Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Shenandoah's Amazing Tribute to Flannery O'Connor

I’ve been eager to see Shenandoah’s tribute issue to Flannery O’Connor since I first heard editor R.T. Smith speak of it during one of our residencies for the Converse College low-res MFA program.

Finally, my issue came in the mail last week. I’ve only dipped into it, but from what I’ve seen, this compilation is a major achievement, with a range of poetry, fiction, nonfiction (personal essays and essays of literary criticism), letters between O’Connor and Thomas Carter (then-editor of Shenandoah), a book review, and some stunning visuals.

I was moved by Rob McDonald’s photographs of the interior of O’Connor’s house: her writing desk, the crutches, and the light over her bed. The lovely sepia prints are haunting in their deceptive simplicity. Kathleen Gunton’s photos of peacocks were lush and almost surreal, especially when viewed in the context of McDonald’s vision of the house.

James L. MacLeod met O’Connor when he was a college student at Washington & Lee University in the 1950s; his father knew her mother because they were both on the board of the Red Cross and arranged the introduction. During their first meeting, MacLeod “was able to tell her how ‘smashing’ I thought her writing was. I could tell Flannery liked this. I asked if I might come alone one day to talk writing and ‘maybe other things.’” And so began an eight-year friendship, captured in these excerpts from MacLeod’s unpublished memoir.

I also liked the essay by Amy Weldon, “The Odd Girls: Flannery O’Connor and Me,” which was a lovely personal essay about growing up in the South as an “odd girl” who loves books, intertwined with the push and pull of the ever-present, all-powerful mother:

“The South so often infuriates me. But I’m part of it. And without Flannery O’Connor, I might never have been able to admit this with any ease. She’d be the last to claim any authority about the life of the Southern intellectual, the Southern woman intellectual, or the Southern odd girl. But she’s taught me ways to be all three.”

Here are a couple of enticing pieces I’ve got my eye on:

Joyce Carol Oates, “Amputee” [fiction]
Ron Rash, “The Leg You Save May Be Your Own” [fiction]
Erin McGraw, “Feminine Wiles” [nonfiction]
Stephen Gresham, “Things Darkly Buried: In Praise of ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’” [nonfiction]

Honestly, I don’t know how any writer or serious reader can pass up this examination of O’Connor. Editor R.T. Smith puts it nicely in his Editor’s Note:

“So O’Connor attracts the eccentric, the hungry, the resourceful, the disciplined, the astute, all stripes, all flavors. She wrote that her subject was ‘the action of grace in territory held largely by the Devil,’ and we are drawn there to watch him cut up and do his worst, and to watch him lose. O’Connor’s sharply etched narratives with their dark humor, pithy dialogue, desperate situations and questing principals exert a magnetic pull….She is equally adept with cracker quips and theological intricacies, with chatterboxes and flim-flam artists, enfants terrible and ancient, evangelists and eggheads, and her stories snarl and glare and breathe. While [her mother] Regina Cline O’Connor always wished her daughter would write more uplifting stories populated by nice people, Flannery has instead brought to the literary arena of our cultural conversation an erudition gracefully carried, an original sense of timing, a broad-based and complicated compassion, a nose for the dishonest, a sensitivity to the deep electricity in the language and a sharpshooter’s eye.”

Here is the website for Shenandoah where you can order a copy of the journal ($15).


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.