Reading Flannery O’Connor in the age of Islamophobia

At a little more than fifty pages, “The Displaced Person” is one of Flannery O’Connor’s least anthologized stories—and if you share her beliefs about what she called “topical” stories, it’s also one of the most problematic. O’Connor was wary of stories that focused squarely and perhaps sentimentally on social issues. Her own “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” featuring a bigoted white woman riding a newly integrated bus, was, she feared, just such a story—though in a letter to a friend she confided that she “got away with it … because I say a plague on everybody’s house as far as the race business goes.”

In the very same letter, O’Connor writes that “the topical is poison,” lambasting Eudora Welty’s famous story “Where Is the Voice Coming From,” written from the point of view of the man who assassinated the civil rights leader Medgar Evers. “It’s the kind of story that the more you think about it the less satisfactory it gets,” O’Connor wrote. “What I hate most is its being in the New Yorker and all of the stupid Yankee liberals smacking their lips over typical life in the dear old dirty Southland.”

Like many in the South, O’Connor abhorred racism but was slow to embrace integration, feeling that to rush things would lead to more violence. This stance may have been part and parcel of her attitude toward topical writing. To be topical, she thought, was to risk arguing for social changes that couldn’t be brought about by mere idealism, but by the hard, messy, and sometimes violent work of transforming hearts. 

And yet “The Displaced Person” is undeniably topical, right down to its title—and its topic makes it peculiarly resonant at present, when governors are vowing to refuse Syrian refugees and Donald Trump has outlined an arrantly bigoted plan to bar all Muslims from entering the U.S.

O’Connor takes her title from the Displaced Persons Act, which, between 1948 and 1952, permitted the immigration of some four hundred thousand European refugees into the United States. President Truman signed the bill with “very great reluctance” for what he saw as its discriminatory policy toward Jews and Catholics: the Act stipulated that, in order to be eligible, one must have entered Germany, Italy, or Austria before December 22, 1945, which, according to Truman, ruled out 90 percent of the remaining Jewish people displaced by the war. Similarly excluded were the many Catholics who’d fled their largely Communist countries after the December 22 deadline.

“The bad points of the bill are numerous,” Truman wrote. “Together they form a pattern of discrimination and intolerance wholly inconsistent with the American sense of justice.” He called the decision to enforce the December 1945 deadline “inexplicable, except upon the abhorrent ground of intolerance.”

Despite the bill’s restrictions and limits, the public was deeply concerned, as some Americans are now, with the possibility that “subversives” might infiltrate the country under the Act—and that the huge influx of refugees would take jobs from American workers.

According to Brad Gooch’s biography Flannery, the Matysiaks, a Polish family of four who would become the basis for O’Connor’s story, arrived in rural Georgia in 1951, having been eligible for immigration under the Act. They settled in the tiny town of Gray, Georgia, and they met Regina O’Connor, Flannery’s mother, at Sacred Heart Church in Milledgeville, the only Catholic Church for miles. By the fall of 1953 they’d moved into a three-room shack at Andalusia, the O’Connor homestead. Their new home had a stove, but no indoor plumbing, and its curtains were made from feed sacks—not much different from the houses James Agee and Walker Evans had documented nearly twenty years earlier in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

The Matysiaks were not a complete anomaly. The pastor of Sacred Heart, Father John Toomey, had worked through the Catholic Resettlement Commission, an international organization created by Pope Pius XII, to help other refugee families settle in the area. But O’Connor, who didn’t like to travel much because of her lupus, drew her inspiration from those who were closest to her—and so the Matysiaks, having settled almost literally in her backyard, captured her imagination.
The first image in “The Displaced Person” is news-reel footage of “a small room piled high with bodies of dead naked people all in a heap, their arms and legs tangled together, a head thrust in here, a head there, a foot, a knee, a part that should have been covered up sticking out, a hand raised clutching nothing”: victims, the reader should intuit, of the Holocaust. The image is stunning, and the story’s protagonist, Mrs. Shortley, reacts to it with a deep fear, setting the tone for the rest of the story. Whatever evil had caused the death of all those people, she thinks, has infected these refugees, and is now in danger of infecting America:
Watching from her vantage point, Mrs. Shortley had the sudden intuition that the Gobblehooks, like rats with typhoid fleas, could have carried all those murderous ways over the water with them directly to this place. If they had come from where that kind of thing was done to them, who was to say they were not the kind that would also do it to others? The width and breadth of this question nearly shook her. Her stomach trembled as if there had been a slight quake in the heart of the mountain and automatically she moved down from her elevation and went forward to be introduced to them, as if she meant to find out at once what they were capable of.
The word Holocaust is never used in the story—nor are Jew and Hitler. In the absence of specificity, the mass murder feels somehow even more mysterious, senseless, and unspeakable. But it also puts the reader more firmly in Mrs. Shortley’s perspective: completely lacking any context that would move her to see this heap of bodies as victims, as human, as people like her.

Mrs. Shortley’s husband is the caretaker and general handyman on a farm owned by the widow Mrs. McIntyre. The Shortleys oversee Astor and Sulk, two black men who have been hired hands for some time. Mrs. Shortley treats them like wayward children—in her eyes, they should be handled in a way that’s consistent with “their limitations.”

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