir or Lady), whom Als considers his twin. The essay takes its name from a book by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose own interest in twins mirrors the romantic manner in which Als considers his own doubling. “I have always been one half of a whole,” Als writes, for “my ghostly twin, my nearly perfect other half” was his stillborn older brother. At roughly 80 pages, “Tristes Tropiques” is massive, a seemingly illogical choice to begin a collection, but White Girls is no average performance. “This Lonesome Place,” Als’s take on Flannery O’Connor, is best captured in its final sentence: “Her work has moved away from the South as she defined and knew it, all the way to Hollywood, where Americans have embraced it, hearing in O’Connor’s voice her uneasy and unavoidable union between black and white, the sacred and the profane, the shit and the stars.” Als writes with equal verve about Truman Capote, Eminem, Richard Pryor, Malcolm X, André Leon Talley, and James Baldwin, yet my favorite is his treatment of Michael Jackson. I first read “Michael” in The New York Review of Books, where even its four-part structure felt inevitable. The essay begins in 1972, when “the female elders tell us what to look out for:” the men who exit the neon-lit Starlite Lounge in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Als hears Jackson’s first solo hit, “Ben,” escape from the bar before the door closes. How fascinating that a film-soundtrack song about a rat was a “mournful ballad,” which was embraced “among the queens at the Starlite, who ignore its Gothic context and play it over and over again as a kind of anthem of queer longing.” “Ben” was Jackson personified, “all child — an Ariel of the ghetto, whose appeal, certainly to the habitués of places like the Starlite, lay partly in his ability to find metaphors to speak about his difference, and theirs.” The ability to capture a soul in a single sentence is no small gift.
2. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Als mentions Baldwin’s essay about Jackson, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” in which Baldwin writes that “freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated — in the main, abominably — because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.” To sing the praises of Baldwin as an essayist is nothing new, but The Fire Next Time needs to be read and studied more often. It is a pair of epistles; the first, “My Dungeon Shook,” is a letter to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of the emancipation. Eternally a writer formed by hymn and sermon, his conclusion rises: “For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” “Down at the Cross,” the longer, second essay, sears the page. This was 1962, this is now: “It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it, and that everyone else — housewives, taxi-drivers, elevator boys, dishwashers, bartenders, lawyers, judges, doctors, and grocers — would never, by the operation of any generous human feeling, cease to use you as an outlet for his frustrations and hostilities.” Baldwin hits so many notes here, yet I always return to his strained relationship with God and his house. “On the blindest, most visceral level,” Baldwin never was able to “disengage myself from [the] excitement” of church: “There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord.” That Baldwin follows these memories with a critique of the structure and soul of that church is the rhetorical power of The Fire Next Time: “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”
3. The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults by Joyelle McSweeney
Poet and playwright McSweeney carries her rhythms to prose, and the results are essays that remake the boundaries of criticism and personal narrative. The concept of the “necropastoral” describes the “manifestation of the infectiousness, anxiety, and contagion occultly present in the hygienic borders of the classical pastoral.” The occult angle suggests the blurring of the real and surreal, orchestrated by the strangeness inherent in most literature. Here she writes of Wilfred Owen (“The poems form a continuous, necrotizing battlefield, a skinlike surface, pitted and dubious, capable of inscription and unexpected transmission, full of holes and wounds through which pity can escape like a stench”); of Jack Smith’s continual, obsessive editing of his pastoral film, Normal Love; and her fellow Catholic artist Andy Warhol, who, “possessed by media, becomes another medium in a fluxing, necrotic, necromantic, anachronistic field of media” and others. Finally, McSweeney — a poet-essayist elsewhere interested in transformation, as in “how Catholic saint’s lore is really a kind of media theory, an idea about how certain kinds of power moves from place to place” — examines translation as perhaps the apex of art. Translation “works on extant materials and transforms them — conforms them — into new, sculptural, legible shapes.” Translation might be the most human of arts: it requires humility, transformation, resurrection in new language. In that vein, the art of the essay is an exercise in translation.
4. Sublime Physick by Patrick Madden
It is tempting to call Madden’s approach encyclopedic, but that suggests horizontal over vertical inquiry. Madden’s range is certainly wide, but he also manages to dig, and the end result of his essays here (and in his first collection, Quotidiana), is not merely collection but accumulation. “Spit,” the first essay in the book, is a representative sample. Madden begins with learning how to spit while “walking down a thin path through the thick Maine woods” sometime in the ’70s. Next he considers the antiseptic properties of the action, and how his daughter spit on him by mistake as they were about to enter church. He remembers his friend teaching him how to “gleek,” which happens to be the name of the space-monkey from The Wonder Twins cartoon, a monkey that chattered rather than spoke clearly. That idea of marble-mouthing makes him think of how his father, a member of the Notre Dame Glee Club, would sing to him and his siblings, and how Madden would become obsessed with the misunderstanding of lyrics. That leads him to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” — “Catch the spirit, catch the spit” — and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, who “was the envy of every boy he met because the gap in his upper row of teeth enabled him to expectorate in a new and admirable way.” He continues to Isaiah 50:6, Mark 8:22, when a fan spit in the face of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, and, finally burrows down to personal stories, concluding with one of shame. This is what essays were made for, in the words of Madden’s introduction-style chapter: essays are “oxymoronic characters, rooted in the natural world, derived from real experience…always reaching toward ideas, trying to transcend mere description or depiction. Thus, essays, perform a kind of sublimation of the solid; from the concrete, they attain abstraction.” Essays as transfigurations of self and soul.
