restricted access Flannery O'Connor and Cold War Culture (review)
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Reviewed by
Jon Lance Bacon. Flannery O'Connor and Cold War Culture. New York: Cambridge UP, 1993. 174 pp. No price given.

Flannery O'Connor and Cold War Culture promises a "radically new context in which to consider the work of Flannery O'Connor." Bringing into the foreground the social, political and cultural issues of her period, Bacon concludes that O'Connor was "an advocate of cultural resistance at a time when such resistance carried specific political implications." At the end of his study he muses, "if she envisioned herself as a critic of Cold War culture, why has her criticism gone unremarked?" Two quick and dirty answers come to mind: it hasn't, and she wasn't a critic of Cold War culture specifically. O'Connor envisioned herself a critic of consumerism, conformity (just as everyone else was in the fifties), pop culture optimism and other secular errors of the "Liberal approach." She was a self-proclaimed regionalist and a Christian who wrote to Russell Kirk when John Dewey died: "I hope there're children crawling all over him." Bacon disputes none of this, but argues that given the cultural context in which she wrote, O'Connor was a "dissenter."

And context is what Bacon gives us, in spades. Bacon has culled from O'Connor's letters, essays and fiction all the references to Russian communism, intellectuals, pastoralism, and segregation and organized them for us as central tropes of the Cold War narrative through which we should understand O'Connor's fiction. Bacon's cultural analysis makes use of cartoons, films, book covers, newspaper stories, political speeches, as well as paintings. This material is both entertaining and instructive. For example, it's fun to know that the wife of Gary Powers—the downed U2 pilot—lived in Milledgeville and that O'Connor objected to FBI interference at Yaddo. But Bacon does more than assemble marginalia. His central project is to [End Page 373] construct the rhetorical context for O'Connor's representations, and this he does well, in showing how "the South" figured as both a recalcitrant region of and synecdoche for the nation, how conservative religious fanatics were seen to be radicals and communists, or how centrist intellectuals dissented from conformism. This rhetorical analysis will be useful to O'Connor teachers and students, for it recovers the nuance and drama of cultural history too often forgotten or flattened into cliché.

Unfortunately, the connect to O'Connor is without comparable nuance and does not alter our picture of her work. In "The Segregated Pastoral," for example, "The Displaced Person" becomes the occasion for parsing "the contradictory meanings of the pastoral setting"—nearly eight intriguing pages of history, cartoons, newspapers, diatribes and speeches, in which Bacon shows, among other things, how "segregationists linked integration with foreign political subversion." While this cultural history is fascinating, our picture of O'Connor remains substantially the same: despite her revulsion at extreme segregationists, she was herself a moderate who defended her region's "manners" and rejected the affirmation of an American consensus.

Further, the effort to place O'Connor's work within the rhetoric of cultural discourse—like much criticism passing as cultural studies—too often comes at the expense of her fiction's dynamic ironies. For example, Bacon reads "Good Country People" as evidence that O'Connor's fiction satirized the nation's sentimental politics of the pastoral, arguing that O'Connor "emphasizes the hypocrisy of her rural characters." But Bacon can make this argument only by omitting the character of Mrs. Freeman, who is "country people" and the story's most penetrating skeptic. No one can read that story without surmising that O'Connor is Mrs. Freeman, or that O'Connor consistently depicts rural characters with the insight and skepticism of Mrs. Freeman, giving them the upper hand over liberals like Joy-Hulga—a figure for that part of herself O'Connor liked to make fun of. Mrs. Freeman has that "inburnt knowledge of human limitations" with which O'Connor credited Southerners. Far from depicting the pastoral as the prison of the intellectual—as Bacon argues—O'Connor's stories show that characters who think themselves too good for the...


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