The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
Ladies in Society there—in that particular society, I mean—were nearly always known, no matter if they were married once or twice, they were known to their dying day by their maiden names. They were called “Miss Mary” or whoever it was. And so, Flannery’s mother, too; her maiden name was Regina Cline and so she was still known as “Miss Regina Cline” and one evening at a party when I was there after the Conference, someone mentioned Flannery’s name and another—a neighbor, mind you, who had probaby been around there all her life—said, “Who is Flannery O’Connor? I keep hearing about her.” The other one said, “Oh, you know! Why, that’s Regina Cline’s daughter: that little girl who writes.” And that was the atmosphere in which her genius developed and her life was lived and her work was done. I myself think it was a very healthy, good atmosphere because nobody got in her way, nobody tried to interfere with her or direct her and she lived easily and simply and in her own atmosphere and her own way of thinking. I believe this is the best possible way for a genius to live. I think that they’re too often tortured by this world and when people discover that someone has a gift, they all come with their claws out, trying to snatch something of it, trying to share something they have no right even to touch. And she was safe from that: she had a mother who really took care of her. And I just think that’s something we ought to mention, ought to speak of.
She managed to mix, somehow, two very different kinds of chickens and produced a bird hitherto unseen in this world. I asked her if she were going to send it to the County Fair. “I might, but first I must find a name for it. You name it!” she said. I thought of it many times but no fitting name for that creature ever occurred to me. And no fitting word now occurs to me to describe her stories, her particular style, her view of life, but I know its greatness and I see it—and see that it was one of the great gifts of our times.
I want to speak a little of her religious life though it was very sacred and quiet. She was as reserved about it as any saint. When I first met her, she and her mother were about to go for a seventeen-day trip to Lourdes. I said, “Oh, I wish I could go with you!” She said, “I wish you could. But I’ll write you a letter.” She never wrote that letter. She just sent a post card and she wrote: “The sight of Faith and affliction joined in prayer—very impressive.” That was all.*
In some newspaper notice of her death, mention of her selfportrait with her favorite peacock was made. It spoke of her plain features. She had unusual features but they were anything but plain. I saw that portrait in her home and she had not flattered herself. The portrait does have her features, in a way, but here’s something else. She had a young softness and gentleness of face and expression. The look—something in the depth of the eyes and the fixed mouth; the whole pose fiercely intent gives an uncompromising glimpse of her character. Something you might not see on first or even second glance in that tenderly fresh-colored, young, smiling face; something she saw in herself, knew about herself, that she was trying to tell us in a way less personal, yet more vivid than words.
That portrait, I’m trying to say, looked like the girl who wrote those blood-curdling stories about human evil—NOT the living Flannery, whistling to her peacocks, showing off her delightfully freakish breed of chickens.
I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell you about the Flannery O’Connor I know. I loved and valued her dearly, her work and her strange unworldly radiance of spirit in a human being so intelligent and undeceived by the appearance of things. I would feel too badly if I did not honor myself by saying a word in her honor: it is a great loss.
PERSONAL AND PARTICULAR
MY FIRST SPEECH*
I HAVE always had a fixed notion that a writer should lead a private life and keep silent in so far as writing is concerned and let published works speak for themselves, so, in trying to tell you something of what I think and believe about certain aspects of writing, I speak strictly as an individual and not as the spokesman for one school or the enemy of another.
Legend and memory is the title of the first section of a long novel I am now working on, and I called it that because it is from these two sources I am attempting to recreate a history of my family, which begins almost with the beginnings of the settlement of America. I have for this only legend, those things I have been told or that I read as a child; and I may say here that I consider most of our published history available to children quite as legendary as the siege of Troy: and my own memory of events taking place around me at the same time. And there is a third facet: my present memory and explanation to myself of my then personal life, the life of a child, which is in itself a mystery, while being living and legendary to that same child grown up. All this is working at once in my mind, in a confusion of dimensions. This may not sound so simple, and I believe it is less simple even than it sounds. But I feel that to give a true testimony it is necessary to know and remember what I was, what I felt, and what I knew then, and not confuse it with what I know or think I know now. So, I shall try to tell the truth, but the result will be fiction. I shall not be at all surprised at this result: it is what I mean to do; it is, to my way of thinking, the way fiction is made.