I began 2015 with my then-girlfriend, now fiancée, and two other couples, at a rented house in the Catskills. The house belonged to a college art professor — Bard, I think — and on every available wall of the place hung some darkly priapic piece of art. There was a small, cold artist’s studio in the backyard where Renée and I were supposed to sleep, but after discovering a bundle of dreadlocked human hair, strung invisibly from the ceiling, and a series of circular collages that can only be described as psychosexually insane (or insanely psychosexual?), we opted for the narrow futon in the main house, near the dry heat of the hearth.
We cooked every night, drank a survey of Caribbean sugar cane — Appleton, Barbancourt, Brugal — went hiking through the crater lakes at Minnewaska, talked and sometimes argued about music, art, magazines. Renée made a playlist I still sometimes listen to when I’m pretending to write, and as we counted down the seconds to the new year, we formed a little crooked circle and danced and sang.
During quiet times, I read poems: Richard Wright’s Haiku, and the Robert Frost collection I always throw into my backpack when I leave the city. This was the beginning of a halting, yearlong attempt to read more poetry. I finally caught up with people like Morgan Parker and Phillip B. Williams, revisited Langston Hughes (and dug into his enigmatic, newly released Selected Letters) and Gwendolyn Brooks and Kevin Young, consulted with the back-pocket edition of Pablo Neruda I used to carry around as an annoying undergraduate, and — speaking of haiku — tried, again and again, all year, to figure out the effectiveness and easy grace of Matsuo Bashō’s frog, slipping into the water with a immortal plop. No luck there.
I have been trying to understand pastoralism — I hit 30 and everything suddenly seems so loud — and so have been working my way, slowly, through a slim Dover Thrift anthology of English Romantic Poetry. (Has anybody, by the way, published a big takedown of the Dover people? What they do — I’m sometimes very cheap, it seems right to mention — seems too good to be morally right.) They’ve all got their merits, but let’s be honest: the whole movement was John Keats and the Pips. I reread Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at some point (Dover again! Please tell me this is okay to do), and her prose, and imagination, blows all her husband’s friends’ verse out of the water.
Speaking of publishers, I — like everybody else, maybe — was wowed, and often tutored, by this year’s offerings from NYRB books. Eileen Chang’s Naked Earth helped me to understand the logic and language of Mao’s China; Linda Rosenkrantz’s unruly, addictive Talk drew me closer to Andy Warhol’s drug-and-Freud-fueled New York than I’d ever, at least consciously, wanted to venture.
I can’t remember the last time I laughed at a book the way I laughed at Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Or the last time I felt as trustful of the control and restraint and taste of a novelist as I did with Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House. Or as happy to be crawling through the oeuvre of a favorite playwright as with Eugene O’Neill’s Seven Plays of the Sea.
I found a first-edition, hard-copy of the O’Neill on one of the uncountable book-lousy folding tables you’ll find, any Sunday of the year, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. These tables, and their attendant “book guys,” are a good reason, if you need one, to live in New York. On another day — summer, sun-stunned — after, I’m just now remembering, a long weekend meal with those same couples from the Catskills, I stopped by a book table and picked up Michael Beckerman’s impressive New Worlds of Dvorak, a close reading — journalistic and musicological at turns — of the great composer’s years spent in America, trying to bequeath to us the “national music” we kind of already had.
I cherish Saul Bellow, so I started but am hesitant to finish his newly collected nonfiction, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About. I cherish Flannery O’Connor, so I read a few more of her beautiful, chastening letters and left her alone. I cherish Ralph Ellison — third big cliche in a row, I know — so I read Arnold Rampersad’s magisterial, appropriately tragicomic biography — very late to that particular party, I know — and went sprinting back to the essays in Going to the Territory and Shadow and Act.
Speaking of cherished writers and unfashionable lateness, I finally picked up my copy of Mansfield Park (Dover!!!) and wished I’d read it 10 years earlier, for all sorts of real-life reasons. I finally read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, and felt the same way. I read Hilton Als’s White Girls and felt awkward about the looks I got on the subway. (The dynamics of reading on the subway are another essay entirely.)
