Not in My House
- Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch
Little, Brown, 448 pp, £20.00, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 316 00066 6
The protagonist of ‘The Enduring Chill’, a short story Flannery O’Connor began in the autumn of 1957, is a 25-year-old would-be writer called Asbury Fox, who has been forced to return from Manhattan to the family farm in rural Georgia on account of a mysterious illness from which he believes he is dying. His path-breaking play on ‘the Negro’ has not yet been written; he has, however, completed a letter to his mother that fills two notebooks, and which he means her to read after his death. ‘It was such a letter,’ we are informed, ‘as Kafka had addressed to his father.’
Asbury is one in a line of misguided, cartoonishly presented liberals whom the narratives developed in O’Connor’s brilliant but remorseless short stories and novels are designed to punish. Asbury is not suffering from some incurable artistic disease of the sort that struck down Kafka, but from undulant fever. Undulant fever is debilitating, but not lethal: ‘It’ll keep coming back but it won’t kill you,’ his reviled mother rejoices, while the hated Dr Block tactlessly observes: ‘Undulant fever ain’t so bad, Azzberry . . . It’s the same as Bang’s in a cow.’ ‘He must have drunk some unpasteurised milk up there,’ he hears his mother sigh as they leave the room.
In fact the disease-bearing milk was consumed not in New York, but while undertaking some research for his play in his mother’s cow barn the previous summer. In the course of this visit Asbury spends several days working with the black farmhands Morgan and Randall, in the hope of establishing a rapport with some representatives of the race whom he aims to dignify. First he persuades them to smoke with him in the cow barn, though this is against his mother’s orders. The next day, two cans of milk are returned because they taste of tobacco. Undeterred, Asbury tries out another means of bonding with the incommunicative pair. He pours himself a glass of fresh milk from one of the cans, and drains it. Randall watches him:
‘She don’t ’low that,’ he said. ‘That the thing she don’t ’low.’
Asbury poured out another glassful and handed it to him.
‘She don’t ’low it,’ he repeated.
‘Listen,’ Asbury said hoarsely, ‘the world is changing. There’s no reason I shouldn’t drink after you or you after me!’
‘She don’t ’low noner us to drink noner this here milk,’ Randall said.
Asbury continued to hold the glass out to him. ‘You took the cigarette,’ he said. ‘Take the milk. It’s not going to hurt my mother to lose two or three glasses of milk a day. We’ve got to think free if we want to live free!’
The other one had come up and was standing in the door.
‘Don’t want noner that milk,’ Randall said.
Asbury swung around and held the glass out to Morgan. ‘Here boy, have a drink of this,’ he said.
Poor old Asbury doesn’t even like milk. His pleas to them to drink, to think free and to live free, fall on deaf ears, and he abandons his research after overhearing Morgan and Randall ponder his behaviour a couple of days later:
‘Howcome you let him drink that milk every day?’
‘What he do is him,’ Randall said. ‘What I do is me.’
‘Howcome he talks so ugly about his ma?’
‘She ain’t whup him enough when he was little,’ Randall said.
Seven years before O’Connor wrote ‘The Enduring Chill’, when she was herself 25, she too was forced to return to rural Georgia after around five years spent pursuing a career as a writer in the North. The parallel is one of the many in-jokes in O’Connor’s fiction. Like Asbury, O’Connor found herself desperately ill on a train journey south. Initially it was thought she was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, but tests in February 1951 revealed she had lupus, a disorder of the immune system, from which her much-loved father had died when she was 14. O’Connor’s mother, the formidable Regina, decided to keep the doctors’ verdict secret, and O’Connor did not learn of her condition until the summer of 1952, shortly after the publication of her first novel, Wise Blood. Her friend Sally Fitzgerald, the wife of the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald, broke the news, which effectively terminated all dreams of escaping Andalusia, the farm outside Milledgeville run by her mother. There O’Connor spent the last 12 years of her life, raising peacocks and writing ferocious stories populated by backwoods prophets and club-footed hoodlums, mass murderers and one-armed con-artists, savage saints, drooling idiot boys, tattoo-freaks, wary xenophobes and hick racists: ‘Good Country People’, to borrow the title of a story in which a seemingly innocent Bible salesman seduces an ugly intellectual with a PhD in philosophy, and then steals her wooden leg, adding it to a collection of trophies that includes a woman’s glass eye acquired by the same means. ‘I don’t know where Mary Flannery met those people she wrote about,’ a Milledgeville aunt once commented in horror, ‘but it was certainly not in my house.’ Regina’s reaction can best be inferred from the advice Mrs Fox offers her ailing son in ‘The Enduring Chill’: ‘“When you get well,” she said, “I think it would be nice if you wrote a book about down here. We need another good book like Gone with the Wind.”’