Embrace the Mystery: Easter & Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor, Prayer Journal ($18), Wise Blood ($15), Mystery & Manners ($16), and The Complete Short Stories ($18)

Futurebirds, “Sam Jones,” Hampton’s Lullaby

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On Easter Sunday, this north Georgia Baptist sat in a New Orleans Catholic church thinking of Flannery O’Connor. I recently finished Mystery & Manners, O’Conner’s posthumous publication of essays and lectures about writing, religion, and peacocks. Mystery & Manners led me to several so-called “Southern gothic” short stories from The Complete Short Stories collection. So there I sat in St. Francis of Assisi’s stained glass-colored nave with a head full of Flannery O’Connor’s characters—murderers and grandmothers, a bigot barber, and a Bible salesman who ran off with a woman’s wooden leg after she seduced him, leaving her one-legged up a ladder in a barn’s second floor.

The priest’s sermon directed us to confront Easter confusion with Easter faith and, in full embrace, surrender ourselves to the mystery of life. The priest read from the Gospel of John, showing how Mary Magdalene walked in the dark before dawn and discovered that new life had risen from the tomb.

My wife and I recently read aloud O’Connor’s Prayer Journal, which she wrote when she was 21, away at college and drafting Wise Blood. It offers an intimate connection between reader and author because, in reading someone’s prayers, we recognize shared insecurities and fears. For example, O’Connor writes, “My mind is a most insecure thing, not to be depended on. It gives me scruples at one minute & leaves me lax the next.” She prays for divine strength to restrain her ego from eclipsing her view of God: “You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self as the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon.” She prays for grace and for faith. She admits confusion and prays for Christian principles to “permeate” her writing.

I asked Joe DeSalvo (owner of Faulkner House Books) about the Prayer Journal and he responded that, “Any writer who wants to be a great writer must read Mystery & Manners.” I quickly appreciated Joe’s advice when in the first chapter, “The King of the Birds,” I underlined and reread a dark truth: “Necessity is the mother of several other things besides invention.” Her clarity of verse draws us closer to understanding the human condition.

In her essay, “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” O’Connor discusses living with the teetotaler descendants of famous Methodist evangelist, Sam Jones. It reminded me of a song, “Sam Jones,” by Futurebirds, a critically acclaimed Athens, Georgia-based band. A full century after Sam Jones converted Tom Ryman, the riverboat casino and country music barroom owner, Futurebirds’ Sam Jones gives up on the mystery of life, scratches lottery tickets and waits to die.

O’Connor argues that Southern identity is found not at the surface of “mocking-birds and beaten biscuits [or] hookworm and bare feet,” but in the deepest “qualities that endure,” passed along generations of scripture-haunted people living in the balance of good and evil. Futurebirds’ Daniel Womack questions over a whining pedal steel guitar, “Sam Jones, are you liking what you see?” O’Connor may answer that the truth “is known only to God, but of those who look for it, none gets so close as the artist.”

O’Connor demands that artists and writers stare at everything possible to seek meaning worth extracting. She worries about her generation, which was groomed to eliminate mystery. She defends herself as a Christian writer because, having embraced the mystery of Christ’s resurrection, she is able to see other mysteries of life on earth.

During St. Francis’s Easter service, a little boy sat doodling in the pew behind us. At a quiet moment, he shouted to his mother, “I found the mystery!” In good manners, his mother shushed him.

O’Connor writes about people and their manners which, she argues, reveal to the reader—and writer—mysteries of the human condition. She claims that she did not know her Bible salesman would steal the woman’s wooden leg until five lines before he stole it. Like Mary Magdalene on the first Easter, O’Connor walks in the dark until she has discovered the story worth sharing.

Below is a sampling of her advice to writers about good writing.

–Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

On grace:

In my stories a reader will find that the devil accomplishes a good deal of groundwork that seems to be necessary before grace is effective…. There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment…. And frequently it is an action in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace.

On good fiction:

A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you. In fiction two and two is always more than four.

On mystery and manners:

It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind…. The mystery [Henry James] 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.

On the job of a writer:

The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.

On experience:

If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.” (84)

On perception:

The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins.

On drawing:

Any discipline can help your writing: logic, mathematics, theology, and of course and particularly drawing. Anything that helps you to see, anything that makes you look. The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that doesn’t require his attention.

