Journal of Southern Religion

Flannery O’Connor and the Southern Code of Manners

Matthew Day/Brown University

Lionel Trilling worried that the United States would never produce a classic novel because we lacked the basis for writing one—a European-styled struggle between the ancien regime and the nouveau riche. Since the novel is an historical by-product of the clash between the emerging middle class and the entrenched aristocracy, he reasoned, it is essentially a cultural archive for the vocabulary of manners distinguishing these two classes. Thus, any country lacking economic theater on this grand scale will also lack the catalogue of social distinctions that serious literature demands. "American fiction," he wrote in The Liberal Imagination, "has nothing to show like the huge, swarming, substantial population of the European novel, the substantiality of which is precisely a product of class existence." (Trilling 1976, 262). Trilling thought that only this vaguely Tocquevillean thesis could explain, among other things, our lingering inability to produce a homegrown Balzac. In this light the United States, rather than living up to Walt Whitman’s tender hope, is instead the sort of general literary disappointment about which most families only whisper.

"In recent years a number of critics and theorists have suggested that American literature has always been, at bottom, a reflection on our peculiar institution of race."

Of course, Trilling was bracingly wrong about America lacking a bona fide class struggle. We might say in hindsight that he mistook a perceived national lack of interest for such matters as evidence of its absence. But what happens if we politely disregard this oversight and choose instead to modify Trilling’s underlying Platonism? What if we suggest that alongside the classic European novel there is something like a classic American novel? The idea is nothing new. When Melville sat down to write "Hawthorne and His Mosses" in 1850, he thought we were well on our way to writing it. Then again, Melville tended to be a better propagandist for the nascent American literary tradition than a robust critic. In the 20th Century John Dos Passos quietly suspected that he might have already bagged this mythological creature—but from this distance, he now looks like a brilliant pamphleteer and a second-tier novelist. Yet, ignoring these untimely visions of cultural success, might it still be the case that somewhere along the way the United States shed what Melville once memorably called its "literary flunkyism" (Melville 1967, 546)? If so, sticking to the Trilling line of thought, the question that must be answered is: What is the American equivalent to European class?

In recent years a number of critics and theorists have suggested that American literature has always been, at bottom, a reflection on our peculiar institution of race. For example, Toni Morrison has argued that we should be rereading the American canon for the "dark and abiding presence that moves the hearts and texts of American literature with fear and longing" (Morrison 1992, 33). I take her point to be that for political, moral and aesthetic reasons we must observe how our (White) men and women of letters have hired a Black or Africanist literary persona to do their narrative dirty work for them. While this proposal may seem modest at first blush, Morrison is proposing nothing less than a systematic reexamination of how the American canon works as a whole. The hermeneutical ambitions of this project are seen most clearly when we find her arguing that the idea of America itself is a consequence of this Africanist presence. Her thesis is that as the blossoming literary tradition explored the anxieties of political freedom through a language of color, a young and quintessentially (White) American cultural identity was born. "Africanism is the vehicle," Morrison writes, "by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny" (Morrison 1992, 52). From this vantage point, before there could ever be "Walt Whitman, an American," there first had to be a black, nameless, and silent persona to define what it means to not be an American. For this reason, the dominant cultural traditions of the United States rest on the foundations of a literary Africanist presence.

The intelligence and rigor of Morrison’s interpretive enterprise is compelling, and her case must be taken seriously. However, one need not accept the grand historical premise that the idea of America depends on a Africanist presence to appreciate how her mindfulness of race reveals a possible answer to our question—particularly when sharpened into a regionally specific claim and read in a certain light. It seems promising to think along with Morrison and argue that for Southern Literature at least, the American equivalent to European class has indeed been race. So, rather than only hearing the echoes of a provincial class struggle in Southern fiction, we should also expect to find a vocabulary of manners and social distinctions differentiating Whites from Blacks. The challenge is finding a Southern author who, to lean on Trilling once more, believes "that scaling the moral and aesthetic heights in literature one has to use the ladder of social observation" (Trilling 1976, 212). I believe this is where a nuanced appreciation of Flannery O’Connor and her relationship to the American canon comes into play.

