For over a decade, Caroline Gordon was generous with her advice to an inexperienced and she thought undereducated Flannery O’Connor. Initially, the younger woman accepted all criticism and direction without question; eventually, the narrow focus of the feedback caused O’Connor to balk and ask for second opinions from the Fitzgeralds and others. Gordon could be pedantic. She tended to focus on syntax, vocabulary, and voice. Earlier in their relationship, the feedback favorably compared Flannery’s use of rough Southern colloquialisms with attempts to do the same by Robert Penn Warren. Mrs. Gordon-Tate lamented that she had not thought to coin the O’Connorism “bidnis,” but even early in their correspondence, she scolded the girl from Milledgeville for using “squinch.” This usage she refused to sanction along with the ordering of words beatified by the OED, including “an entire cat.” Gordon also said she was “offended by toting.” In this, she resisted the power of O’Connor’s use of regionalisms.
It is only fair to say that the senior novelist’s advice to set off a tense line with a “numb” one, as Yeats proscribed, was a noticeable improvement in the O’Connor stories. Gordon’s example of Flaubert’s use of changing perspective in the voice of the omniscient narrator was specific enough to apply without intuition. At other times her advice so vague that both the pupil and teacher are frustrated. One result was the admonition delivered in a quote from Nathan Bedford Forrest: “I told you tweist. God damn it. KNOW!” You might find this use of the vernacular ironic, sarcastic, or a surrender to the belief that Flannery could only understand low language.
Recycling back to the narrator’s voice and particularly the vocabulary she would use became a festered sore. Gordon demanded the narrator exhibit an Oxfordian syntax, vocabulary, and aloofness. In The Violent, this resulted in the use of cosmopolitan language. The author momentarily surrendered, and “imprecations” slipped from the narrator’s tongue (The Violent Bear It Away 396). Later, “His long face depending from the bulb-shaped hat,…” (424). Finally, the rapist brakes his car in “a secluded declivity” (471). Flannery owned that vocabulary. Whether it makes her work more worthy is a question.
O’Connor was not the only great author to be criticized for narrator abuse. No less than James Joyce was called to task by Wyndham Lewis on the publication of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Lewis was delighted that he caught Joyce in a violation of the narrator. Lewis need not have waited to level the charge. Hugh Kenner points out an even more pronounced “sin” by Joyce in the first line of “The Dead.” There Lily is said to be “literally run off her feet.” Joyce, who famously told Frank Budgen he had spent an entire writing day selecting the order of fifteen words, could hardly be called careless. Kenner came to Joyce’s defense, authoring what is called “The Uncle Charles Principle.” The narrator reflects the identity and, therefore the syntax and vocabulary of the character. This might be the pomposity of Uncle Charles or the careless language of a maid. Is this more personal than Flaubert’s example given by Gordon to O’Connor of the narrator assuming the character’s perspective or physical sensations? Gordon castigated her “student” and might have joined Lewis in criticism of the great Joyce. Neither Joyce nor Mary Flannery was careless with their intentions.
Throughout the testy time of their connection, the Maid of Milledgeville continued to acknowledge the debt she owed to Caroline Gordon, expressing it to Gordon as well as to third parties. Wise Blood, written before the mentorship began, is a hallmark of the American Southern Literary Revival. The Guardian chartered Robert McCrum’s list of the greatest novels of all time. Wise Blood ranked 62nd in one version of the list, even with its rough-hewn, undereducated vocabulary and its “Uncle Charles” narration. The Violent Bear It Away does not join the earlier novel on the McCrum list or other “best” exercises. Perhaps the latter slips awkwardly in joining its opening and conclusion. Perhaps it disappoints for the missing raw county charm or for the stiffness that disallows the juncture of the gothic and the comic. The Violent is standard but not powerful.
There is more than one way to write a great novel.
O’Connor, Flannery. “‘The Violent Bear It Away.'” Collected Works, Library of America, New York, NY, 1988, pp. 329–479.
Fitzgerald, Sally editor Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being”
Flanagan, Christine Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon
Kenner, Hugh, “The Uncle Charles Principle,” Joyce’s Voices pp. 15-38.
There is a debt that must be acknowledged to the Andalusia Foundation, Georgia College State University, Emory University, the estates of Flannery O’Connor and Sally Fitzgerald, and to Christine Flanagan for the collection and editing of the O’Connor-Gordon correspondence.