Tuesday, October 6, 2015

New South and Old South: Flannery O’Connor and the Schism in the Southern Soul

The South has been at odds with herself since the end of The War.  The old ways of a quiet Christian life with one’s kindred on the farm have been replaced more and more by the ever-changing life of modernity:  fast-paced, uprooted, dominated by skepticism of traditional Christianity and yet firm faith in science.  Miss Flannery O’Connor, one of Dixie’s great writers, has much to say about this in her short story ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’ (The American Tradition in Literature, pgs. 1869-78).

The main symbol she uses is the character of Tom Shiftlet.  One may see in him a picture of the after-War South, drifting toward Modernity:  He is called ‘a tramp’ (p. 1869), that is, one who has left his home, a wanderer.  His very name suggests one whose life is unsettled.  Furthermore his left arm is maimed (ibid.), suggestive of the grave collective wound inflicted on the South during the War.

‘He seemed to be a young man but he had a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he understood life thoroughly’ (ibid.).  Recalling Richard Weaver’s statement that the South ‘is the most educated’ section in the Union because of her experiences in the War (‘The Southern Tradition’, pgs. 218-9), here is yet another token of Shiftlet as a symbol of the post-War South.

Looking at the story itself, as it opens, it is evening, and ‘the sun . . . appeared to be balancing itself on the peak of a small mountain’ (‘Life’, p. 1869).  The South after the War was given a choice:  to continue the straight path, faithful to her forefathers and their inheritance, or to forsake this narrow way for the broad road of destruction, the way of the Northmen and their materialist American Dream.  When Shiftlet turns toward the sunset and lifts up his arms so that ‘his figure formed a crooked cross’ (ibid.), we are given a glimpse of which path the South was to choose.

Ms Lucynell Crater, the old woman whose house Shiftlet comes upon, together with her land and belongings and daughter, is an ikon of the Old South.  ‘. . . [S]he had a man’s gray hat pulled down low over her head’ (ibid.), suggesting the grey of a confederate uniform.  She is unreconstructed.  Her name, Crater, like Shiftlet, brings to mind an image, this time of a cataclysm that had left nothing of the time before its happening whole and unbroken.

It is also of great significance that the old woman’s daughter shares the same name as herself - Lucynell Crater (p. 1870).  For the old woman represents the inheritance of the South as it was manifested before and during the War: plantations, chivalry, slavery, evangelical Christianity, and so on.  Her daughter is the essence of the Southern tradition in seed form, the potentiality of the flourishing of the Southern life in new forms in days to come.  She is thus portrayed by Miss O’Connor as deaf, mute, and very childlike, one who must be cultivated and nurtured before all the good traits present within her can be manifested.  The South’s fatherwealth (patrimony) must likewise be lovingly tended for it to take root and blossom in the lives of new generations of Southerners.

But we mustn’t run too far ahead.  Most everything about the elder Lucynell’s homestead points to the Old South in its post-War hardship and humility:  the absent husband, Mr Crater (killed in the War?), its description as ‘desolate’ and a ‘plantation’ (p. 1872), the elder Lucynell’s lack of teeth for the gum Shiftlet offers her (p. 1870).

Despite Shiftlet’s rejection of his place in that land, he still shares some things in common with it.  He scorns science before Ms Lucynell for claiming it can explain the mysteries of the human heart:  ‘Why, if he [‘one of these doctors in Atlanta’] was to take that knife and cut into every corner of it, he still wouldn’t know no more than you or me’ (ibid.).  He likewise scorns a life lived merely for earing money:   ‘ “Lady,” he said slowly, “there’s some men that some things mean more to them than money.”  . . . He told the old woman then that all most people were interested in was money, but he asked what a man was made for.  He asked her if a man was made for money, or what’ (p. 1871).