Despite the traditional proclivity for discussing "the grotesque" in her work, I argue that O’Connor is best read as doing for the American short story what Henry James did for the American novel. That is to say, both writers struggled to take inherited forms of literary realism and, for lack of a better word, enrich them. In the case of James, this enriched realism can be attributed to two narrative talents. First, James tried capturing "the air of reality" through what he called the "solidity of specification," the meticulous description of well-drawn characters set against precisely noted backgrounds. Or, as he put it in The Art of Fiction, the merit upon which all literary merits rest is an author’s ability "to render the look of things, the look that conveys their meaning, to catch the colour, the relief, the expression, the surface, the substance of the human spectacle" (James 1984, 53). It is this commitment to "catching the colour of life itself," for example, which accounts for the obsessive social observations in a novel like The Bostonians. Second, James pushed beyond mere description by cultivating an unparalleled power "to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern." This is a tall order, and reliably intelligent readers like Gore Vidal think he may have only pulled it off in The Golden Bowl (Vidal 1993). Nevertheless, for James the duty of the literary artist could be paraphrased as the commandment: "Become one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" My proposal is that we begin thinking of Flannery O’Connor as this kind of accomplished literary figure, a writer who accepted James’s artistic challenge of becoming the sort of person on whom nothing is lost.

As she noted in Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction, "every writer, when he speaks of his own approach to fiction, hopes to show that in some crucial and deep sense, he is a realist" (O’Connor 1962, 37). Yet, she found herself surrounded by a mid-twentieth-century American literary culture that insisted on a pinched notion of realism that forced ambitious authors to either praise the sober virtues of middle class families or expose the kinky things those families were doing in their bedrooms. She writes: "We have become so flooded with sorry fiction based on unearned liberties, or on the notion that fiction must represent the typical, that in the public mind the deeper kinds of realism are less and less understandable" (O’Connor 1962, 37-9). O’Connor’s artistic search for this deeper kind of literary realism is in many ways a Jamesian enterprise because it begins with a scrupulous eye for social manners. Manners are so important for great literature, she once observed in a Jamesian mood, "that any kind will do. Bad manners are better than no manners at all" (O’Connor 1962, 29). However, where James became a great writer by quitting the United States and chronicling the lives of displaced, moneyed Americans amidst the disintegrating culture of Old Europe, O’Connor came into her own only after she returned to Georgia and began to archive the no-less-baroque complexities of Southern culture. More to the point, O’Connor’s fiction has endured the slings and arrows of literary fortunes largely because her writing is knotted with the grainy details of the Southern catalogue of manners that regulates White-Black relations. To my mind few writers have understood so clearly, or represented with such unalloyed artistic force, how Southern culture not only inherits the vile history of slavery, but also the vast collection of folk traditions that both sides of the color line developed over time. As she commented in 1963:

It requires considerable grace for two races to live together, particularly when the population is divided about fifty-fifty between them and when they have our particular history. It can’t be done without a code of manners based on mutual charity . . . Formality preserves that individual privacy which everybody needs and, in these times, is always in danger of losing. It’s particularly necessary to have in order to protect the rights of both races. When you have a common code of manners based on charity, then when the charity fails—as it is going to do continuously—you’ve got those manners there to preserve each race from small intrusions upon the other. The uneducated Southern Negro is not the clown he’s made out to be. He’s a man of very elaborate manners and great formality which he uses superbly for his own protection and to insure his own privacy . . . The South has survived in the past because its manners, however lopsided or inadequate they may have been, provided enough social discipline to hold us together and give us an identity (O’Connor 1987, 103-4).

This sensitivity to the Southern "code of manners" appears throughout O’Connor’s work, but few examples demonstrate her keen eye better than this single sentence describing how two Black farmhands speak to their White boss’s son: "When they said anything to him, it was as if they were speaking to an invisible body located to the right or left of where he actually was" (O’Connor 1971, 368). With an economy of expression that the genre of the short story demands, O’Connor reveals a world where Black men receive death sentences simply for looking White men in the eyes. She has, to invoke James’s formula, discerned the awful legacy of slavery and the gothic complexity of Southern culture in the pattern of this isolated exchange. There is, however, something else about O’Connor’s archive of social distinctions that is distinctive: the issue of grace.

"More pointedly, O’Connor considered the social observation of manners to be one and the same with her Christian literary project because the artistic and the theological were treated as identical."

For the White women who populate this fictional landscape the Southern code of manners reserves a kind of pre-articulate, vernacular model of feminine virtue that might be called "gracious living." This folk ideal of gracious living is closer to what Wittgenstein called a "form of life" than a laundry list of normatively required behaviors. Gracious living is a particular kind of moral sensibility, an ethos that is expressed by the "habits of choice" that her characters manifest in every domain of their lives (Booth 1988). Manners are, in other words, the embodiment of the Southern woman’s moral life. In this way, O’Connor shares the canonical literary interest in the personal microcosm of "table manners, toilet habits, conventions of dress . . . and all the other ‘decencies’ of behavior,’" that we find in not only James, but also novelists like Austen, Dickens and George Eliot (Himmelfarb 1994, 22). Throughout her writing, I find that O’Connor is pitch-perfect when it comes to fleshing out the details of this enigmatic social virtue. It is, for example, what brings the matriarch of Everything That Rises Must Converge to show up at her YMCA "reducing classes" dressed in hat and gloves, and what leads Mrs. Hopewell in Good Country People to insist "that people who looked on the bright side of things would be beautiful even if they were not," and the ultimate reason why Mrs. Turpin in Revelation puts on her "good patent leather pumps" to take her husband to the doctor (O’Connor 1971 406, 275, 491). In this portrait of the South a good woman—a graceful woman—is one who has cultivated an unflappable sense of propriety and decency. Taken together, as Olivia Dukakis put it in Steel Magnolias, these habits of choice demonstrate that "you were brought up right."