It is a curious long process, roundabout to the last degree, like a slow chemical change, and I believe it holds true as much when one is not recreating one’s own life and past but the life-history of another person. I think there are very few living characters in fiction who were not founded on a real living original. I think of Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and the tragic characters in The Possessed. Thackeray, so far as I know, never admitted that there had ever lived an Englishwoman like Becky Sharp. He was far too chivalrous for that. But that he did know, disapprove of, and admire such a person seems to me by the internal evidence fairly certain. I believe she could not have had so much vitality, if nature had not first created her for Thackeray to transmute into a work of art.
I should dare to say that none of these characters so living in fiction would have recognized their own portraits, for if the transformation is successful the character becomes something else in its own right, as alive as the person who posed for the portrait.
This is not a particularly easy thing to do, and I think of late a great many writers have found what they consider a way out, which leads really to an impasse. I mean the very thinly disguised autobiographical novel. It is an old saying that every human being possesses in his own life and experience the material for one novel. This may be true. It is one of those generalities hard to prove or disprove. It has been accepted a shade too literally, I think, by a great group of recent writers. This tendency is to make one’s self the hero or heroine of one’s own adventure, in literature as in life. It is only, I think, when the writer is adult enough to face the rather disheartening truth that he is not by any means always the hero of his own little history, much less the center of the universe, that we can begin to get near a human chronicle that could be worth reading. If writers, and not always professional writers, but anyone who really has a story to tell, could only tell the facts in such matters: the plain facts, it would be worth hearing. The novel is not really the vehicle for autobiography. It grows even more confusing when literary people live in such close-knitted groups that all of them have only one experience in common, and each one sits down to give his version of it, with himself as the hero and the others either pallid, minor figures, fools, or outright villains. For in the anxiety of each one to justify himself, he hardly takes care to disguise his characters other than in a kind of distortion.
Most certainly the artist is present in all he creates. He is his own work; and, if he were not, then there could be, I think, no true creation. But it is a confession of failure of what I shall call imaginative honesty to make one’s self always the shining protagonist of one’s own novels. It is true there do exist, I can’t name one off hand, heroes who are the wishfulfillment of the author. Everyone knows that Stendhal (Henri Beyle) was a short, lumpy, timid
In America there is a great deal of excitement about the importance of being American. Even the writers have taken it up. When I was in America, all my writing friends were here,* sending me word that Paris, or some city in Europe, was to be their final choice of a dwelling place; when I finally came here, it was only to begin receiving letters from them all, now back in America, telling me that I was wrong to expatriate myself. The discussion runs on and on about “typical” and “not typical” American writers. So far as I am able to remember, for such classifications mean little to me, Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Sara Orne Jewett, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other such diverse personalities are mentioned most frequently as American; while such strangely different writers as Hemingway and Hergesheimer, let us say, are called “not typical.”
This may seem a digression, yet it belongs to what I am trying to say.
What is a typical American? In any profession? or state of life? I believe that different periods produce a certain typical mode of thought, or habit of mind, and the causes for this habit of mind are so complicated, so much a matter of the converging of a thousand influences to a given point, that I, for one, could never attempt to account for them. I think that artists are quite often not prophets, and there is very little reason why they should be. They have a way of being formed by their epoch, as other people are. Their code of morals, their religions, their mode of dress, even their styles in writing, can usually be dated and placed without much trouble. Now there was a time, or so legend insists, when there was a stable, settled world of society, when everybody thought, felt, and believed the same thing. This was never true, but it has become the fashion to say so; and in America we also had our golden age, which seems to have ended around 1910. Now, to a great many of us, and this includes the larger number of our so-called modern writers, there have been varieties of experience, historical changes. For some of them, life dates from the great war.* Their independent life, if that after-war life could be said to have had any independence (it had revolt, and disillusion, and hardship, and the privilege of sinking or swimming); but that is hardly independence, and above all there is nothing solid or comfortable about it. Also, with the new mixture of races, the breaking up of caste to some extent, economic upheavals, is it not possible that the author is merely again being the child of his time and is running to variety instead of to type? But we have always had variety.