More on looking:

But there’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene. For him, the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima affects life on the Oconee River, and there’s not anything he can do about it…. People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.

See also, generally, David Griffith’s Paris Review article, “Reading Flannery O’Connor in the age of Islamaphobia.”

 

Faulkner in New Orleans

William Faulkner came to New Orleans early in March 1939 for three days of fishing with local friends. (The Deutches? Hermann was the model for the reporter in his novel Pylon.) Someone from the newspaper spoke with Faulkner at the friend’s home and soon after published an article in the Item on their conversation. He disclosed Faulkner’s opinion that from the South would come the country’s finest art; another Keats would someday emerge. Also, he spoke of the poseur writers and the character of those dedicated to the craft; the unreality of his Hollywood days and a bit about the three-volume novel he was then working on—obviously the Snopes Trilogy. His description of Faulkner is incisive, particularly the emphasis on his eyes.

The complete article follows, thanks to The Historic New Orleans Collection.

Finds South Keeping Up Art Interest: William Faulkner Here Has Good Word For His Homeland

The New Orleans Item, April 5, 1939

William Faulkner, the writer whose books about Southern poor whites and more poor Negroes have pictured Southern decay, degeneration and doom, passed through New Orleans this morning and said quite a few good words for the South.

“The South seems to be the only place in the country that is interested in art these days,” he said at the home of friends who were preparing to take him on a three-day fishing trip. “Maybe it’s because the North is more industrialized than we are. Maybe in 80 years we’ll be as highly industrialized and we’ll quit turning out art.”

Looking for Keats

Faulkner, who’s lived most of his life in the little town of Oxford, Miss., and who still lives there with his wife and 6-year-old daughter, has a picture in his mind of “maybe a Keats coming out of the backwoods, a hardshell Baptist with a celluloid collar and a short tie, who writes good poetry.” He thinks maybe this backwoods Keats will show up one of these days.

Faulkner doesn’t have any hopes for the scores of would-be writers who are living down in the French Quarter, sitting around in cafes and bars nightly talking about what they’re going to write. Faulkner lived in the Quarter himself around 1925, wrote his first published book, “Soldier’s Pay” down there. “But the fellows who are going places are too busy working to sit around and talk about it.”

Not Very Sociable

 Faulkner is a short, delicately built man, with a slender face, medium-sized mustache, and a rather high-pitched voice. His dark black eyes are his strongest feature, and they’re more impressive for their brilliance than their expressiveness. He’s not expressive, demonstrative, or really sociable, and he doesn’t like to talk about writing.

His novels are acute and keen studies of Southern characters, generally drawn from the lower economic levels. They contain a good many horrible and gruesome incidents. “Wild Palms,” his latest book, is really two books. He wrote one story and thought it was good but not enough. So he write [sic] another and slipped the chapters of the two in between each other like shuffling a deck of cards, only not so haphazardly. “I played them against each other,” he said. “Contrapuntally.”

Poor Writer

 It’s interesting to note that he, himself, can’t read his writings sometimes. But that’s only when they’re in manuscript. He writes in an extremely pinched hand which goes back to the days when he had to economize on writing paper. It is even and fine, but to anyone else not only looks like, but is, as unreadable as Greek. He says he can’t read it if he leaves it for a time.

The days when he was a struggling and unknown writer have left a slight touch of bitterness in him. The writing business, “which is a job,” would be all right “if you didn’t have to stop and boil the pot now and then.” He doesn’t consider any of his books pot-boilers, but was alluding to other work he couldn’t bring himself to mention.

Just Tokens

On the other hand, when he was making fabulous sums in Hollywood he wasn’t happy, either. “It ain’t money you make out there. It comes and goes. It’s just tokens.”

He’s now working on a three-volume novel he began in New Orleans 5 years ago. He’d have finished it sooner, but for boiling the pot.

It’s about a poor white who comes to a little Southern town and teaches the populace corruption in government and…. ­­M. A.

 

There was no byline. The M. A. at the end is speculated to be Michael Amrine.

-Joe DeSalvo, owner, Faulkner House Books

 

 

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This photograph accompanied the article in the New Orleans Item.