On my proposed reading of O’Connor, however, this scrupulous anthropological attention to the particular is more than just a sound artistic practice. James liked to say that a novel’s moral significance depends on the amount of "felt life" it captures, and I think the same thing can be said about O’Connor if we replace moral significance with theological significance. More pointedly, O’Connor considered the social observation of manners to be one and the same with her Christian literary project because the artistic and the theological were treated as identical. To see how these two projects dovetailed in her own mind, consider the following passage from The Teaching of Literature:

It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind. About the turn of the century, Henry James wrote that the young woman of the future, though she would be taken out for airings in a flying-machine, would know nothing of mystery or manners. James had no business to limit the prediction to one sex; otherwise, no one can very well disagree with him. 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 (O’Connor 1962, 124).

In other words, unlike transparently philosophical writers like Camus and Sartre who explicitly attend to The Big Idea, with authors like James and O’Connor it is through their attention to narrative detail that the really big questions get asked. Or as Martha Nussbaum, another Jamesian disciple, is fond of saying: everything about a piece of literature, "the selection of genre, formal structures, sentences, vocabulary . . . all of this expresses a sense of life and of value, a sense of what matters and what does not, of what learning and communicating are, of life’s relations and connections" (Nussbaum 1990, 5). From this perspective, good literature is a morally and, according to O’Connor, theologically salient activity.

This lesson is driven home when we remember that grace was theologically loaded term for O’Connor—it meant God’s love for, and forgiveness of, humanity. She insisted throughout her career that the fundamental challenge for any Catholic writer was discerning the presence of grace as it appears in the world; and that as a result, every good story must have "a moment of grace" in which fallen humanity is given an opportunity to be restored. The reason for this is that in her estimation the central mystery of life and literature is the enduring Christian riddle that human existence, "for all its horror, has been found by God to be worth dying for" (O’Connor 1962, 146). The hard business of literature was to confront the mysteries of the Christian incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection through a style that never separated theological concerns from dramatic sensibilities. In all of O’Connor’s work, John Updike once observed, there is "the pinpoint tunnel to Jesus at the end of all perspectives" (Updike 1994, 291).

These wide-ranging commitments make for a lot of balls to keep in the air at once. Nevertheless, in O’Connor’s best work she manages to pull off this juggling act, striking the right balance between aesthetic details and theological concerns. In my estimation there is no better example of O’Connor on top of her game than Revelation. Painted in broad strokes the story explores how Mrs. Turpin, a woman who embodies what I’ve been calling the Southern virtue of gracious living, is slowly unhinged after being told to "Go back to hell where you come from, you old wart hog" (O’Connor 1971, 500). Rather than attempting to rehearse bits and pieces of the story, I have selected a passage where the main themes of the story come together:

Sometimes at night when she couldn’t go to sleep, Mrs. Turpin would occupy herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself. If Jesus had said to her before he made her, "There’s only two places available for you. You can either be a nigger or white-trash," what would she have said? "Please, Jesus, please," she would have said, "just let me wait until there’s another place available," and he would have said, "No, you have to go right now and I have only those two places so make up your mind." She would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it would have been no use and finally she would have said, "All right, make me a nigger then—but that don’t mean a trashy one." And he would have made her a neat clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black . . . [Other times] Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them—not above, just away from—were the white trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged. Above she and Claude were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land. But here the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her, for some of the people with money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people with good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there were colored people who owned their homes and land as well. There was even a colored dentist in town who had two red Lincolns and a swimming pool and a farm with registered whiteface cattle on it (O’Connor 1971, 491).

