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Inside Flannery O'Connor's Universe

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"Provincialism in Literature"
Ellen Douglas
July 5 & 12, 1975

Flannery O'Connor was born today in 1925

Provincialism and parochialism are words that make one think immediately of limitations—of pettiness and narrowness of opinion, of subordination to a rigid authority, of devotion to one's province and, by contrast, of indifference to the outside world; in short, of a mind hedged in by a larger world of which it knows and cares to know nothing. For the Southerner, two members of the species "provincial writer" come to mind: ladies who write novels about hoopskirted heroines dallying in the moonlight with gallant gentlemen; and gentlemen who write novels about good country people with their coon dogs and corn pones.

But provincialism and parochialism have senses other than the pejorative. There is everything to be said from the novelist's point of view, for an attitude toward one's work grounded in a narrow personal conviction; and for a love of—an obsession with, whether in love or in hate—one's own province, be it Mississippi, middle    Tennessee or Brooklyn; Paris, London or the Russian steppes. And this seems to me to be more true now, in this period of history, than it has ever been.

For provinces and parishes are vanishing, taking with them the settings, the characters, the very life of the novel and the story.

Marshall McLuhan wrote that soon we will all be living in what he called the "global village." Through the insinuation of radio, television and travel (as intimately into the lives of every villager in Central Africa as into the lives of American viewers of the "Johnny Carson" and the "Today" shows), everybody in every society will (perhaps already has) come to know intimately the people and ways of every other society. The differences that used to be marked by barriers like mountain ranges and national boundaries and foreign languages will vanish and we will all become like each other.

But to the novelist the global village is a global stew pot where we are all in danger of being stirred, centrifuged and cooked to bits—until every scrap of the human stew is flavored with the same seasoning and pounded to a uniform pastelike consistency.

If such a notion is abhorrent to every self-respecting, eccentric, crotchety, individual human creature, it is worse than abhorrent to writers of fiction. To them, the homogenization of cultures does not mean the universalization of their art, but the universalization of Johnny Carson, a prospect so horrifying that you will see them on every side taking possession of their provinces and preparing to defend them. 

The ground of art is always in the particular. No use to talk to the novelist in abstract words like hate and love and greed and death and the "meaning of life." He will put the meaning of life in a story by showing you the way the old man takes out his false teeth at night and drops them into the glass on the table, or even the way he forgets to take them out and loses them in the bed clothes and sends them to the laundry by mistake.

He knows that all human experience is provincial in the sense that it is the experience of a particular time and place, happening to a particular person, and that to write of human experience, every writer must one way or another become the ruler of his own country in the way that Faulkner is the ruler of Yoknapatawpha County—must strive to realize his province and its people in all their fascinating and idiosyncratic. It is only through this kind of provincialism that a writer's work strikes whatever note of universality it is going to strike.

Flannery O'Connor, a Southerner and a Catholic, removed herself from the secular, convictionless global village and built her life in a specific place and on a specific faith. She wrote: "As a novelist, the major part of my task is to make everything, even an ultimate concern, as solid, as concrete, as specific as possible. The novelist begins his work where human knowledge begins—with the senses; he works through the limita- tions of matter and unless he is writing fantasy, he has to stay within the concrete possibilities of his culture. He is bound by his particular past and by those institutions and traditions that this past has left to his society. The Judaeo-Christian tradition has formed us in the West; we are bound to it by ties which may often be invisible, but which are there, nevertheless. It has formed the shape of our secularism; it has formed even the shape of modern atheism. . . . 

"The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is. What-is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them."

In O'Connor we see the masterful presentation of the universal through the particular, the provincial. Consider, for example, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," where the evil in human hearts, and the possibility of grace, the gift of love, are made terrifyingly and magnificently real in the lives of ignorant and limited people on a Southern backwoods roadside.

In this sense, then, we must rejoice when our writers are provincial and parochial.

As for the provinces we live in, the real places that we perhaps think of as our homes, we may believe to begin with that we apprehend them through our own experience; but the more we read and compare, the clearer it is that we see them through the eyes of our writers. We would be crippled and limited without the insights that fiction brings to our provincial reality.

No Southerner who has read Faulkner will ever be able to think of the South without the overlay of Faulkner's vision on his own; Jefferson and Frenchman's Bend, the Snopeses, Lucas Beauchamp and Temple Drake have entered into our way of perceiving our region. For the greatest writers, the most pervasive influences, this is true even if we have not read their books, because the books and stories of other writers, the movies and television shows, even the advertisements, have been created by people who have fallen under their powerful influence.

Thus we see the past of our country and the history of the Western world as much through the writers of fiction as through the writers of our history: Puritan America through Hawthorne, 19th-century Russia though Dostoevsky, modern Germany through Mann. And we continue to see thus through one writer's eyes until another comes along powerful enough to transform our perceptions.

Suppose a person has no province. Suppose he is cut adrift in the "Johnny Carson," "Today" show global village and feels no allegiance to any human being or to any place or to any idea. Isn't that the human condition for huge numbers of people nowadays? They are no less human beings for being without a home, no less intelligent or talented. Can't they be writers of stories and novels?