 

Anthony Beevor’s Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, with Some Personal and Literary Reflections

Earlier I wrote that World War II began for me on December 4, 1941, the day before my 9th birthday, when my mother’s younger brother, who lived with us and shared a bedroom with me, was inducted into the army. Three days later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. These two events awakened in me an unquenchable yearning to understand humanity’s greatest folly. The history of World War II became a reading obsession and the most recent book is Anthony Beevor’s Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge (2015). I had read his Stalingrad, an exhaustive, illuminating and brilliant history of a bloody and pivotal conflict, the first major setback for the Third Reich. Ardennes 1944 is equally praise-worthy. Two, albeit remote, personal connections and an awareness that three prominent American writers were combatants in the Battle also drew me to Beevor’s latest book.

The German Ardennes offensive surprised our military commanders. The war in Europe, they felt, was virtually over; victory was weeks away. Paris had been liberated and Allied forces were at the Rhine River.

Adolph Hitler, feeling invincible after surviving a botched assassination attempt, was convinced that the alliance of the United States, Britain, Canada and France was fragile and would likely fracture if seriously challenged. To that end, a major force of two Panzer armies, brought to full capacity with older men, younger boys and with units moved from the Russian front, launched a surprise attack through the Ardennes Forest on December 15, 1944. Though the counter-offensive began immediately, within two weeks German tanks and troops had advanced 90 kilometers through the middle of Allied forces, trapping several units.

The 101st Airborne Division, commanded by General Anthony McAuliffe was encircled at Bastogne, Belgium. Though weakened by recent bitter fighting in Holland, it was moved there on December 18th. Four days later a German truce delegation approached General McAuliffe’s Headquarters with an ultimatum: to surrender or face annihilation. The General’s one-word response was “nuts.” Airdrops of critical supplies enabled the Division to maintain its defense until General George Patton’s tanks broke through the enemy lines on December 29th. The next day Patton himself entered Bastogne wearing his trademark pearl-handle pistols.

Soon after the German attack began, my father received a notice to report for an army physical. He was 33, married with three children. He passed the examination and was ordered to report for training on February 1, 1945. I still recall the overwhelming gloom; the worry—how would we manage?—and the fear—mother and I were aware of the enormous casualties, many from the unrelenting frigid weather. Troop replacements were hastily trained younger boys or, like my father, older men.

Near the end of January and after suffering 80,000 casualties, what remained of the two Panzer armies had been pushed back to the German border. The Russian winter campaign had begun and my father’s army induction was canceled. In less then 4 months, Allied armies entered Berlin, Hitler killed himself and Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8, 1945.

Ten years later, I am a 22-year-old recently commissioned Second Lieutenant in the Military Police Corps at my first duty station, Ford Hood, in Killeen, Texas. General Anthony McAuliffe is the port commander. Late on Sunday afternoon the M.P. at the Fort’s main gate stopped an erratically driven car from exiting the Fort. A few minutes of conversation convinced the M.P. that the driver, a Captain, was drunk. He then called me—I was the duty officer that day—and said I needed to come and resolve the matter since an officer was involved. Amid the storm of abuse that greeted me, he insisted that he had to return that day to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Much too risky, I concluded. So we locked the car, left the keys at the main gate, and I arranged for the Captain to spend the night in the Bachelor Office Quarters. His final threat was that I would regret my decision and should expect to be before the post commander in the morning.

Sure enough, waiting at Company Headquarters on Monday morning was an order for me to report immediately to General McAuliffe. The meeting was military formal. The General asked what had occurred Sunday afternoon with the Captain. I explained the Captain’s incapacity to drive safely, his behavior with the gate M.P. and with me, and the action I felt it essential to take. He listened without interruption and acknowledged that what I had done was proper. He apologized for the Captain’s attitude and explained that he obviously had too much to drink at a reunion celebration for men who had been trapped at Bastogne 10 years earlier. He thanked and dismissed me.

Not attending any reunion were the three prominent American writers who fought in the Battle of the Bulge: Ernest Hemingway, J. D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut.

Ernest Hemingway was a war correspondent, but journalism wasn’t a high priority. He demonstrated his fearlessness under fire many times.

J.D. Salinger, with the 12th Infantry Regiment, wrote short stories throughout the Battle whenever he could find an unoccupied foxhole. He was fortunate enough to receive a fresh pair of knitted woolen socks each week from his mother.