And speaking of taking things slowly, for fear of ever catching up, I read the second of the Karl Ove Knausgaard novels and called it a year.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s haunting, world-beating Between the World and Me led me back — inevitably — to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Those aforementioned Hughes letters led me back to the Harlem Renaissance — and specifically, for some reason, back to the so-called “passers:” Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun; Nella Larsen’s odd, twitchy Quicksand; Jean Toomer’s Cane, an insane, beautiful blend of verse, prose, and drama. Cane’s is probably still my favorite book, and reading it again made me want to someday try to write a life of Toomer, who seems to have been America’s most interesting psychopath as well as its most tragically unrealized and overlooked modernist.
(The Fauset, the Larsen, and the Toomer are collected in the Library of America’s beautiful boxed set of Harlem Renaissance Novels.)
At some point Renée and I began reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex — which she’s already read, and I have not — aloud, in bed, at night, sort of inconsistently. It’s wonderful so far.
As always, I ended up feeling like I should’ve been able to read a lot more.
Maybe it makes sense to share, before leaving this exercise alone, that this has been one of the more emotionally intense years of my life. I’ve been introduced to entirely new, often overwhelming species of joy and anxiety and fulfillment and fear and hope. There were times of ridiculous, almost uncomfortable happiness; other days (weeks, months) I spent wishing for a side exit.
With these extremes came a change in my reading. For the first time since I was a kid, I found myself reading almost desperately, reading as a purposeful means of escape. I guess I’d forgotten (likely during the slow and misguided process of becoming a writer) how effective and merciful an analgesic it can be to leave your own imagination and pick up somebody else’s.
Reading has always been my favorite thing to do. This year it was sometimes the only thing I could do. I felt more grateful for books, and for writers — because I remembered that I need them — than I’d been in a very long time.
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This year, for the first time since I was 18, I suffered a bout of what you might call Reader’s Block. It hit me in the spring and lasted about six weeks. The proximate cause was an excess of work, hunched hours in front of a computer that left me feeling like a jeweler’s loupe was lodged in each eye. I’d turn to the door of my study — Oh, God! An axe-wielding giant! No, wait: that’s just my two year old, offering a mauled bagel. And because the only prose that doesn’t look comparably distorted at that level of magnification belongs to E.B. White, Gertrude Stein, and whoever wrote the King James Bible, I mostly confined myself to the newspaper, when I read anything at all.
This hiatus from literature gave me a new compassion for people who glance up from smartphones to tell me they’re too busy to read, and for those writers (students, mostly) who claim to avoid other people’s work when they’re working. Yet I found that for me, at least, the old programmer’s maxim applies: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I mean this not just as someone with aesthetic aspirations, or pretensions, or whatever, but also as a human being.
The deeper cause of my reader’s block, I can admit now, was my father’s death at the end of May, after several years of illness. He was a writer, too; he’d published a novel when he was about the age I am now, and subsequently a travelogue. And maybe I had absorbed, over the years, some of his misapprehensions about what good writing might accomplish, vis-a-vis mortality; maybe I was now rebelling against the futility of the whole enterprise. I don’t know. I do know that in the last weeks before he died, those weeks of no reading, I felt anxious, adrift, locked inside my grief.
Then in June, on some instinct to steer into the skid, I reached for Henderson the Rain King. It was the last of the major Bellows I hadn’t read. I’d shied away partly for fear of its African setting, but mostly because it was the Saul Bellow book my father would always recommend. I’d say I was reading Humboldt’s Gift, and he’d say, “But have you read Henderson the Rain King?” Or I’d say I was reading Middlemarch, and he’d say “Sure, but have you read Henderson the Rain King?” I’d say I was heavily into early Sonic Youth. “Okay, but there’s this wonderful book…” There were times when I wondered if he’d actually read Henderson the Rain King, or if, having established that I hadn’t read it, he saw it as a safe way to short-circuit any invitation into my inner life. And I suppose I was afraid that if I finally read Henderson and was unmoved, or worse, it would either confirm the hypothesis or demolish for all time my sense of my dad as a person of taste.
But of course the novel’s mise-en-scène is a ruse (as Bellow well knew, never having been to Africa). Or if that still sounds imperialist, a dreamscape. Really, the whole thing is set at the center of a battered, lonely, yearning, and comical human heart. A heart that says, “I want, I want, I want.” A heart that could have been my father’s. Or my own. And though that heart doesn’t get what it wants — that’s not its nature — it gets something perhaps more durable. Midway through the novel, King Dahfu of the Wariri tries to talk a woebegone Henderson into hanging out with a lion:
“What can she do for you? Many things. First she is unavoidable. Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider. Oh, you have accomplished momentous avoidances. But she will change that. She will make consciousness to shine. She will burnish you. She will force the present moment upon you. Second, lions are experiences. But not in haste. They experience with deliberate luxury…Then there are more subtle things, as how she leaves hints, or elicits caresses. But I cannot expect you to see this at first. She has much to teach you.”