Shortly after the War, there was still some agreement of the New South with the Old, Miss O’Connor seems to be saying, but confusion about the New South’s identity was early creeping in.  Mr Shiftlet introduces himself to the elder Lucynell as ‘Tom T. Shiftlet . . . from Tarwater, Tennessee’ but then adds, ‘How you know my name ain’t Aaron Sparks . . . from Singleberry, Georgia, or George Speeds . . . from Lucy, Alabama, or . . . Thompson Bright from Toolafalls, Mississippi?’ (ibid).

‘I don’t know nothing about you’ (ibid.), Ms Crater answers prophetically.  For even as he begins repairing the plantation (p. 1873), his eyes are drawn to Ms Lucynell’s car (pgs. 1870, 1872):  That is, the New South’s longing to join the Industrial Revolution, to be governed by science and technology and all the mammon-materialism that comes with them, rather than church and family, will now begin to be realized.

Howsobeit, the New South continued for a time its loyalty to the Old.  Indeed, Shiftlet’s work fixing up Ms Lucynell’s place is beginning to bring into the world those new forms of Southern life which yet have the same inner essence as the old forms, as is shown by his teaching the younger Lucynell to speak:  ‘He . . . taught Lucynell, who was completely deaf and had never said a word in her life, to say the word “bird.”  The big rosy-faced girl followed him everywhere, saying “Burrttddt ddbirrrttdt,” and clapping her hands’ (p. 1873).

But just as these new forms are coming into being, Shiftlet makes his terrible choice:  ‘ “Listen here, Mr. Shiftlet,” she [Ms Lucynell] said, sliding forward in her chair, “you’d be getting a permanent house and a deep well and the most innocent girl in the world.”

‘. . . then he said in an even voice, “Lady, a man is divided into parts, body and spirit.”

‘ . . .

‘ “A body and a spirit,” he repeated.  “The body, lady, is like a house:  it don’t go anywhere; but the spirit, lady, is like a automobile; always on the move, always . . .”

‘ “Listen, Mr. Shiftlet,” she said, “my well never goes dry and my house is always warm in the winter and there’s no mortgage on a thing about this place.  . . . And yonder under that shed is a fine automobile.”  . . .

‘In the darkness, Mr. Shiftlet’s smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire.  After a second he recalled himself and said, “I’m only saying a man’s spirit means more to him than anything else.  I would have to take my wife off for the week end without no regard at all for cost.  I got to follow where my spirit says to go’ (p. 1875).

He goes through the outward motions of vowing lifelong loyalty to young Lucynell, but his heart is far from her.  On their wedding day, ‘Mr. Shiftlet didn’t even look at her’ (p. 1876).  In just the same way, the folk of the after-War South did not leave their homeland, but were unfaithful to the ways of their forebears.  They cast them aside very quickly, as Miss O’Connor shows us in Mr Shiftlet’s disgraceful leaving of Lucynell asleep by herself at a diner far from home while he fares onward (p. 1877).

The full beauty of the Southern way of life, of Southern culture, has lain asleep, unwelcome within the borders of its own land, ever since:

‘The boy bent over and stared at the long pink-gold hair and the half-shut sleeping eyes.  Then he looked up and stared at Mr. Shiftlet.  “She looks like an angel of Gawd,” he murmured.

‘ “Hitch-hiker,” Mr. Shiftlet explained.  “I can’t wait.  I got to make Tuscaloosa.”

‘The boy bent over again and very carefully touched his finger to a strand of the golden hair and Mr. Shiftlet left’ (p. 1877).  Perhaps that is as close as many of the New South Southerners have come to partaking of the fulness of true Southern life, daring to touch only a small strand of the slandered whole:  using a few Southern sayings like ‘cain’t’ or ‘Ah reckon’, going hunting, having a family re-union.  Faint echoes of the living words they have tried to forget.

Nevertheless, some good remains in the New South.  Shiftlet keeps a mite of Southern chivalry by watching for hitch-hikers:  ‘He felt too that a man with a car had a responsibility to others and he kept his eye out for a hitchhiker’ (ibid.).  And he shows remorse for leaving his mother (the old ways of Southern life), saying to the hitch-hiker he has picked up:

‘ “My mother was an angel of Gawd,” Mr . Shiftlet said in a very strained voice.  “He took her from heaven and giver to me and I left her.”  His eyes were instantly clouded over with a mist of tears.  The car was barely moving’ (p. 1878).

