In Ship of Fools the young girl in love is all that is left of this original heroine figure. She has been kept as an index of the time, forever young and perhaps too young ever to be disillusioned. The sensibility has grown sour but conceals this in the episodic nature of the actions. One can say of this book that Miss Porter’s marvelous sense of style in all things froze into stereotypes of the Thirties, mislaid its natural sympathy. Ship of Fools is an extremely ungenerous book. In Miss Porter’s stories one was always aware of an elegant, a proud gift for artistic economy. This was brought to bear against the harshness of landscape, and made exquisite forms of her stories.
So much elegance is a bit archaic; perhaps the sensitive plant is equally so—not least, as I shall try to show, among women writers. On the other hand, literary sensibility in this extreme, pervading form brings us back to the charged-up consciousness of self that has become an insistent fact in our writing. The self has often become the world to express. There is a strange faith in total self-expressiveness. The influence of the feminine can be seen in the convention of loneliness on our stage, as in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding. What is specifically feminine in the American mode is the cry—Who am I? What work is there for me? In what language of my own am I to express my being?
These are also Southern writers. It is not easy, in talking about Southern writers in general, to say how much the solitariness is due to the contrast between the tradition and the reality. There are a lot of fables to get over. The South has produced writers as the Dark Ages produced saints: the gifted few who can read the burning letters for themselves in the book of slavery, hate, and poverty. Nevertheless there is a book, a legend, created by so much pastness. The South Carolina gentlemen who wouldn’t give a cent to keep a local magazine alive, saying that they could get all their reading matter from England, were the same enemy who a century later helped to make Faulkner. But if we ask to what extent Columbus, Georgia, helped to make Carson McCullers and Milledgeville, Georgia, Flannery O’Conner, the answer is less easy to form. Each in her way was doomed from an early age and knew it; each was dependent on her family for the sparse number of characters in her fiction; each was a woman novelist in a South that excited her by its brooding violence, but by its insistent conventions made her feel that she was a freak.
The terror immanent in their work is not commonplace, is not “social,” is not even explained, in McCullers, by the distortion of all love relationships into solitary obsessions, in O’Connor by the lack of any passionately urgent connection between women and men. One woman was excessively fragile, the other mysteriously impersonal, but both rather specialized in a sense of tragedy, of the overpowered (mostly feminine) soul, which makes the strongest character in their work nemesis, some primal wrongness—a force which becomes the presence as it so visibly bends them to their subject.
Carson McCullers was a greater myth-maker than she was a novelist. Her myth was the utter dislocation of love “in our time” and in “our town.” Her extreme sense of human separateness took form in deaf mutes who were also racially alien to the Southern town in which they inexplicably found themselves, Negro doctors maddened by their intellectual isolation, fathers always widowers, and above all a young tomboy who, whether she is too young for sexual love or too odd for it, attributes her own unusedness to everyone else, then projects this “loneliness” onto the struggle against the political terror of the Hitler period and the excessiveness, vacancy, and stillness of summer in the town.
In McCullers what fills the space usually occupied by man-and-woman love is a sensitiveness that charges other people with magical perceptions. She radiated in all her work a demand for love so total that another was to be the perfect giver, and so become magical. The world is so bleak that it is always just about to be transformed. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter astonishingly comes alive still not only as a virtuoso performance dramatically engaging so many hard solitudes, but as a novel of the depressed Thirties haunted by the powerlessness of people and the ferocious powers of governments.
McCullers’s myth-making power was to fit this obsessive loneliness, this sense of total weakness before some real earthly damnation, into the Southern climate, the town in summer, the doldrums of children with nowhere to go. She made many different lacks equal illuminations of the system of life in a Southern town. The bareness, the vacancy, the inertia seem to come out of the weather; the emotions of solitude flourish crazily in the parched streets; even McCullers’s concentration on absolute clarity of style suggests the same still, depressed, vacant atmosphere, produces distinctness as a tragic effect. “In the town there were two deaf-mutes, and they were always together.” Unlike the lonelies defeated by convention in Winesburg, Ohio, McCullers’s girl-children recognize that the town is like themselves. The consistency of her theme absorbed the town into itself, made the immediate landscape hot with silent emotion.