To which Henderson replies: “‘Teach? You really mean that she might change me.’”
“‘Excellent,'” the king says:
“Precisely. Change. You fled what you were. You did not believe you had to perish. Once more, and a last time, you tried the world. With a hope of alteration. Oh, do not be surprised by such a recognition.”
The lion stuff in Henderson, like the tennis stuff in Infinite Jest, inclines pretty nakedly toward ars poetica. Deliberate luxury, burnished consciousness, a sense of inevitability — aren’t these a reader’s hopes, too? And then: the deep recognition, the resulting change. Henderson the Rain King gave me all that, at the time when I needed it most. Then again, such a recognition is always surprising, because it’s damn hard to come by. And so, though I’m already at 800 words here, I’d like to list some of my other best reading experiences of 2014 (the back half of which amounted to a long, post-Henderson binge). Maybe one of them will do for you what that lion did for me.
Light Years, by James Salter
Despite the eloquent advocacy of my Millions colleague Sonya Chung, I’d always had this idea of James Salter as some kind of Mandarin, a writer for other writers. But I read Light Years over two days in August, and found it a masterpiece. The beauty of Salter’s prose — and it is beautiful — isn’t the kind that comes from fussing endlessly over clauses, but the kind that comes from looking up from the page, listening hard to whatever’s beyond. And what Light Years hears, as the title suggests, is time passing, the arrival and inevitable departure of everything dear to us. It is music like ice cracking, a river in the spring.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
I’ve long known I should read Muriel Spark, but it took the republication of some of her backlist (by New Directions) to get me off the fence. Spark shares with Salter a sublime detachment, an almost Olympian view of the passage of time. This latter seems to be her real subject in Miss Jean Brodie, inscribed even in the dazzling structure of the novel. But unlike Salter, Spark is funny. Really funny. Her reputation for mercilessness is not unearned, but the comedy here is deeper, I think. As in Jonathan Franzen’s novels, it issues less from the exposure of flawed and unlikeable characters than from the author’s warring impulses: to see them clearly, vs. to love them. Ultimately, in most good fiction, these amount to the same thing.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
This was a popular novel among grown-ups when I was a kid, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover how stubborn and weird a work it is. And lovable for all that. Kundera keeps us at a peculiar distance from his protagonists, almost as if telling a fairy tale. Description is sparing. Plot is mostly sex. Also travel. At times, I had to remind myself which character was which. In a short story, this might be a liability. Yet somehow, over the length of the novel, through nuances of juxtaposition and patterning, Kundera manages to evoke states of feeling I’ve never seen on the page before. Political sadness. Emotional philosophy. The unbearable lightness of the title. All of this would seem to be as relevant in the U.S. in 2015 as in 1970s Prague.
The Infatuations, by Javier Marías
Hari Kunzru has captured, in a previous Year in Reading entry, how forbidding Javier Marías’s novels can seem from a distance. (Though maybe this is true of all great stylists. Lolita, anyone?) Marías is a formidably cerebral writer, whose long sentences are like fugues: a theme is introduced, toyed with, pursued to another theme, put down, taken up again. None of this screams pleasure. But neither would a purely formal description of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tremendous pleasure of The Infatuations, Marías’s most recent novel to appear in English, arrives from those most uncerebral places: plot, suspense, character. It’s like a literary version of Strangers on a Train, cool formal mastery put to exquisitely visceral effect. “Don’t open that door, Maria!” The Infatuations is the best new novel I read all year; I knew within the first few pages that I would be reading every book Mariás has written.
All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld
This haunting, poetic novel manages to convey in a short space a great deal about compulsion and memory and the human capacity for good and evil. Wyld’s narrator, Jake, is one of the most distinctive and sympathetic heroines in recent literature, a kind of Down Under Huck Finn. Her descriptions of the Australian outback are indelible. And the novel’s backward-and-forward form manages a beautiful trick: it simultaneously dramatizes the effects of trauma and attends to our more literary hungers: for form, for style. It reminded me forcefully of another fine book that came out of the U.K. this year, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
I’d be embarrassed at my lateness to the Thomas Cromwell saga, were I not so glad to have finally made it. Mantel’s a serious enough historical novelist not to shy away from those conventions of the genre that usually turn me off; the deliberate pacing of her trilogy-in-progress requires some getting used to. But more than a chronicler, Mantel is a novelist, full-stop. She excels at pretty much everything, and plays the long game brilliantly. By the time you get into the intrigues of Bring Up the Bodies, you’re flying so fast you hardly notice the beautiful calibration of the prose, or the steady deepening of the psychology, or the big thoughts the novel is thinking about pragmatism and Englishness and gender and the mystery of personality.
