How Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy Helped to Invent the South – By Nick Ripatrazone

Nick Ripatrazone on Bryan Giemza’s Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South

Bryan Giemza, Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South, Louisiana State University Press, 2013, 384 pp., $49.95
Bryan Giemza, Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South, Louisiana State University Press, 2013, 384 pp., $49.95

In “Parker’s Back,” the titular character decides to get a new tattoo to please his fundamentalist wife. He chooses the face of Christ in a complex, “Byzantine” design from the artist’s book, and at the end of the first day of work, his back “was almost completely covered with little red and blue and ivory and saffron squares; from them he made out the lineaments of the face.” Parker is incredulous that the face “don’t have eyes” yet, but the artist tells him to return the next day.

Parker spends the night at the Haven of Light Christian Mission, unable to sleep, staring at “a phosphorescent cross glowing at the end of the room.” At 19, when I got my second tattoo — a blue and white cross on my right shoulder blade — I hadn’t yet read much Flannery O’Connor, and I had no sense of Parker’s big-tent theology. But I was entertained by Parker’s misunderstanding: he thinks Sarah Ruth will love this particular tattoo more than the others because she “can’t say she don’t like the looks of God.” She does. Her literalist mindset causes her to mistake iconography for idolatry, and she casts out her husband. Parker’s folly isn’t quite a surprise for the reader, but O’Connor was never interested in tricks. She wanted to make her reader uncomfortable, to marvel at the stuff of Proverbs 26:11. Her characters tend to return to their vomit.

Tattoos are no sacramental act, but, thematically, there’s a certain Catholic pulse to markings of body. The bubbles of blood that roll from beneath an artist’s shaking pen makes me think of the convent images of Christ as “all red meat and agony” in Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy. Mariette, the young, attractive novitiate spends her nights in a whitewashed “cell,” empty of mirror, ink, pen, or paper. Her Order wishes to stifle vanity, and art is the projection of the self as important, as creator. Mariette’s artistry in the novel are her stigmatic palms, the ribbons of blood that tattoo her wrists and feet. We all build our own idiosyncratic forms of faith, but mine has always been comfortable with the pain of piety. O’Connor’s visceral, violent honesty makes her so essential to Catholic writers. She practiced the “distortion” she preached.

Despite the many critical considerations of O’Connor’s work, only a few look at her Catholicism without blinking. Ralph C. Wood’s Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, Robert H. Brinkmeyer’s The Art and Vision of Flannery O’Connor, Ted Ray Spivey’s Flannery O’Connor: The Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary, and Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own make the cut. Add to the list Bryan Giemza’s new volume, Irish Catholic Writers and the Invention of the American South. Giemza previously co-authored Poet of the Lost Cause: A Life of Father Ryan, a consideration of the Confederate-loving priest who “meld[ed] the otherworldly fatalism of Catholicism with Confederate nationalism … one of the very first to literally sanctify the Lost Cause through its baptism in blood.” Ryan returns in this new book, but as a way for Giemza to example the Irish literary imagination, which often drew from a “common stock of self-reinforcing legend.” His ability to handle literary personalities who go to ideological and theological extremes prepares him to engage O’Connor, who dramatized her own share of radical moments.   

For many, O’Connor is best thought of as an exemplary writer of short fiction, a darling of MFA programs, someone who, as Mark McGurl has noted in The Program Era, was an early participant in the American creative writing workshop system, and yet one whose works bursts past the seams of that educational environment. O’Connor was, at every step of the way, uncomforting.

For Giemza, O’Connor’s religion is not something to be footnoted, sanitized, or identified as mere regionalism. But his route toward O’Connor is informative. The volume begins with a historical examination of the intersections between Irish Catholic and southern sensibilities: “implicit acceptance of social hierarchies, their rejection of modernism, and their advocacy of precapitalist economies.” He concludes, it “is not an accident that Catholics have a reputation for keeping the dead alive through their votive administrations, and in this their worldview meshes neatly with southern ancestor worship.” And yet, outsiders still, Irish Catholics could simultaneously examine presence and difference and, in doing so, very much “imagine” the American south rather than merely represent it.

In O’Connor, Giemza finds his literary saint, and his writing becomes most spirited while still remaining objective. O’Connor’s “art may have been visionary, but the conservative undertone of her politics” was indicative of her Irish Catholic community. Yet O’Connor felt comfortable in a Church, though rich itself, that was class-blind. At Yaddo, she concluded, “the help was morally superior to the guests.” Giemza quotes her essay, “The Teaching of Literature,” to continue this idea:

The poor love formality, I believe, even better than the wealthy, but their manners and forms are always being interrupted by necessity. The mystery of existence is always showing through the texture of their ordinary lives, and I’m afraid that this makes them irresistible to the novelist.

O’Connor makes all camps uncomfortable: progressives, who find her representation of blacks problematic, and conservatives, who are skeptical of her connection between religion and the grotesque. Her Catholicism, though, was never partisan — at least not in the present sense: “I hope that to be of two minds about some things is not to be neutral.” Giemza cautions that “this rendition of Flannery O’Connor — acerbic and politically incorrect — has become something of an ascendant standard critical line.” Misunderstandings abound, including in the wonderful writer Joy Williams, who claimed O’Connor preferred Protestant theologians “to Catholic ones, though she was pleased to discover Teilhard de Chardin.”

