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439 Christianity and Literature Vol. 63, No. 4 (Summer 2014) Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be: Paul Elie’s Lament, Faith, and Fiction Richard A. Rosengarten To begin, a reductio: per Borges’ sedulous Pierre Menard, Paul Elie surely does not mean that today’s novelists should (as if they could) write like Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy or Reynolds Price, since time transforms even the most exact imitation.2 Yet Elie’s claim is at least in part historical: the interrogative of his title isn’t waiting for an answer. Acknowledging the essay’s chosen mode of lament, readers might assume that in a less despairing moment Elie would accept an amended formulation: faith has altogether dropped out of contemporary fiction. Close reading of the essay suggests, however, that Elie would resist the passive voice: it is a question of authorial agency, and writers today are not writing the way writers used to write—and still should.3 It is a sadness, and unmistakably a loss to fiction. If it is not the world of Borges’ Pierre Menard that informs Elie’s lament, we have a puzzle. Joining us in puzzlement would almost surely be Elie’s most cherished exemplar, Mary Flannery O’Connor. No twentieth-century American writer—certainly none in Elie’s canon—more regularly and resolutely insisted on the independent meaning of her fiction. In O’Connor’s signature formulation, the work of fiction introduces the reader to mystery and then deepens it. It does so via the close inspection of manners. Misconstrual and misunderstanding was for O’Connor a ubiquitous, and vexing, fact of life. Axiomatic to misunderstanding was the tendency of readers to fit her stories into some cherished system—usually, to her narrowing eyes, psychoanalytic, or symbolic, or religious. O’Connor understood her artistic habitus to be a gift from God, but her antennae were finely tuned to the discrepancy between her self-understanding and the work of fiction in the world. The “moment of grace” in her stories did not on her understanding readily yield to commentary. The occasional cognoscento (Betty Hester most 440 Christianity and Literature famously,butalsoCecilDawkinsandtheoccasionalrandomcorrespondent) delighted her, but far more common was a rising fury and, in turn, an even firmer purpose of amendment when so many did not “get it” (as in the case of her cherished editor, Catherine Carver, regarding a rewrite of the late story “Revelation”).4 It must be said in defense of the well-meaning that precisely what O’Connor’s stories mean specifically “for” faith is a puzzle. Holding pride of place in this regard is her signature work, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in which the inveterately intrusive and randomly loquacious grandmother literally leads her son, daughter-in-law, three grandchildren, and herself to their deaths. After they have been shot by a gang they encounter on an isolated country road, their leader, “the Misfit,” famously remarks: “‘She would of been a good woman … if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life’” (Complete Stories 133). The story has no truer words. Readers may be excused for feeling a certain wicked (if surreptitious) delight in a pronouncement so exact and economical. It serves as a superb epitaph precisely because it would never be etched on the grandmother’s tombstone, the more compelling because it emerges from the mouth of a man whose life has made him feel acutely the disjunction between crime and punishment. All this pays tribute to O’Connor’s superb artistry; but just that stellar crafting ensures that its interpretation as theological invariably and necessarily will draw on extra-textual considerations. This drove O’Connor to distraction precisely because it distracted readers from the real scope of the story’s action (“To a Professor of English,” HB 437). If “Good Man” is signature O’Connor it is also early O’Connor, but later work avails no more particular clarity on the status of faith in her fiction. In “Greenleaf,” Mrs. May’s struggles to manage her farm crystallize in her inability to have her hired help remove a bull from her property; thinking to take matters into her own...


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pp. 439-447
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