"Between the House and the Chicken Yard": The Masks of Mary Flannery O'Connor

By Whitt, Margaret Earley | Flannery O'Connor Review, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

"Between the House and the Chicken Yard": The Masks of Mary Flannery O'Connor


Whitt, Margaret Earley, Flannery O'Connor Review


Jolly Kay Sharp. "Between the House and the Chicken Yard": The Masks of Mary Flannery O'Connor. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2011, 176 pp. $35.00 cloth.

Serious readers of O'Connor will recognize the title of Jolly Kay Sharp's book as a line from an O'Connor letter to her friend Betty Hester, predicting her own assessment of a future biography: "[L]ives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy" (5 July 1958, HB 290-91). Perhaps O'Connor today would be surprised at the growing number of biographies on her life-jean Cash's Flannery O'Connor: A Life (U of Tennessee P, 2004) and more recently, Brad Gooch's Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor (Little, 2010), and always word of the coming "authorized" biography by W. A. Sessions, one who actually knew O'Connor when she was alive. Sharp's book adds to the biographical bounty, for Sharp's intention here is to read Flannery O'Connor's life and her views through the masks of her fictional characters, her letters, and her essays.

"Between the House and the Chicken Yard'': The Masks of Mary Flannery O'Connor is the seventh in the Flannery O'Connor Series of Mercer University Press. Beginning in 1997 with Ted Spivey's Flannery O'Connor: The Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary, the series is described on the Mercer University Press web site, under the tab "series," as follows: "This series explores the works of Flannery O'Connor." The descriptor is so broad as to be fairly meaningless.

The cover art on Sharp's book is a large barn with a large tree to the front and another to the rear, a broken fence that bleeds onto the back cover and some artistically placed "shadow" (all white, possibly computer-generated) chickens on the side of the fence separating them from the barn. The picture gives the idea of O'Connor's back yard, but it is not her barn, not her fence, and, obviously, not her unreal chickens. Andalusia is located less than an hour up the road from the press, so the artwork begs the question: Why not use a picture of the real back yard of O'Connor? Or, at least, why not include a note somewhere in the front pieces indicating that this is not O'Connor's barn? Cover art can lead a reader into a book in a helpful way. Here, the cover art is disorienting.

For Sharp, masks become a medium through which she labors to show that with O'Connor these masks "both conceal and reveal her inner self," showing the "complexity" of O'Connor and her own "self-defining characteristics" (4). Briefly, in chapter 1, the unfolding begins with personal and social masks, how they conceal O'Connor's frustrations with societal expectations and reveal her independent, rebellious spirit. Chapter 2 looks at the surly disposition of Enoch, Nelson, and Hulga and makes connections with O'Connor's own negative impulses. Chapter 3 moves to O'Connor's inner vision as it can be read through the secular and sacred vision of Hazel Motes. Chapter 4 travels into the prophetic realm using Old Tarwater and Rufus Johnson to understand O'Connor's voice. Chapter 5 looks at traditional southern myths, while chapter 6 examines O'Connor's mentors and the ways in which she mentored others. In the conclusion, Sharp indicates the maturation from the self-indulgent, imaginative, juvenile masks to the refined, artistic, mature masks.

In sum, Sharp arranges material from O'Connor's letters, her unpublished drafts of Wise Blood in particular, and her essays to suggest that through her own writing we can come to know O'Connor the person. In doing so, O'Connor the person becomes the end point of every argument in the first half of the book. Sharp, it seems to me, reduces the O'Connor oeuvre to a trajectory to identify more substantively the author herself. It is important to remember that O'Connor's work is so very much more than its writer.

In looking at O'Connor's "propensity towards negativity" (20), Sharp selects Enoch for his regular routines and awkwardness in social situations, Nelson for his rural home and the influence of his upbringing (suggesting that the artificial nigger for O'Connor is her lupus), and Hulga for her self-selection of a new name, a return from school to her mother and farm life, and her disinterest in fashionable clothing. …

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