Kurt Vonnegut, the least fortunate of the three, was in the 423 Infantry Regiment. His fellow soldiers he described as a mixture of college kids and others who had likely enlisted to avoid jail. His regiment, encircled by German artillery, chose surrender rather than annihilation. Some 8,000 men were taken captive. It was the second largest of the War after the Bataan Death March in 1942. In his novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut writes about the horrors of war. He survived the firebombing of Dresden where he was held prisoner.

So there you have it: a good book, a bit of history, some literary trivia and a touch of the boy and the young lieutenant I once was. For the last I ask your indulgence. At 83, I seem to spend more time remembering than I do dreaming. My sincere desire remains, however, not only to share what I’ve learned but also to use what I know to help me learn what I don’t know. One is never too old for that.

-Joe DeSalvo, owner, Faulkner House Books

 

 

Anthony Beevor Ardennes book

Come Celebrate Roy Blount, Jr. March 13

Join Roy Blount, Jr. and the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society on Sunday, March 13 to celebrate Roy’s new book, Save Room for Pie. The event is free and open to the public. There will be free pie for all, so save room for it.

The celebration will take place from 2:30-4:30 p.m. at Faulkner House, 624 Pirate’s Alley in New Orleans. To reserve a copy of Roy’s book, call Faulkner House Books at (504) 524-2940.

Please RSVP at faulkhouse@aol.com, so we have plenty of pie to go around.

To learn more about the author, go to Roy’s page on the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society website. You can also watch  Roy’s YouTube video to hear his advice on how to eat in the South.

About Save Room for Pie:

One of America’s most cherished comic writers, Roy has been compared to Mark Twain and James Thurber, and his books have been called everything from “a work of art” (Robert W. Creamer, The New York Times Book Review) to “a book to read till it falls apart” (Newsweek). Now, in Save Room for Pie, he applies his much-praised wit and charm to a rich and fundamental topic: food.

As a lifelong eater, Blount always got along easy with food―he didn’t have to think, he just ate. But food doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there’s the global climate and the global economy to consider, not to mention Blount’s chronic sinusitis, which constricts his sense of smell, and consequently his taste buds. So while he’s always frowned on eating with an ulterior motive, times have changed. Save Room for Pie grapples with these and other food-related questions in Blount’s signature style. Here you’ll find lively meditations on everything from bacon froth to grapefruit, Kobe beef to biscuits. You’ll also find defenses of gizzards, mullet, okra, cane syrup, watermelon, and boiled peanuts; an imagined dialogue between Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; input from Louis Armstrong, Frederick Douglass, and Blaze Starr; and of course some shampooed possums and carjacking turkeys.

In poems and songs, limericks and fake (or sometimes true) news stories, Blount talks about food in surprising and innovative ways, with all the wit and verve that prompted Garrison Keillor, in The Paris Review, to say: “Blount is the best. He can be literate, uncouth, and soulful all in one sentence.”

 

— Hayley Lynch, Editorial Associate, Faulkner Society

 

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Vote for Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society

The Gulf Coast Bank & Trust Company is running an online competition for charitable nonprofits. The nonprofits that get the most votes will share $50,000. The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society is among those nonprofits competing. Help us continue our literacy programs for at-risk youngsters by voting for the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society daily through March 15. Any funds received from this competition will be earmarked for this purpose.

Vote HERE!

It’s a simple process. If you have not previously voted, you need only fill in your email and click for an access number the first time. Thereafter, you will use the same access code daily.

Bookmark the page and vote daily! We will be grateful for your help.

–Rosemary James, Co-Founder, Faulkner Society

Mardi Gras: “It’s About Being Happy, Baby!”

FHB Mardi Gras

It’s carnival time in the Crescent City. I’m sitting inside Faulkner House behind St. Louis Cathedral listening to musicians’ brass horns and drumbeats blowing up the alley from Jackson Square.

Two women entered with plastic beads jangling around their necks. One of them asked me for books about Mardi Gras. As I directed them to our New Orleans history section and reached for one of my favorites, Lyle Saxon’s Gumbo Ya-Ya (70th Anniversary Edition, River Road Press), a bearded man flashed by our glass doors playing his arms like a trombone. He flashed by again, marching high-knees, pumping an arm up and down with the jazz beat and tooting a loose fist at his mouth.

I opened the door and told him these customers wanted to know about Mardi Gras. He kicked ahead but set his solo parade at a slight diagonal and yelled back to us: “It’s about being happy, baby!”

We wish y’all a happy Mardi Gras!

-Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books