This is classic O’Connor, where indirect theological reflection is effortlessly woven into a densely stratified puzzle of Southern culture. To my mind one of the softest literary touches that O’Connor ever displayed appears with the unnamed Black dentist, a figure who marks what Nabokov once called the "subliminal co-ordinates" on which a story is plotted (Nabokov 1955, 316). Although he remains the mere suggestion of a character, and in that sense remains what Morrision calls a "dark and abiding presence" in the story, the two red Lincolns and registered whiteface cattle are essential for the Jamesian literary endeavor of capturing a "world so beautifully and so disastrously solid" (Trilling 1965, 195). Another remarkable quality is how quietly she has drawn our attention to the way distinctions based on race and distinctions based on class feed off each other in the South. So instead of a single code of manners separating White from Black, there is a vast library of folk traditions used for distinguishing one kind of White from another, as well as one kind of Black from another. O’Connor makes this diversity of discriminating criteria explicit when she has Mrs. Turpin state matter-of-factly: "There’s a heap of things worse than a nigger . . . It’s all kinds of them just like it’s all kinds of us" (O’Connor 1971, 495). While the complexity of Southern cultural distinctions quickly overwhelms Mrs. Turpin’s social imagination, O’Connor has thus far only examined the White side of the equation. A bit later in the story, she gives us a glimpse of the "elaborate manners" the Black side of the color line has assembled for their own protection when Mrs. Turpin’s hired farmhands patronizingly tell her: "She sho shouldn’t said nothin ugly to you . . . You so sweet. You the sweetest lady I know" (O’Connor 1971, 504).

Perhaps even more subtle than all of this, however, is the way she exposes the foul underbelly of the White woman’s ideal of gracious living. In O’Connor’s fictional world, the form of grace has displaced the substance of grace. That is to say, the sense of grace as attention to the markers of style and decorum has left no room for her substantive, theological understanding of grace as love, charity and forgiveness. Or, as O’Connor herself once explained: "Often the nature of grace can be made plain only by describing its absence" (O’Connor 1962, 204). When considered in this light, the Jamesian aesthetic strategy of thickly describing the cultural meaning of grace is also seen as an attempt to simultaneously draw our attention to the absence of the substantive theological meaning. In fact, through her doggedly Christian narrative voice, O’Connor suggests again and again that the Southern ideal of a graceful woman is morally suspect, a tradition which ultimately depends on repugnant distinctions based on race and class. Thus, we find the matriarch of Everything That Rises Must Converge looking at the changing landscape of race relations in twentieth-century America and concluding: "They were better off when they were [slaves] . . . It’s ridiculous. It’s simply not realistic. They should rise, yes, but on their own side of the fence" (O’Connor 1971, 408). This trenchant literary eye leads to O’Connor’s complex and ambivalent judgment of the South’s enduring cultural institutions. Her writing reveals a political vision that is almost Augustinian in tone, in this case crediting the inherited code of manners for establishing enough discipline to forge a coherent cultural identity while criticizing that ethos because there is very little grace in this form of graceful living.

Yet, unlike some of O’Connor’s most dedicated readers, I do not find this theological preoccupation with the graceless forms of modern life to be her lasting contribution to the American canon. In The Comedy of Redemption, for example, Ralph Wood submits that O’Connor is an important literary voice because she was more interested in undermining the secular assumption that human dilemmas have human solutions than addressing any particular injustice. He argues that when it comes to the injustice of Southern racism, O’Connor’s snapshots of the South are significant because: "They are not moralistic accounts of blacks breaking free from the fetters of racist injustice, nor of whites being condemned for their inability to accept the brave new world of racial equality. They are stories about the grace that makes clowns of us all, liberals no less than reactionaries, the old no less than the young, the genteel no less than the uncouth" (Wood 1988, 113). In part, I agree with Wood’s assessment: O’Connor continues to demand our attention precisely because she refused the easy comforts of moral didacticism. However, I would add that this quality of her writing has more to do with her Jamesian inheritance than her "Catholic" or "theological" heritage. More to the point, I believe that O’Connor is a canonical literary voice—someone worthy of rereading—because she managed to out-James the Master himself when it came to capturing the "substance of the human spectacle" in America. From the beginning of our country’s literary tradition, American writers have echoed Nathaniel Hawthorne’s complaint that one cannot create enduring art in "a country where there is no shadow, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight." This image picture of a crude and simple society, a culture whose most prominent feature is that "the items of high civilization, as it exists in other countries, are absent from the texture of American life" was Trilling’s fear and James’s conviction (James 1984, 351). However, where these writers saw nothing but excessive thinness and blankness, O’Connor managed to find in the American South the necessary accumulation of history and custom, manners and types, that great literature requires. Looking back on her work, it does not look like the product of an artist making do with a thinly composed and historically impoverished culture. It is instead a testament to an expansive literary imagination that grasped the significance of a society burdened with the kind of moral complexity that Toni Morrison has asked us to discover in the canon of American literature—the complexity of race.



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2001 by The Journal of Southern Religion. All rights reserved. ISSN 1094-5234

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