In October 1970, six years after Flannery O'Connor died, The Atlantic surfaced one of her unpublished stories and ran it beneath an almost apologetic preface from her literary executor: "I have consented to this publication with a note making clear ... the earliness of the story and its apparent standing in the estimation of the author." Its standing was, apparently, not very high: O'Connor had written "The Barber" in her very early 20s, as a student at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. She'd never published it or included it in any of her short-story collections.
It's a tribute to O'Connor that even her b-sides were this good. In "The Barber," a college professor tries to talk a bunch of bigots into voting for a progressive candidate. It's a futile exercise—not because racists won't listen to reason, but because the professor just isn't very persuasive. After days of obsessing over the right words, he gives a lackluster rant against segregation that doesn't even impress the black boy sweeping the floors.
"The Barber" was one of O'Connor's earliest efforts, but she came back to the same themes later in life. In 1965, Atlantic critic William Barrett reviewed her posthumously published collection Everything That Rises Must Converge, giving special attention to the title story—the tale of an educated young man who can't change his mother's views on integration. "The single moral, indeed, that runs through these stories," observed Barrett, "seems to be that the liberal mind, convinced, of its own rationality and self-righteousness, cannot possibly understand the perverse depths of the than human personality."
But as James Parker points out in the November 2013 Atlantic, there's a mystical dimension to these failures. O'Connor was fervently Catholic, but in an almost nihilistic way—as Parker writes, she saw the divine presence as a disruptive force. When her characters smash against the limits of their own intellects, the reader experiences a kind of anti-epiphany: "The upended moment, the breaking-in or breaking-through of a vagrant, unbiddable reality: this is the grace of God and the sign of his love."
Also see "Touched by Evil," a review by Joseph O'Neill in the June 2009 Atlantic.
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