Dispatches, by Michael Herr
If you took the horrific public-burning scene from Wolf Hall, multiplied that by 100, put those pages in a hot-boxed Tomahawk piloted by Dr. Strangelove, and attempted to read them over the blare of the Jefferson Airplane, you’d end up with something like Dispatches. It is simultaneously one of the greatest pieces of New Journalism I’ve ever read and one of the greatest pieces of war writing. Indeed, each achievement enables the other. The putatively embedded journalism of our own wars already looks dated by comparison. Since the publication of Dispatches in 1977, Herr’s output has been slender, but I’d gladly read anything he wrote.
White Girls, by Hilton Als
This nonfiction collection casts its gaze all over the cultural map, from Flannery O’Connor to Michael Jackson, yet even more than most criticism, it adds up to a kind of diffracted autobiography. The longest piece in the book is devastating, the second-longest tough to penetrate, but this unevenness speaks to Als’s virtues as an essayist. His sentences have a quality most magazine writing suffocates beneath a veneer of glibness: the quality of thinking. That is, he seems at once to have a definite point-of-view, passionately held, and to be very much a work in progress. It’s hard to think of higher praise for a critic.
Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel
This collection of sterling essays (many of them from the London Review of Books) covers work by David Graeber, Robert Brenner, Slavoj Zizek, and others, offering a state-of-the-union look at what used to be called political economy — a nice complement to the research findings of Thomas Piketty. Kunkel is admirably unembarrassed by politics as such, and is equally admirable as an autodidact in the field of macroeconomics. He synthesizes from his subjects one of the more persuasive accounts you’ll read about how we got into the mess we’re in. And his writing has lucidity and wit. Of Fredric Jameson, for example, he remarks: “Not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force.”
The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover
The publication this spring of a gargantuan sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, gave me an excuse to go back and read Coover’s first novel, from 48 years ago. As a fan of his midcareer highlights, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, I was expecting postmodern glitter. Instead I got something closer to William Faulkner: tradition and modernity collide in a mining town beset by religious fanaticism. Yet with the attenuation of formal daring comes an increased access to Coover’s capacity for beauty, in which he excels many of his well-known peers. Despite its (inspired) misanthropy, this is a terrific novel. I couldn’t help wishing, as I did with much of what I read this year, that my old man was still around, that I might recommend it to him, and so repay the debt.
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Flannery O’Connor earned her undergraduate degree in social sciences at Georgia State College for Women, a teachers’ college. O’Connor considered that career, but was “rather glad things didn’t work out that way.” She entered the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the rest is literary history.
Although O’Connor admitted that she was “in a state of pristine innocence” when it came to teaching, she had many opinions about the profession. In “The Teaching of Literature,” an address to English teachers later collected into an essay, O’Connor assails the “utilitarian” approach of doctoral studies in English, where it is assumed that novels “must do something, rather than be something.” She expects more of English teachers, who are “a sort of middle-man” in the “standing dispute between the novelist and the public.” Aimee Bender says O’Connor’s voice “often has a scolding edge,” but teachers at all levels would do well to listen.
In O’Connor’s experience, teachers often fell short of helping students see that the “business of fiction [is] to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind.” Her words were a Southern, Irish-Catholic take on a phrase from The Ivory Tower, an unfinished novel by Henry James. For O’Connor, “the mystery he was talking about is the mystery of our position on earth, and the manners are those conventions which, in the hands of the artist, reveal that central mystery.”
Her own teachers found ways to “ignore the nature of literature” by instead discussing literary history, examining the psychology of the author, or considering a work’s social application, as if it were a policy document. In fact, if a teacher were “astute and energetic,” she could “integrate English literature with geography, biology, home economics, basketball, or fire prevention — with anything at all that will put off a little longer the evil day when the story or novel must be examined simply as a story or novel.”
Halfway through “The Teaching of Literature,” O’Connor stops talking about instruction and begins talking about the real focus of her discussion, something that sounds very close to her own work: “Possibly the question most often asked these days about modern fiction is why do we keep on getting novels about freaks and poor people, engaged always in some violent, destructive action, when, actually, in this country, we are rich and strong and democratic and the man in the street is possessed of a general good-will which overflows in all directions.” O’Connor rejects such a sensibility that attempts to “separate mystery from manners in fiction, and thereby to make it more palatable to the modern taste.” The novelist must never be asked to “begin with an examination of statistics rather than with an examination of conscience.” The novelist, and perhaps the teacher, “uses his eyes” in another way, in which “judgment is implicit in the act of seeing. His vision cannot be detached from his moral sense.” No tidy literature, and no over-planned, programmatic lessons. The novelist and teacher are both charged with making messes suffused with grace.
In “Flannery O’Connor’s Writing: A Guide for the Perplexed,” (pdf) Michael M. Jordan explains that O’Connor should remain on syllabi because of her “hard yet radiant wit,” her original and powerful representation of a Christian artistic vision, and for her storytelling method, which “uses violence, exaggeration, distortion to shock us into a serious consideration of religious dogmas and mysteries.” To the uninitiated reader or student, these dynamic elements often cause confusion.
