Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Laughing all the way to literary immortality

If Mary Flannery O'Connor had been a filmmaker, she would have had much in common with the Coen Brothers. Dark humor was her forte. "I certainly am glad you like the stories," she once wrote to a friend, because now I feel it's not bad that I like them so much. The truth is I like them better than anybody and I read them over and over and laugh and laugh, then get embarrassed when I remember I was the one wrote them." O'Connor's bent toward laughter is borne out in this engaging anecdote by Thomas F. Gossett from Studies in American Humor.
I taught a course in the literature of the South at Wesleyan College. A course in Southern literature was rare enough at colleges then that Flannery O’Connor herself professed to be amused by it. "I hear you are teaching a course in southern literature," she wrote to me, and then asked, "What is that?" She invited my class over to Andalusia Farm and, of course, the students were delighted to go. She had read one of her stories at Wesleyan, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and thus they were quite familiar with her. While we were there seated in the country parlor, one of the students earnestly asked Flannery O’Connor if she would read one of her stories to her class. She always preferred to read one of her stories to giving a lecture about literature. "When they ask me to give a lecture," she once said, "I feel like a bald-headed one-eyed old actor who is asked to play the part of Romeo." When the students asked her to read another story rather than "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," Flannery O’Connor first slightly hesitated. "I always read that one to audiences," she said. "because I am afraid if I read one of the others I will get to laughing and won’t be able to stop."
The students reassured her that it would be all right with them if she laughed while she was reading another story. I can’t remember whether it was they or she who chose "Good Country People," but this was the one she read. We knew, of course, that she might laugh now and then when she was reading it, but we were surprised to see how deeply the humor of it affected her. She laughed so much that if she had been at a public meeting her laughter might actually have interfered with the audience’s hearing of the story itself. You may remember the ending of "Good Country People." Joy/Hulga Hopewell, the intellectual Ph.D. with the wooden leg, has enticed the country young man who is a Bible salesman up in the hay loft with the intention of seducing him. Hulga—who is an existentialist philosopher and professes to believe in nothing—explains her position to the seemingly awed Bible salesman. "‘I don’t have illusions,’" she tells him. "‘I am one of those people who see through to nothing.’" And when he still seemingly fails to understand, she says, "‘We are all damned . . . but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there’s nothing to see. It’s a kind of salvation.’"
These kinds of statements would not inevitably strike the reader as funny, but they were to Flannery O’Connor. In fact, she laughed all the time she was reading them. Joy/Hulga begins to discover that the Bible salesman is not the unspoiled innocent she thought he was. He has, in fact, a sinister and psychopathic side and prepares to steal her wooden leg. Even though she says she believes in nothing, Joy/Hulga is completely unconscious that such a belief may have implications of which she is not aware. She does not imagine that a belief in nothingness might immediately destroy a moral basis for conduct. She assumes as a matter of course that people who believe in nothing will go on essentially as they were before. When the evil side of the Bible salesman begins to become apparent to Joy/Hulga, she is intensely surprised and a little alarmed. Her mother had previously described the salesman as a member of that class which she most admired—"‘good country people, . . . the salt of the earth.’"
Now, Joy/Hulga, in her extremity, asks him, almost pleadingly, "‘aren’t you, . . . aren’t you just good country people?’"
"The boy cocked his head. He looked as if he were just beginning to understand that she might be trying to insult him. ‘Yeah,’ he said, curling his lip slightly, ‘but it ain’t held me back none. I’m as good as you any day in the week.’" And then he proceeds to steal Joy/Hulga’s wooden leg. He climbs down the ladder from the loft of the barn and just as he leaves, he says, "‘And I’ll tell you another thing, Hulga . . . you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!’"
When Flannery O’Connor came to this part of the story, she laughed so long and so heartily that the book she was reading from slid to the floor and had to be retrieved by one of the students before she could finish reading it. The incident is, I think, a beautiful demonstration of how central a place humor plays in many of the stories which might at first glance seem anything but humorous. Here we see that Joy/Hulga, who really is a learned woman, can be, on a central issue, abysmally ignorant.
You can read all about Midgeville, Georgia's most famous daughter in Brad Gooch's superior biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor.


  1. oh flannery! i have to admit, she really freaked me out when i first read her in high school english class. and she still really freaks me out! i love the idea of her laughing her way through "good country people"!

  2. I admit to more of a sense of horrified fascination when reading her work!

  3. The passage from the book was very captivating, I didn't want it to end. This is an author I don't know much about, but now I'm intrigued.

  4. She's a real original all right—and a great writer. You can probably find one of her short story collections at any used bookstore (or read the biography and see what jumps out at you!)