Giemza has to smirk. O’Connor has been misread by all sides. She

did not choose Protestants to caricature them for the sake of bigotry, and she did not choose them to illustrate fallen Christians because of presumed heterodoxy. Rather, she made them characters because of their everyday contention with the Christ-haunted South and their literal-minded encounter with the language and imminence of faith in a defeated place.

O’Connor had her own formalities, as when “she consulted Father James McCown after inadvertently eating meat, in the form of southern vegetables cooked with meat, fretting over the distinction between drippings and stock.” That vacillation between the serious and comic, both in fiction and life, makes O’Connor a spinning top difficult to handle. Her piety was private: she disliked “May processions and such like doings.” Her fiction and her letters, ultimately, were her public Catholicism.

Giemza pairs O’Connor with perhaps the most slippery American Catholic writer, Cormac McCarthy. Although Toni Morrison is often also mistaken as Protestant — she converted to Catholicism when she was 12 — McCarthy is more consistently misread. His general disinterest in interviews has only further cultivated the confusion.

Giemza’s treatment benefits from the newly acquired holdings of the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University-San Marcos. He begins by calling out McCarthy’s very Irish tendency to stage his Catholicism, casting doubt on a claim that being raised Irish Catholic “wasn’t a big issue.” Giemza suggests that “we trust the tale instead of the teller,” and that by mining the architecture and symbolism of his novels, not to mention the recently discovered marginal notes, McCarthy appears to be very much a Catholic-haunted writer.

McCarthy’s identity as a “Catholic outsider” in Knoxville helped him create an “anti-myth” of place, “with the ironic result that he secured Knoxville’s mythic dimensions … to the literary imagination.” McCarthy remained comfortable with dissonance. Friends and lovers called him a “chameleon” who could be both “sophisticated” and comfortable sitting “by the old pot-bellied stove, [to] spit and chew tobacco.” Even McCarthy’s literary Catholicism has been gnawed and spun. Much of his symbolism and allusions have been refracted from James Joyce — specifically, Ulysses.

McCarthy’s public posturing and lack of faith practice make his religion seem like only appendage for most scholars. Giemza does much to right this wrong. McCarthy’s younger brother spent a decade in a Jesuit seminary in Louisiana before ultimately leaving. The experiences were not lost on the novelist who, according to Patrick Samway, SJ, “knew things that only a Jesuit would know.” He enjoyed O’Connor’s work, as well as Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy, a gift from the writer and psychologist Robert Coles.

Giemza’s documentation of McCarthy’s Catholicism allows him to conclude that the novelist “has an unshakably Catholic worldview,” different, of course, from being a practicing Catholic. McCarthy is comfortable mocking religion within his fiction, including the nuns in Suttree, who are “beldams, more than saintly visionaries, and false piety is the norm.” And yet elsewhere, McCarthy’s “liturgical imagination” is appreciative, as in the Biblicisms of Blood Meridian — “passing their blades about the skulls of the living and the dead alike” — as well as elsewhere in Suttree: “through conjugations of space and matter to that still center where the living and the dead are one.”

Giemza observes that these whispers of liturgy allow McCarthy to remain “on the razor’s edge between salvation and despair.” McCarthy does not have the faith of his parents, and that might upset him: “his work confronts the fear that Catholicism’s cosmology offers an inadequate response to the mystery of evil and to a world where belief itself seems a kind of travesty when an interventionist God seems far too remote a possibility.” Giemza rejects that McCarthy’s bleakness negates his Catholicism: “the triumph of evil in the temporal order is not unnatural to Catholic thought.” In fact, “McCarthy’s entire philosophy in literature can be seen as searching to find the right mystery to counter the mystery of evil,” through “a literature of warning that draws on ancient metanarratives.”

Their relative outsider status within their own communities, and the South as a whole, bred in O’Connor and McCarthy a tendency toward distortion of character, setting, and profluence. Few would confuse their content, but many, after reading the end of O’Connor’s chilling “The Comforts of Home,” might see McCarthy in Thomas’s accidental killing of his own mother, who has foolishly taken-in the “little slut” Sarah Ham. To be certain, such writing is not exclusive to the Irish tradition, but Giemza does well to note his study is not attempting to “stake out a special place for the Irish, but to show that they too participated in engineering the mindscape of the South.”

His study is a necessary step toward revealing the Irish literary presence in the American South. Giemza’s work reminds me of Edward Hirsch’s consideration of the “Imaginary Irish Peasant” archetype created by W.B. Yeats, John Synge, and lovingly parodied by James Joyce during the Irish Literary Revival. For Hirsch, mostly Protestant writers and artists fabricated a pagan-Catholic peasantry, whose ancient land ownership prefaced English occupation. Middle-class Dublin Catholics, of course, did not want to be thought of as peasants since that “was almost always a figure out of their own recent family past.” Hirsch concludes that “each revisionary portrait of the peasant privileged itself and tried to establish its own empirical authenticity by turning culture into nature and thus providing, in Roland Barthes’s terms, a natural justification for a historical and literary intention.” This blending of mythos and reality — baked in idiosyncratic terms but sold to a collective region — is both Irish and Southern. Giemza’s study truly considers, for the first time, how Catholic writing contributed to this invention.

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