As a Catholic, I find O’Connor less perplexing than illuminating. This is not to say that Catholics own her writing. A very lapsed Catholic, Joyce Carol Oates, says it well: “To readers and critics to whom life is not at all mysterious, but simply a matter of processes, her writing will seem unnaturally rigorous, restrained, even compulsive. It is certainly ‘neurotic.’ However, if one believes that life is essentially mysterious, then literature is a celebration of that mystery, a pushing toward the ‘limits of mystery.’”
Jordan reminds us that O’Connor believed “fiction is art, not primarily moral instruction, not a type of catechism.” That refusal to be clean and tidy in her fiction has unsettled readers and critics on all sides. O’Connor explained that her “violent literary means” were necessary to communicate to the world of her fiction to a secular audience, a readership often “hostile” to religious fiction.
Because her religion so profoundly formed her cultural and artistic senses, O’Connor is difficult for most students. In fact, many of the essential writers my students find the most difficult are Catholics: Thomas Pynchon, Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, James Joyce, and Toni Morrison. This is not to claim that their Catholicism makes them innately worthy of study — a claim that would be laughed away by O’Connor — rather, that their works speak to the diversity and complexity of sacramental visions of the world. In an educational sense, the extent of their religious practice is less important than the appropriation of Catholic iconography, symbolism, narrative tradition, and even the ritual language of Mass. Whether respectful or parodic of the Word, they all have been formed by it. O’Connor was the most publicly Catholic of the bunch, and, notwithstanding Pynchon’s eccentricities, the strangest on the page. Which, I think, makes her worth teaching.
Writer Constance Hale first encountered Flannery O’Connor’s work at Princeton in the late 1970s. Princeton started admitting women in 1969, but the campus was “still a male bastion,” where men greatly outnumbered women on syllabi. An English major who wanted to write, Hale “was aching to read literature written by women, and I was desperate to find teachers who could help me formulate some of the ideas that preoccupied me (like, Who are the muses of female poets? Or, Why do I love Virginia Woolf so much? Or, If women’s literature is invisible in the academy, where does that put me as a young writer?)” Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop were given cursory coverage, but writers like Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Rich, and Muriel Rukeyser were absent. Hale asked her professor why. His answer: “We teach the canon.”
Hale and other students “scoured the syllabi of every English course taught,” discovering that other than courses in the 19th century novel, women were largely absent. The department chair was sympathetic to their concerns. By the end of that semester, a course titled “The Southern Short Story” was created, including fiction by Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty.
Now O’Connor is a mainstay of college courses, but still requires context and explanation. Fr. Mark Bosco, S.J., a professor of English and Theology at Loyola University, Chicago, stresses her status as a Southern writer, as a woman in a male-dominated publishing world, and her “identity as a devout Catholic whose faith informed everything she did and ordered all her understanding of the power of art.” At the start of a course, his students know “very little” about O’Connor, “except that I am fanatical about her work.” Fr. Bosco teaches her stories in series of four, beginning with “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” and sometimes “The River,” but says little “to allow students to register their own reactions to O’Connor’s works.” Only after the second story does he discuss “her Catholic imagination, of the way sacramentality is a kind of aesthetic strategy in her work, and how this strategy is so akin to art and metaphor.” He ends with the existential and religious discourses of “Parker’s Back” (pdf) and “Revelation” (pdf). This is when his classes finally “get” O’Connor. As one student told him, “not knowing the religious aspects of her stories is like not knowing that there is cake under the icing.”
One refrain I heard when speaking with those who teach O’Connor is the need to acknowledge her complexity. Writer Paul Lisicky, who teaches in the Rutgers-Camden MFA program, says “it’s so easy to simplify O’Connor. Even sophisticated readers are prone to missing out on all the nuances in the work. First timers tend to read the stories as satire. Yes O’Connor is poking fun, but she also believes in her characters’ capacity to change–that’s what distinguishes her from a satirist. In the classroom I spend a lot of time talking about all the complexities inside those moments of grace. Those moments (not ‘Why you’re one of God’s babies’ but ‘Why you’re one of my babies’) always manage to demolish a simple interpretation, and that’s what’s astonishing about them. You can’t tame the stories, they refuse to sit still, refuse good manners, and you’re not paying full attention if you’re not destroyed a little by them. Well, destroyed and vitalized.”
Destroyed and vitalized is the best phrase I’ve heard to explain the redemptive power of O’Connor’s fiction. I mean redemptive in the Catholic sense, but more widely so in the narrative sense. The sheer originality of her stories shows students how amplifying their surrounding world can make great fiction. Now, 50 years after her death, when she is a staple of syllabi and the very canon that previously excluded her and other women, it is most important to stress fresh approaches to her work within the classroom.