We have always had variety, and an American writer who, thirsting for change, imitates Joyce is at least stating a point of view and a preference not likely to make his fortune; but he had better do that than to write slick fiction for a slick weekly or attempt to return to an America and an American mode of thought which no longer exists except possibly in a past which is too recent to be appropriately revived. What we look upon now as typical may simply have been, once, one thing among many but was chosen as a type. You might say that Buffalo Bill was a typical American, or that Mark Twain was typical, or that Charles Francis Adams is, or that Nathan Hale was, or Jesse James. I believe that these men were not typical at all. They were individuals, who by the mysterious workings of environment and education in blood and tradition became the finished products of a certain sort of society; more than that, a certain section or region of America. They became typical in two ways, by being distinguished enough to be imitated and by being so admired or hated that their lives became symbols: but there was really, let us remember, only one of each of these men; and, different as they are, they were all Americans. Our blood has become pretty well mixed by now, and it was fairly well mixed before we came here. It is European or Oriental blood, transplanted to a new Continent, our roots are here; and our types are as varied. I dare say there is no man living who can with certainty name all the bloods that flow in his veins.
Lately the mixing process has speeded up and is now going through a new phase. The changes that are taking place will end by giving us a new set of features, so that I, for one, would be puzzled to say just what is a typical American. Think of our American writers. Let me name a few of them at random. They come on all levels of talent and achievement, from several periods, and from all parts of that tremendous country. Herman Melville, Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Adams, Stephen Crane, Sinclair Lewis, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Walt Whitman, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Washington Irving. Think of these last two together. But how can we say that they are not all Americans, and each one typically, oh quite typically, exactly himself and nobody else. They are typical as Chekhov, Dostoievsky, and Tolstoy are typical Russians, and each one a unique creature. I should think, one might very well say that Joyce is not a typical Irishman. No, but now that he has done it it is hard to imagine any other than an Irishman reacting in just such a way against his particular country, time, and society. It is fairly easy to say that now, because it just happens that no one but this one Irishman has ever behaved in just that way. Whether you like him or not, I fancy he is here to stay for some time. He will be there in the road: you may walk around him, climb over him, or dig under; but he will be there. I admire him immensely, but one of him is enough. Indeed, that is all there can be of him. I know better than to try to imitate him, and I wouldn’t be influenced by him for the world; but I think he is going to begin a tradition, indeed has already. Now when one speaks of tradition, even American tradition, which we are in the habit of speaking of as new, it is better to remember that there are already a great many different traditions and most of them quite feasible. The artist, after having served his apprenticeship, may discover in what tradition he belongs. But the artist is usually too busy and too preoccupied with his own undertaking to worry much about whether he has got into the right tradition, or, indeed, into any at all. There have been more of them lately worrying about how they were going to get out of the beaten track. I think they were mistaken. An artist does better to leave all such classifications to the critics. He had better follow the bent of his own mind, whether it is for the moment fashionable or not; and it isn’t for him to worry about whether he is really great or a true genius: that throws him off most frightfully, and his audience too. I should say that a major work of art occurs in any medium when a first-rate creative intelligence gets hold of a great theme and does something hitherto unexampled with it. And if this happens in our time we had better bless our luck and not worry about whether this marks the beginning or the end of a tradition. The other day a young writing friend of mine burst out suddenly: “I am going to write like Racine!” Now this is an American boy, an Irish-American boy with a very good talent. He added, in a moment: “I am Racine.” Well, of course, the only possible answer to that was: “You’re nothing of the sort.” And then he explained, and it wasn’t so foolish as all that: he meant he admired the qualities of clearness and directness in the style of Racine, what he called Racine’s coldness. He meant, after all, that he feels a sympathy in his mind for that kind of writing; and if he goes on writing and his mind goe
It is my belief that the less typical a writer is the less you are able to catalogue him, the more apt he is to be a writer worth your attention. We don’t need any more types. We need individuals. We always did need them. The value of a writer can be measured best, probably, by his capacity to express what he feels, knows, is, has been, has seen, and experienced, by means of this paraphrase which is art, this process of taking his own material and making what he wants to make of it. He cannot do this, indeed he is not an artist, if he allows himself to be hampered by any set of conventions outside of the severe laws and limitations of his own medium. No one else can tell him what life is like to him, in what colors he sees the world. He cannot sit down and say, Go to, I will be a writer because it’s an interesting career! Even less can he say, I must be an American writer; or French, or whatever. He has already been born one kind of person or another, and taking thought about it cannot change much. He cannot even worry about whether the publishers are going to accept his work or not; if he does, he is as good as done for: he may as well never have begun. He may be interpreter, critic, rebel, prophet, conformist, devil, or angel, or he may be all these things in turn, or all of them a little at once; but he can be none of these things to order: nobody’s order, not even his own.