April 5, 2020 KELLEY KIDD I had a brief but unforgettable career as a critic of fiction, the American novel to be more precise. Since I came from Milledgeville and knew Flannery O’Conner personally, you might suppose that career was inspired by her writing. That would be a good guess. But you would be wrong. Instead I owe only the briefness of that career and its abrupt conclusion to the great Catholic writer from my home town. This is the story of the career from beginning to its unexpected end.
I was a sophomore in college when I became fascinated by the prospect of a career as a literary teacher, critic, and possibly writer, although I had no idea what I might want to write about. The Great Gatsby has enthralled me and Jack London had inspired my determination. But as yet I had no real idea of what to write about.
After my freshman year I had landed a summer job fighting forest fires in Idaho. During that interlude I had learned that Ernest Hemingway had a “log castle” somewhere near Ketchum. By luck I landed there for a day and had gone with fellow fire fighters to the Silver Dollar Bar, a place I had been told was a frequent hangout for the great man himself ! But he had not come in that night, and a few days later a newspaper told that he had committed suicide in that log castle that very night!
Despite my frustrated efforts to get closer to the Nobel Prize winner, I was still interested in writing. Then a beginning course in college English fed real fuel to whatever little fire there was. My teacher for that course was impressed with my answer to a midterm essay question about Poe’s famous short story The Fall of the House of Usher. He asked me to come to his office where I was treated to enough praise and encouragement to inflate my already large ego. I asked my academic advisor to help me register for an upper division course on the American novel. Although the professor of the novel course was not keen on having a sophomore in his class, either the academic advisor or my earlier English teacher must have been persuasive. I got in and soon was doing well.
Actually I did better than well in the novel course for the first half of the course, which ended when the teacher passed back the term papers. each student had picked a novel and chosen a focus for an analysis of the novel. I had picked Flannery’s Wise Blood and zeroed in on her use of the protagonist, Hazel Mote.Anyone who has read the novel will remember that he protagonist is obsessed for most of the novel with his internal struggles with Jesus Christ. He starts by attempting to found what he calls a church without Christ and ends by dying of a self neglect that also includes blinding himself and wrapping barbed wire around his torso.. A long final chapter shows him so obsessed with coming to terms with redemption through Christ that he wastes away and dies. My term paper made the case for the proposition that Flannery created Motes to show us protestants the folly of fanaticism. My professor praised the content and the structure of my apparently brilliant paper.
As April rolled around I was basking in the glow of successes on the college debate team and my brilliant performance as a literary critic of a high order. My professor Doctor Floyd Watkins was my single greatest witness for the proposition that I had a brilliant literary and teaching career ahead of me.
Then one day that same professor told the class that Flannery O’Conner would be visiting the campus within the week. All of us were encouraged to attend a question and answer session with the author. I was especially put on notice that attending her audience with students and faculty would be a great idea. I agreed and took a seat in the semicircle of admirers who sat on the quadrangle grass to be close to the lady in the wheel chair. Although it had only been a few years since I had last seen her, she looked much older.
After several others had addressed complimentary remarks or questions I raised my hand along with several others. She turned towards me immediately and gave us all the first big smile of the session.
“Hello Kelley” she said at once. “It is so nice to see you. I knew you were here at Emory, and hoped you would come out to see me this afternoon.” Every one else in the group turned towards the first–and I believe the last–questioner that the great lady would recognize or greet with enthusiasm. I was a hit before I opened my mouth! But of course I not only did open my mouth, but soon i was telling her all about my term paper. She was interested enough to ask me about various features of my paper, especially how I had found what i was sure was her intention to present Hazel Motes as a valiantly struggling against an unhealthy but powerful obsession that eventually leads him into a murder and then his suicide. Finally she asked if it would be too much to request that I tell her about he grade I had received. I proudly replied that I had been given an A plus, the only one in the class.
“You have always been a smart boy Kelley” she exclaimed with the same friendly voice with which she had greeted me a few minutes earlier. In the same voice she added: “On the other hand your professor was a fool. Hazel Mote is a hero to me! That is why I chose to write about him.”
After a tiny pause she added that it was always lovely to see me. Then she moved on to a question from Thomas Altizer, a celebrated Bible teacher who had authored articles and a book which advocated the view that God actually died on the cross, leaving us since without either Christ or God.
In 2020, nearly 70 years later, I discovered that Flannery O’Conner had written the following note for publication with a second edition of Wise Blood published soon after she had ended my literary career with a single observation:
Wise Blood has reached the age of ten and is still alive. My critical powers are just sufficient to determine this, and I am grateful to be able to say it. The book was written with zest and, if possible, it should be read that way. It is a comic novel about a Christian malgre lui, , and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death. Wise Blood was written by an author congenitally innocent of theory, but with certain preoccupations. That belief in Jesus Christ is a matter of life and death is a stumbling block for some readers.who would prefer to think it a matter of no great importance. for them Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to do so. Does on’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic one, can only be asked to deepen.
Was this addition to the novel a reflection on my conversation with the author? Possibly. Regardless, I believe the story is worth telling.