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LAWRENCE SCHWARTZ Montclair State University Launching Flannery O’Connor: The Rockefeller Foundation and a Literary Reputation FOR SOME TIME NOW, FLANNERY O’CONNOR HAS BEEN ONE OF AMERICA’S iconic literary masters. Certainly, her cultural cachet has never been higher. There is the recent issuance of an O’Connor postage stamp and even endorsements by cultural superstars such as Bruce Springsteen and Stephen King.1 Take, for example, her centrality in three recent and widely discussed scholarly cultural histories of the modern twentiethcentury literary era: O’Connor is foregrounded as the first significant writer of the Writing Workshop intrusion into postwar fiction in Mark McGurl’s provocative commentary about the influence of university writing programs on contemporary American fiction, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009). Mark Greif’s erudite and widely cited The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973 (2015) includes O’Connor (along with Ellison, Bellow, and Pynchon) as one the novelists central to his analysis. Lastly, she holds a principal position in the expansive The Cambridge CompaniontoAmericanFictionAfter1945(2012),inwhichshereceives her own chapter alongside Ellison, Pynchon, Morrison, and DeLillo and receives further attention in the chapters on the short story and Southern fiction. As I consider her centrality and prominence in these and many other recent studies in line with Brad Gooch’s hagiographical biography Flannery(2009),IalsocontemplatetheubiquitousclaimthatO’Connor’s writing career began with “immediate success.” This commonplace is well reflected, for example, by Jay Watson in his Cambridge Companion chapter on O’Connor. Watson writes that under the tutelage of Paul Engle, the Iowa Writing Workshop director, and guided by several New 1 See Lawrence Downes, “A Good Stamp Is Hard to Find”; King would invite Zola, Hardy, and O’Connor to his literary dinner party (“Stephen King: By the Book”); Springsteen, when asked to name one book that shaped him, replied: “One would be difficult, but the short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me” (“Bruce Springsteen: By the Book”). 214 Lawrence Schwartz Critic “mentors” (John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Andrew Lytle, and Austin Warren), O’Connor “enjoyed almost instant success” in mass circulation through Mademoiselle and among the elite readership of Sewanee Review (207). He sees her Catholic response to the postwar South as the basis, in large part, for her early acclaim and continued high valuation at present. For Watson, she welds religiosity to the quotidian: “That human beings characteristically disavow their vulnerability and limitations, preferring to see themselves as selfactuating , coherent, and in control, was merely another symptom of their brokenness and imperfection.” In short, Watson argues that she identifies the problems of modernity as a disavowal of the necessity of “God’s grace” (208). I would like to offer a corrective to the origin story of immediate success. What I am suggesting instead is a discernible institutional pressure coming from the Rockefeller Foundation (RF), which perhaps encouraged her supporters to campaign on her behalf by lauding early apprentice work and nominating her for grants, awards, and fellowships. A careful reading of the Foundation’s archives makes plausible an argument that O’Connor (at the start of her career) was a primary beneficiary of a concentrated program to protect an elite literary culture during the early Cold War and, most importantly, to find and anoint in the younger group of writers replacements for Faulkner and Hemingway, the “geniuses” of the previous generation. O’Connor was indeed fortunate to begin her writing career at crucial sites of literary and cultural revolution: at Iowa as the “Program Era” of writing in the university started; in the little magazines as RF was promoting elite literary values with editors claiming they could best identify important new writers given the mass circulation paperback revolution that changed forever what and how America read. The serendipity of her emergence at the time of the concerted RF effort to protect high literary culture may have been more central to her early success than pure writing talent. The same group of critics, editors, and academics who worked to rehabilitate Faulkner and to push a Southern literary renaissance on the strength of Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and Caroline...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 213-234
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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