McCullers had the intuition that human beings could be psychic states so absolute and self-contained that they repelled each other sexually. The characters in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter live in an other world so internally consistent as to suggest damnation. They are out of nature. Though she converted this sense of some deep personal unnaturalness into brilliant “atmosphere” (all the more so because her style suggests fright striving for perfect control), the demon of self-damnation—of being utterly locked up, sexually limited—was a subject that fascinated her but which she objectified, as comedy, only once—in The Ballad of the Sad Café.
The Member of the Wedding, her most popular work, turns the Huckleberry Finn of her first novel back into the children’s literature of Tom Sawyer; it devalues her most familiarly tragic feelings about sex into cuteness; now she imitates Carson McCullers with an eye on the audience. But in the Ballad, emotionally the most detached of her fictions, the distrust of sex which runs all through her work expresses itself as a folk tale in which the characters are mostly legends, unnatural and against nature. Everything is seen as literature; there is nothing of that pervasive cry for sympathy which fills up The Heart is a Lonely Hunter like a gas, numbing us. “The town itself is dreary,” she begins, “is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world.”
The now “picturesquely” lonesome state is filled up with a “curious” figure, Miss Amelia Evans, who was once briefly and unsatisfactorily married, and removed from passion has come to exercise a weird power over the town and the chorus of its inhabitants. She is the wonder-working “doctor” to the sick and powerless people; she cures with occult remedies. She also has all the business in town and lives with her files. The other characters are childlike in their helplessness. In her fantastic self-sufficiency, Miss Amelia shows what a woman past love can do with her energy. At the end, her exasperated ex-husband, when released from prison, tries to bring her back to his world of passion. She prefers to be a magician—or author—in perfect control. She fights it out with him in a long drawn-out battle of comic fisticuffs that betrays her desire to lose and her inability to get any profit out of her strength except the solitude which feeds it.
In Flannery O’Connor’s fiction we start beyond the line of sexual love; it is never an issue. The characters are recurrently the Mother, the Child, the Brother, and other angries. There are many angries, especially landowners and their tenant farmers, so that the cardinal elements of humanity—more real to O’Connor than “personalities”—cohere by conflict. What is original and originating about her fiction is her fatalistic trust in her own truth. Hers is not a world of people made lonely by their freakishness, not simply a rural world that turns characters fanatical, as in Hardy or Faulkner, but a Catholic world that subsists on the belief that human beings are absolutely limited.
All people in this uniform condition of silence seem to be the same age. Her stories—more effective than her two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away—are of a crazy human disposition to error. Her characters are as amazing in their stoic self-sufficiency as Stephen Crane’s. Their significant fault is that they are too much alike. The recurrent situation is this fatal disposition to turn petty issues into the greatest possible mistakes. An old man who wildly loves his granddaughter, thinks her the only person at all like himself, tries to absorb her will entirely into his own. He kills her in a hysterical protest against an obstinacy just like his own. A young boy away from his sophisticated parents in the company of a madly religious baby sitter gets baptized. “Where he lived everything was a joke. From the preacher’s face, he knew immediately that nothing the preacher said or did was a joke.” He returns home but has to get back to the river. “He intended not to fool with preachers any more but to baptize himself and to keep on going this time until he found the Kingdom of Christ in the river.”
A young liberal on the race question, hopelessly irritated by his mother’s square views, finds after a short bus ride that everything has come to a complete stop. His mother collapses on the street after being pushed by an angry Negro woman to whose child she loftily tried to offer a penny. “The lights drifted farther away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.”
Greenleaf, Mrs. May’s outrageously inefficient tenant farmer, can never keep the bull penned in. She is finally gored to death by a carelessness on Greenleaf’s part that is really total hostility.
She looked back and saw that the bull, his head lowered, was racing toward her. She remained perfectly still, not in fright, but in a freezing unbelief. She stared at the violent black streak bounding toward her as if she had no sense of distance, as if she could not decide at once what his intention was, and the bull had buried his head in her lap, like a wild tormented lover, before her expression had changed. One of his horns sank until it pierced her heart and the other curved around her side and held her in an unbreakable grip. She continued to stare straight ahead but the entire scene in front of her had changed—the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky—and she had the look of a person whose sight had been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.