Flannery O'Connor: The Canon Completed, the Commentary Continuing

By Friedman, Melvin J. | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 1973 | Go to article overview

Flannery O'Connor: The Canon Completed, the Commentary Continuing


Friedman, Melvin J., The Southern Literary Journal


Flannery O'Connor remarked in one of the composite pieces included in Mystery and Manners: "It's always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is much less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks." She said this after examining a sentence from Madame Bovary and marvelling at its economy and powers of suggestiveness. She perhaps saw a special kinship between Flaubert's controlled methods of composition, realized through his famous style indirect libre, and her own "habit of art" (an expression she was particularly fond of).

There is much of Flaubert's attention to detail and untiring search for the best possible turn of phrase in evidence in The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor. All thirty-one of these stories--even those six which were originally part of her Iowa master's thesis--seem splendidly finished. There is no sense of any of them being prematurely removed from the drawing board. The O'Connor stories need no props or critical underpinnings, although the collection is clearly enriched by a discreet introduction and helpful bibliographical notes by Robert Giroux. One never has the uncomfortable feeling (such as one has with the recent Carson McCullers miscellany, The Mortgaged Heart) of a patchwork quilt of short pieces, stitched together with finesse and devotion by an editorial hand.

Even the early O'Connor stories, quite simply, are finished pieces and point with assurance to her best work in the shorter form, like "Revelation," "Everything That Rises Must Converge," and "Judgement Day." Her earliest story, "The Geranium," in fact proves to be a first draft of her last story, "Judgement Day" (which gives The Complete Stories an intriguing symmetry); the characters are renamed, the situation is altered, the vision is deepened, but, in the end, the O'Connor of 1946 has curiously much of the wisdom, finesse, and narrative control of the O'Connor of 1964. Flannery O'Connor seems not to have passed through the painful apprenticeship of so many other writers.

One can see the six stories which comprised Flannery O'Connor's master's thesis moving toward her first published book, Wise Blood. The last of these stories, "the Train," in fact, is an early version of the opening chapter of this first novel. There are the usual O'Connor name changes--Hazel Wickers becomes Hazel Motes, Mrs. Wallace Ben Hosen becomes Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock--and the necessary adjustments of narrative focus from story to novel. But "The Train" has its own pace and movement, its own identity, and deserves to stand by itself as the sixth in order of composition of Flannery O'Connor's complete stories. The same can be said about the seventh, eighth, and tenth stories, "The Peeler," "The Heart of the Park," and "Enoch and the Gorilla," all of which were finally revised to become chapters of Wise Blood.

One sees, I think, how the first ten of The Complete Stories, all written before the publication of Wise Blood, directly or indirectly make us ready for Flannery O'Connor's first novel. There is nothing like the startling and radical leap from the apprenticeship stories of The Mortgaged Heart to Carson McCullers' first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Indeed there is no great distance separating an early piece like "Wildcat," with its creative writing course origins, from Wise Blood. One ends up by feeling that everything is worth preserving in The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor. Flannery O'Connor apparently never wrote any fugitive pieces; there was clearly no emptying of waste baskets or raiding of cobwebbed attics to fill out the pages of her Complete Stories.

The notion of arranging the stories chronologically in their order of composition (retaining the sequence she followed in her thesis for the first six stories) might prove unsettling to those who view the two collections, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge, as following some inviolable pattern or design. …

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