But the boy hitch-hiker he is confessing to bespeaks the mindset of most New Southrons towards their past:

‘The boy turned angrily in the seat.  “You go to the devil!” he cried.  “My old woman is a flea bag and yours is a stinking pole cat!” and with that he flung the door open and jumped out with his suitcase into the ditch’ (ibid.).

Here at the end, the sky for the first time in the story has become cloudy and stormy; Shiftlet’s sorrow is not the ‘godly sorrow [that] worketh repentance unto salvation’ (St Paul, II Corinthians 7:10, KJV).  In the very act of praying for forgiveness, ‘ “Oh Lord!” he prayed.  “Break forth and wash the slime from this earth!”, he goes on his way towards the turmoil of the city, Mobile (Modern America, Babylon, Mammon), and away from the quiet, settled life of Ms Lucynell’s farm (traditional Southern life):  ‘After a few minutes there was a guffawing peal of thunder from behind and fantastic raindrops, like tin-can tops, crashed over the rear of Mr. Shiftlet’s car.  Very quickly he stepped on the gas and with his stump sticking out the window he raced the galloping shower into Mobile’ (p. 1878).

One of the besetting sins of Southerners has been a passion for money-getting.  The Rev Robert Lewis Dabney saw this as the reason for Gen Jackson’s untimely death and the fall of the Confederacy (‘Stonewall Jackson’, Discussions, Vol. 4: Secular, pgs. 171-5).  Allen Tate saw it in the very beginning of the South (‘Remarks on the Southern Religion’, I’ll Take My Stand, pgs. 166-7).  One may even see it in Dixie’s Old English forefathers more than a thousand years ago.  In one collection of Maxims, the Old English writer wrote, ‘. . . treasure is dearest,/gold to everyman  . . .’ (Mark Atherton, Complete Old English, p. 64).

If the South is ever to calm this passion and become herself - Christian, close to the land, honoring the past, etc. - she will have to enter the ghostly (spiritual) hospital of the Orthodox Church.  Both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches were founded by mere men, not the God-man, and thus can direct the South only to worldly living.  Only in the Orthodox Church will the South find healing for her soul, true life in God the Most Holy Trinity, just as her forefathers and foremothers in England, Ireland, Africa, Scotland, and elsewhere did, and became truly themselves as individuals and as whole nations.  The beauty of their lives is reflected in the beauty of the culture that grew out from them.  First and foremost the holy saints - monks and nuns, kings and hermits, missionaries and martyrs, farmers and soldiers - but also churches and monasteries, lovely manuscripts and hand crafts, a wonderful literature.

The schism in the Southern soul that Miss O’Connor was so concerned about will only heal when the South turns away from the Great Schism of 1054 that tore Western Europe away from the Orthodox Church and doomed her and her offspring to worldliness:  wars, money-lust, falling away from God, and such like.  Then, with the help of God, we will see the true fairhood of the South blossom, first in the lives of homeborn Southern saints, then in all the fruits that holy living will bring forth in the material world.

But first we must stop ‘rac[ing] the galloping shower into Mobile.’

Works Cited

Atherton, Mark.  Complete Old English (Anglo-Saxon).  McGraw-Hill, 2010.

Dabney, Rev Robert Lewis.  ‘Stonewall Jackson: Lecture’. Discussions, Vol. IV: Secular. Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 1979.

O’Connor, Flannery.  ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’.  The American Tradition in Literature.  Eds. Bradley, Beatty, Long.  3rd ed.  New York:  W. W. Norton & Co., 1967.

Tate, Allen.  ‘Remarks on the Southern Religion’.  I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition.  Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

Weaver, Richard.  ‘The Southern Tradition’.  The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver.  Eds. Curtis, III, and Thompson, Jr.  Indianapolis, Ind.: LibertyPress, 1987.

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