Review: Wingless Chickens, Bayou Catholics, and Pilgrim Wayfarers
Lamar L. Nisly. Wingless Chickens, Bayou Catholics, and Pilgrim Wayfarers: Constructions of Audience and Tone in O'Connor, Gautreaux, and Percy. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2011. 254 pp. ISBN 978-0-88146-214-2.
Flannery O’Connor, Tim Gautreaux, and Walker Percy are all southern Catholic writers, but each uses distinct tones in addressing their audiences. In Wingless Chickens, Bayou Catholics, and Pilgrim Wayfarers: Constructions of Audience and Tone in O’Connor, Gautreaux, and Percy, L. Lamar Nisly explores the various differences in these writers’ fiction. O’Connor, Gautreaux, and Percy exhibit understandings of their audiences shaped by their local experiences of Catholicism as well as the transformations of the Second Vatican Council.
O’Connor, the subject of an extensive body of literary criticism, is known for her use of the grotesque to shock readers. Nisly provides an analysis of O’Connor’s biography as well as her own comments on audience in interviews and various correspondences to illuminate O’Connor’s perception of herself as a prophet to an unbelieving audience, or “wingless chickens” (27). According to Nisly, O’Connor’s opinion of her audience emerges from her experience of isolation in the small Catholic community of Milledgeville, Georgia, and her ambivalent attitude toward the changes of Vatican II, especially as they pertained to ecumenical openness. A theological conservative for much of her life, O’Connor found she had more in common with her fundamentalist Protestant neighbors in the Bible Belt than she did with many of her fellow Catholics. Nevertheless, O’Connor remained focused on the centrality of the Catholic Church.
Nisly demonstrates the ways in which O’Connor’s assumption of a hostile audience shapes her novels and short stories. The grotesque serves as an important tool with which O’Connor reveals what she perceived as the degradations of the twentieth century while opening a space for a sense of the Christian divine. Nisly benefits greatly from the letters and essays O’Connor left behind in which she explained the theological intentions of her stories. These writings also illuminate how O’Connor’s Catholicism influenced her negotiation of the then-popular New Criticism, which required authors to dramatize material as opposed to overtly narrating. O’Connor worked to combine effective dramatization and narration in order to convey Catholic moral messages without alienating her presumed hostile audience.
Gautreaux’s approach to his audience is markedly different, using humor to explore moral choices. Unlike O’Connor’s Milledgeville, Catholicism permeated Gautreaux’s southern Louisiana community. Catholicism’s pervasiveness in this part of Louisiana led Gautreaux to assume more commonality with his audience, explaining his conversational approach. Vatican II’s influence on Gautreaux is more ambiguous than in the case of O’Connor, and Nisly argues that Catholics in Gautreaux’s Morgan City may have viewed the ecumenical openness as less of a threat due to their majority position in the community.
Gautreaux’s fiction focuses on themes of Catholicism, community, and family, utilizing alternately gentle and stern tones that reveal the author’s view of his audience as companions. Nisly analyzes the tone and moral messages in several of Gautreaux’s short stories and novels. While some of these writings are more satirical than others, Nisly consistently demonstrates how Gautreaux’s characters change in the course of his stories, unlike O’Connor’s relatively static characters. Like his upbringing, Catholicism infuses Gautreaux’s fiction in sometimes-subtle ways, in particular through his emphasis on “the sacramentality of the ordinary” as well as responses and descriptions (107).
Walker Percy is less easy to place than O’Connor and Gautreaux. He lived on a metaphorical and geographical boarder of Catholic and Protestant communities in Covington, Louisiana. A convert to Catholicism and transplant to Louisiana, Percy viewed his role as a writer as that of warning wayfaring readers who seem unaware of the dangers of modern life. Nisly seems determined to explain Percy’s conversion to Catholicism as a product of the writer’s relationship with a Catholic uncle; however, the reasons for Percy’s conversion and its bearing on analysis of his work remain unclear. Percy’s writing spanned Vatican II, and he criticized laity, clergy, and women religious who challenged the church’s authority too openly.
As a convert, Percy maintained a liminal position as active member of the Catholic Church without being fully subsumed as a “Catholic writer” (150). In this way, he promotes Catholicism in his fiction while critiquing the church. Nisly identifies four themes in Percy’s novels: southern aristocracy’s adherence to a version of Stoicism, the limits of science in providing life’s meaning, the excesses in larger society, and the failures of Christians to live up to their own ideals as well as the excesses of the Catholic Church following Vatican II. These themes and their illustrations in various novels support Nisly’s argument that Percy hopes to shock audiences out of malaise into a search for deeper meaning; however, Percy avoids explicit statements of Christian messages in his novels to avoid losing the attention of readers whom he believes would benefit most from his writing.
Though attentive to the roles of geography and ecumenical developments in O’Connor, Gautreaux, and Percy’s work, Nisly tends to ignore the influence of race and gender in the authors’ perceptions of their audiences. Readers do not have a clear understanding of how O’Connor’s gender influenced the way she assumed people would receive her writing, especially as an unmarried woman who did not fulfill certain roles traditionally assigned to Catholic women. Moreover, being white shaped O’Connor, Gautreaux, and Percy’s experiences of Catholicism in the South. They likely would have had different positions about the role of the Catholic Church in southern life if they had not benefited from being white.
Despite these omissions, Nisly’s treatment of the lives and fiction of O’Connor, Gautreux, and Percy underscores the importance of religion and place in shaping authors’ approaches to their audiences. He successfully proves the centrality of sociohistorical context in shaping these writers’ views of themselves in their various roles as prophet, companion, and canary.