This, of course, begins in the way we write about O’Connor. Two recent works of note are Carlene Bauer’s epistolary novel, Frances and Bernard, a fictionalization of the correspondence and friendship of O’Connor and the poet Robert Lowell, and RT Smith’s The Red Wolf, a book of poems that effectively channel O’Connor’s persona. Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, a consideration of O’Connor along with Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day, remains an essential reference. One of the most original examinations of her work and influence is A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America, a sequence of essays by David Griffith. Griffith examines American conceptions of violence in the art and thought of Andy Warhol and Susan Sontag, in films like Pulp Fiction, Blue Velvet, and The Exorcist, and in everyday life (one essay is titled “Regarding the Electric Chair My Wife’s College Boyfriend Built in His House”). Griffith’s locus is the Abu Ghraib prison photographs. He thinks O’Connor would have found them “grotesque,” but in her own definition, that the grotesque “makes visible hidden ‘discrepancies’ between character and belief.” Abu Ghraib unwound American innocence through shock, in the same metaphorical way her fiction disrupts and disturbs us. Similarly, American public reaction to the photographs — the tendency to identify the perpetrators as in no way representative of “us” — is reflective of O’Connor’s “judgment of what she saw as the modern attitude toward ‘redemption’: Everyone wants it, but no one stops to consider its real cost.”
Griffith now directs the creative writing program at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, but first taught O’Connor to gifted high school students in Pennsylvania. They were “savvy readers,” “precocious storytellers,” and “astute observers of literary conventions,” but they “struggled” with meaning; they “wanted to leap straight for it and pin it down, like it was the jugular and then sit back satisfied once they felt they had punctured it.” Biographical and cultural context was essential. Students needed to know “how lupus required her to live with her mother on their small Georgia farm; how being a well-read, well-catechized Catholic in central Georgia might cause you to regard Protestants; and how her faith lead her to understand the work of writing.” Those biographical mini-lectures, as well as excerpts from workslike “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South” (pdf) and “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” helped students understand that O’Connor “felt that what happens to the Grandmother in ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ was a moment of Grace.” Students soon “fell in love with Flannery” more than the work of other writers. Her fiction revealed that the best artists held “a sense of urgency, a sense that what they are doing is the working-out of larger, personal concerns and obsessions.” Although the vast majority of his students did not share O’Connor’s religion, her Catholic worldview–an “Augustinian view that all is sacred except sin, or the Kierkegaardian view that even the man knocking at the door of the brothel is looking for God”–so fully informs her work that students benefit from observing a writer suffused with a passion, “that there is a definite philosophy and worldview there underneath all these wooden-legged philosophers, and one-armed hoboes, and Polish refugee farmhands.” Griffith teaches O’Connor “because I love her work and think it is important, but also because it helps young writers who might feel they have strong convictions about the world see that the next step is seeing what happens when you test them in the crucible of fiction.”
Bryan Giemza, author of Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South, teaches O’Connor’s fiction at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. He admits that her stories “are getting harder to teach” as students become less biblically-literate; “when Manly Pointer makes off with Hulga/Joy’s leg in ‘Good Country People,’ (pdf) they don’t necessarily see it as an illustration of the importance of losing the limb that bars entry to the kingdom of God.” Giemza explains that O’Connor’s “droll humor” often happens when “scripture is misquoted, misappropriated, or misunderstood to suit the purposes of a character.” In that way, students are similar to O’Connor’s contemporary readers, so the hard work of teaching “is helping them to see how often they are tricked into thinking a character is repellent–only to see their own face reflected there. And to demonstrate that grace by its nature is hard, and that hope is by nature a test of faith.”
He recommends her recently released Prayer Journal and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” as good starting points for students. Her journal allows him to “point out the various prayer traditions she canvasses and how she shared in the aspirations and worries of someone their age, albeit someone with an incredible depth of field, spiritually speaking. She commands respect that way.” I like Giemza’s method in teaching her popular story. He tells students “things tend towards their ends, that we are creatures of habit, and that virtue has to be practiced. I give them a series of statements to respond to, like ‘I’m basically a good person.’ A majority of my students agree with that position, and aren’t aware that it flies in the face of orthodoxy, and certainly goes against Flannery O’Connor’s belief. They’re usually stunned to learn that no less an authority than Christ said that no man is good. And those who condemn the grandmother have to be shown their own warts, just like those who despise the mother in ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge,’ (pdf) with her patronizing coin, need to be reminded of the story of the widow’s mite.”
