Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. –Flannery O’Connor
At almost fifteen hundred pages including a glossary, Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, edited by Laurence Perrine and Thomas R. Arp, was in its sixth edition and had a list of copyright dates that took up two lines in the book, the most recent being just one year prior to when I started college in the fall of 1994. Like most college books, I’d have to take out a student loan to pay for it. The book was a plain-looking purple, my favorite color, and it was required for what had always been my favorite class: English.
I thumbed through the glossary finding that each chapter was devoted to certain elements of literature: irony, theme, character, plot. The book was divided into different sections for short stories, poems, drama, and more. I scrunched up my nose when I spotted Shakespeare’s name in the drama section under Comedy and Tragedy. I had already studied Shakespeare all four years in high school. Did I really have to do it again my first year in college?
In fact, that was the first lesson I learned about college. I’d spend the first two years taking classes I’d already taken in high school: Science, Math, English, and History. Though I had a choice, my high school counselor urged me to take these all four years because that was considered “college-prep,” which really means nothing in the grand scheme of things since you’ll take them again when you get to college anyway.
But college calls them “pre-requisites” for your degree. I now know what they really mean is every degree requires these “pre-requisites” because most students have no idea what they want to do when they get into college and will change their degree two or three or ten times anyway. Since almost all of these classes transfer to every degree, you haven’t wasted your first two years of college and still stand a chance of getting out of college in four years with a degree in something.
Since my plan was to major in English with concentration in creative writing, I considered English Composition 101 a necessary attribute to my college profession. I picked up the book and paid the bookstore cashier with a pint of blood and the promised soul of my first unborn child.
My professor’s name was Steve Black, a skinny blond kid in a tweed coat who I swore couldn’t have been a year or two older than me. And to make matters even stranger, he was married to the Psych professor who was old enough to be his grand mother. I’d been warned by a friend who knew Mr. Black that he was obsessed with a writer named William Faulkner and spent half the semester teaching him. I’d never heard of Faulkner, but anything was better than Shakespeare.
But that explained why we also had to buy a Faulkner omnibus for the class. Faulkner had two stories in Chapter Nine of the Literature textbook which was devoted to “The Scale of Value.” I had no idea what that meant, and it didn’t matter. I didn’t connect with Faulkner at all that semester. Despite Mr. Black’s fascination and enthusiasm over the Oxford, Mississippi author, I just wasn’t as inspired.
Other than his short story, “A Rose for Emily,” which I probably only remembered because of the grotesque shock at the end, nothing else stayed with me. I learned Faulkner was a drunk who liked to write on the walls of his office. I could appreciate his eccentricities, but I skipped out on the classroom field trip to his historical Mississippi home at the end of the semester. It was only for extra credit anyway.
But there was one short story from a different Southern writer we read that did capture my attention, one I would never forget. Her name was Flannery O’Connor and the story was called “Greenleaf.” It was in Chapter Six: Symbol and Irony. The story was first published in 1965 in O’Connor’s anthology called Everything That Rises Must Converge. It was her final book, though she would never see its publication. She died from a long battle with lupus the year before its release.
Though O’Connor was a devout Catholic, she was extremely unapologetic when it came to religious themes in her fiction. Her Southern characters often underwent traumatic transformations, sometimes involving pain and violence, while in pursuit of God.
In “Greenleaf,” a farm owner named Mrs. May and her hired hand’s wife, Mrs. Greenleaf, have two very different outlooks on religion. Mrs. Greenleaf practices healings while lying on the ground and yelling out, “Oh, Jesus, stab me in the heart!” Mrs. May just scoffs at that. “Jesus would be ashamed of you,” Mrs. May tells Mrs. Greenleaf, “He would tell you to get up from there this instant and go wash your children’s clothes.”
The symbolism comes from several different elements in the story, including one pesky bull that is running loose on Mrs. May’s property. I loved the story, finding the symbolism in it right away, and I would luckily have the chance to explore two more of O’Connor’s short stories in future literature classes.
In her story “Good Country People,” a door-to-door Bible salesman steals the prosthetic leg of one of his customer’s daughters. It’s a dirty little story about how evil lurks where we least expect it.
In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a nagging grandmother unknowingly leads herself and her family into the path of danger with a dreadful ending that still haunts me today. Several of my future English professors referenced “A Good Man” in class, and it made me feel good that I had read it and was able to actively discuss it in class.
Flannery was quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. When I learned she had lupus and walked with crutches, I related to the pain that must have inspired her writing at some point. I had always walked with my feet pointed outward instead of straight ahead. My parents never took me to a podiatrist and I never wore braces because of it; I did have an aunt who often scolded me by yelling out “Walk right!” to me in public places.
The way I walked had brought me great ridicule my whole entire life. My grade school classmates were particularly nasty toward me because of it. I could force myself to walk with my feet forward, and even marched that way in high school band all four years, but my feet naturally pointed to the sides and they still do to this day. While my physical ailment was nowhere near what Flannery experienced, I still felt a connection to her because of it. Sure, I know you are thinking that me comparing myself to Flannery because of her major ailment and my minor one is a far stretch, and I agree, but bear with me.
Like me, Flannery also had a deep love of animals, especially birds. She raised raucously loud peacocks and referenced them in her writing, often writing them in as ambiguous symbols in the background. She scoffed at those who considered them pets because she felt she was more like a servant to the birds.
While I didn’t have any peacocks running around, I had tended to chickens, ducks, pigeons, and a number of indoor caged birds most of my adolescent life. I had frequently written short stories about animals in my grade school journals. This admiration for feathered friends that I shared with her only made me admire and respect her more.
When I first began reading Flannery’s stories, I assumed she struggled with religion based on the convictions of her characters. I was surprised to learn she was a devout Catholic and attended church every Sunday with her mother. I believe Flannery was more open-minded when it came to God and faith, and she rather liked the idea that her unbiased views probably pissed the other local Bible thumpers off. She stood her ground and didn’t care what others thought, and she exploited her characters’ sins instead.
Unlike Flannery, I had struggled with organized religion throughout most of my life, and only recently came to terms with what I actually believe in my mid-thirties. I was raised in a Southern Baptist church where we weren’t even allowed to clap on Sunday night after someone finished singing a special solo. I questioned my Sunday school teacher about scriptures in the Bible that offered explanation on what was right or wrong. I loved making her squirm by asking where the dinosaurs were on Noah’s ark. But it was the axiom of sexuality that I secretly fought the most. I was a homosexual, and I felt like a witch sitting in the pews every time the preacher ridiculed homosexuality in the pulpit on Sundays, and he did so often.
At times, I felt like a freak and had verbally been labeled as one many times by rude classmates, an abusive ridicule that I didn’t really escape until college. I felt like a character from one of Flannery’s stories, but I somehow felt that had I known Flannery in life we would have been close friends. She’d been dead thirty years at the time, and yet I’d learned more from her than I did from Mr. Black. I did keep that literature book though and still have it to this day.
It wouldn’t be until my second year of college that I seriously started penning more adult themes inspired by my young life experiences. I still had so much to learn in life, in writing, and from other writers like Flannery who I had yet come to know.
But I’ve never forgotten Flannery. She taught me that our physical ailments make us unique and that we have to learn to deal with them or overcome them. She taught me its okay to be different, in life and in religion. She taught me to use that feeling of difference to give life to a character on the page instead of anger in my heart. And every time I go out to fill my bird feeder in the yard, I often pause and think about her.