Indeed that is precisely what I am saying. It may well be impossible for a writer to create serious fiction, fiction with the print of the craftsman's thumb on it, fiction that will continue to be read, unless he belongs somewhere or has a sense of a place where he should belong, from which he is absent: in some milieu the concrete, specific details of which he can make real to us. He must be able to say, this is where I am and this is what it's like to be here. Or, this is where I was and this is the place to which I long to return. Or, this is where I am going, if I can get there. Or, most terrible of all, this is the only place I know and I hate it and I know there must be some better place to be. 

In short, a province or a parish, the details of whose scenery are engraved upon his heart and the people of which are as familiar to him as his own face in the mirror. This kind of provincialism will never make a bad writer of anyone.

The novels of Balzac and Tolstoy and James are fascinating; and the complex, sophisticated, urban society that is their setting—the glittering panorama of the "great world"—is a part of what makes them fascinating. But not because it is the great world. The great world in a book can be dull or fraudulent or flat. But Tolstoy, Balzac and James can make the great world their province. They master it and know it down to its most intimate detail and they can therefore make it real to us.

And when their work fails, as it does, for example, with James when he tries to make real the world of working people in a story like "In the Cage," it is, in part, because he has stepped outside the sophisticated society that is his native province. He doesn't know the intimate detail or feel the brutal reality of his heroine's life.

When we think of writers whose lives are limited and whose work, as it seems, should have been damaged by their confinement to a narrow provincial or parochial world, we think usually of female writers, because in the past women have often been forcibly limited in this way. But then, if we examine the work of the most closely imprisoned of these writers, we see that, after all, things did not turn out for their work as we might have expected. Even the writer most drastically limited by the world she lives in is able to write lasting books: the Bronte sisters, stuck away in their father's parsonage; George Eliot, growing up in a rural society where women were meant to marry and bear children and churn butter and keep the house sparkling; Virginia Woolf, turned away, as she tells us in A Room of One's Own, from a great university library because she was a woman. 

Indeed these women were able to turn the limiting circumstances of their lives into the very stuff of their work. George Eliot recalled herself as she had been—a passionate, intelligent, idealistic girl, fighting to be free of the limitations that her society imposed upon her and believing at first that she could find herself only through serving a worthy man—she drew upon those memories and created the character of Dorothea

Brooke in Middlemarch, a girl, passionate, intelligent and idealistic, trapped and crippled by those very limitations, who marries a man for those very reasons and lives to regret it every day.

The most bizarre example of the crazy writer who stays at home and does her work is Emily Dickinson. She limited herself, not simply to a province or even to a town, but to an upstairs bedroom and the company of her immediate family. How could this neurotic, this confined, this limited woman speak with authority not simply to herself and her family, but to all women and all men? And why is it that other writers with a wider range and wider experience fail to transmute their experience into lasting work, to strike a universally resonant chord.

The answers to these questions lie in the avoidance of another kind of provincialism. Virginia Woolf was turned away from the Bodleian because she was a woman; but she was not turned away from her father's fine library. She did not, therefore, suffer from the intellectual provincialism that has nothing to do with the size of the city one lives in, the wealth or power of the people one associates with, the breadth of travel or sexual experience, but with one's knowledge of power and over a craft. Here, not in life experience do we separate the skilled artist from the writer whose work never rises above the level of the county weekly or regional magazine or the slick, mass-produced entertainment. For the serious writer of fiction, the "great world" is the world of books—the written word since men began to write words down. His obligation to his craft is to know and understand as much of the literature of his culture and of other cultures as will be useful to him in his work and will broaden his vision of it.

There is a kind of parochialism, too, that waits to trap the writer today—particularly the female and the minority writer— and that is the parochialism that results from obsession with a cause. 1 read the stories and essays of some women and some blacks and it seems to me that the writers believe they can make conviction or outrage or hatred take the place of craftsmanship and cold, clear, honest, unsentimental thought.

I am in sympathy with this kind of failure. I understand the complex and bitter hatred of some women writers for the society in which all Western women live. Like a great many girl children of my generation, I longed for the life I might have led if I had been a boy; and I still resent having been cut off from experiences which were not possible to me because I was a middle-class girl. 1 watched my friends become less than they might have been because of the circumstances of their lives. I see, too, the reasons for an even deeper hatred of Western bourgeois society that rises out of the lives of poor people and black people, for whom bitter necessity is the controlling force and to whom the notion of an income, a "room of one's own," is still a dream. But I see, too, that the hatreds and resentments, the espousals of causes that these conditions lead to do not necessarily make good writers.

It is true that black rage has been useful to blacks and that feminist rage has brought about improvements in the condition of women. But these changes in our circumstances leave us still in the position where good writers have al- ways had to begin: where an apprentice- ship to excellence is perhaps possible, where one can begin to learn to write truly about the lives of women—and men—black and white.

I am not saying that writers are not or should not be propagandists. All writers worth reading write with passion from conviction. What I am saying is that the failure to acquire the tools of one's craft, the failure to read deeply and widely in one's literature, the failure to look clearly at and feel strongly about the corner of the world one lives in produce works that are parochial and provincial and limited for the same reasons that the novels of the Southern ladies and gentlemen who write about moonlight and corn pones are parochial and provincial and limited; and that writers who are guilty of these failures are unlikely to produce work that is worth an hour of anybody's time.