O’Connor is one of the best at peeling back our public covers and showing those warts. Like so many writers chided for their disturbing content, criticisms of her work are often less about the texts themselves, and more about our refusals as readers, students, and teachers to examine our own lives. Perhaps even more than her odd characters, it is the “stark racism” of O’Connor’s world that pushes away some of Giemza’s students. But Giemza doesn’t want them to blink; “the danger . . . is that students who (think they) live in a post-racial age must still contend with the sins of the fathers, and I am surprised by how many can blithely accept that those sins have been expiated. Perhaps they don’t see its urgency, but here in the region that helped the nation understand its first fall (i.e. the legacies of our foundation in slavery), we have a duty to try to come to grips with it. It remains the essence of the fallen-ness in her work, and its insistence that God is no respecter of persons or the hierarchies of the temporal order, which can be inverted at a stroke.”
Flannery O’Connor makes an appearance in White Girls, a collection of fact and fiction by Hilton Als. In “The Lonesome Place,” Als explains that O’Connor’s “black characters are not symbols defined in opposition to whiteness; they are the living people who were, physically at least, on the periphery of O’Connor’s own world.” She portrayed her black characters in a more authentic way than William Faulkner; she “didn’t use them as vessels of sympathy or scorn; she simply–and complexly–drew from life.” And O’Connor’s racists were realer, more evil than Faulkner’s bigots: they were the nice ladies who patronized black children on the bus, or the old woman “who loves to regale her grandchildren with stories about the ‘pickaninnies’ of her antebellum youth.” Those women “wouldn’t know grace if it slapped them in the face–which it often does.”
Like many, I introduce O’Connor with “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” but I think “Parker’s Back” delivers the best intellectual slap. The story’s theological pivot–a misunderstanding of a character’s tattoo of Christ as an act of idolatry rather than iconography–can be explained to students once the story is experienced on a dramatic level.
The story shows how O’Connor’s understanding of bodies was formed by her Catholicism, and through her own suffering from lupus. She refined “Parker’s Back” while home at Andalusia twenty pounds lighter after four blood transfusions, and finished the story within a month of her death in August, 1964. Biographer Brad Gooch notes that O’Connor “devoted every inch of her consciousness” to “Parker’s Back” and another story, “Judgment Day,” and that dedication shows. Parker’s body, identity, and soul transform within the story. He never has a sense of “wonder in himself” until he sees a performer tattooed head to foot. A lapsed Methodist, Parker undergoes a spiritual awakening when he watches the performer “[flex] his muscles so that the arabesque of men and beasts and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own.” The sight of this man is the first clue for Parker “that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed.”
Parker soon gets a tattoo, and the process is Catholic in sentiment: “It hurt very little, just enough to make it appear to Parker to be worth doing.” Those tattoos are the first thing that simultaneously attracts and repels his future wife, Sarah Ruth. She is a fundamentalist caricature who “insisted that the pictures on the skin were vanity of vanities” and “thought churches were idolatrous.” In order to keep her around, though, Parker decides to get a religious tattoo on his back.
This is where I pause the story. If the students have been paying close attention, they should recognize this is a fool’s errand. Sarah Ruth rejects her husband’s tattoos not because of their subjects, but their defacement of his body. Parker misunderstands this. His conversation with the tattoo artist encapsulates the entire story:
The artist went over to a cabinet at the back of the room and began to look over some art books. “Who are you interested in?” he said, “saints, angels, Christs or what?”
“God,” Parker said.
“Father, Son or Spirit?”
“Just God,” Parker said impatiently. “Christ. I don’t care. Just so it’s God.”
Parker is the classic O’Connor character, a man who cannot “see” or understand those who surround him, whose blindness hides God. His large tattoo requires two days of work, and so he spends the night at a Christian mission, where the “only light was from a phosphorescent cross glowing at the end of the room.” He can only see the “little red and blue and ivory and saffron squares” of the work in progress, not the Christ to come.
When Parker returns home, Christ on his back, sensitive readers know the reunion will not end well. O’Connor is not a writer of mundane surprises. She is a writer of transformations. Sarah Ruth refuses to open the door for her husband, saying “It ain’t nobody I know,” which symbolically could refer to Parker or to the tattooed image of Christ on his back. She screams: “God? God don’t look like that!” Parker asks how Sarah Ruth would know the look of God, and she responds “he don’t look . . . He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.” She beats Parker with a broom until “large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ.”
The final paragraph is pure O’Connor: “She stamped the broom two or three times on the floor and went to the window and shook it out to get the taint of him off it. Still gripping it, she looked toward the pecan tree and her eyes hardened still more. There he was–who called himself Obadiah Elihue–leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.”
Flannery O’Connor reminds us that the best way to read a story is to encounter the work on its own merits. A student, O’Connor writes, needs to have the tools of understanding “proper to the structure of the work, tools proper to the craft. They are tools that operate inside the work and not outside it; they are concerned with how this story is made and with what makes it work as a story.” O’Connor’s interior idea of art helps literature students experience words and not merely project theories. Her fiction helps young writers craft stories and not sermons, religious or otherwise. She warns “for the reading of literature ever to become a habit and a pleasure, it must first be a discipline.” We might think her intonations stern, but we are lucky to have her as a teacher.