Sunday, March 25, 2007

I have not been influenced by the best people

Which brings me to the embarrassing subject of what I have not read and been influenced by. I hope nobody ever asks me in public. If so I intend to look dark and mutter, "Henry James Henry James"--which will be the veriest lie, but no matter. I have not been influenced by the best people. The only good things I read when I was a child were the Greek and Roman myths which I got out of a set of child's encyclopedia called The Book of Knowledge. The rest of what I read was Slop with a capital S. The Slop period was followed by the Edgar Allan Poe period which lasted for years and consisted chiefly in a volume called The Humerous Tales of E.A. Poe. These were mighty humerous--one about a young man who was too vain to wear his glasses and consequently married his grandmother by accident; another about a fine figure of a man who in his room removed wooden arms, wooden legs, hair piece, artificial teeth, voice box, etc. etc.; another about the inmates of a lunatic aslylum who take over the establishment and run it to suit themselves. This is an influence I would rather not think about. I went to a progressive high school where one did not read if one did not wish to; I did not wish to (except the Humerous Tales etc.) In college I read works of social-science, so-called. The only thing that kept me from being a social-scientist was the grace of God and the fact that I couldn't remember the stuff but a few days after reading it.

I didn't really start to read until I went to Graduate School and then I began to read and write at the same time. When I went to Iowa I had never heard of Faulkner, Kafka, Joyce, much less read them. Then I began to read everything at once, so much so that I didn't have time I suppose to be influenced by any one writer. I read all the Catholic novelists, Mauriac, Bernanos, Bloy, Greene, Waugh; I read all the nuts like Djuna Barnes and Dorothy Richardson and Va. Woolf (unfair to the dear lady of course); I read the best Southern writers like Faulkner and the Tates, K.A. Porter, Eudora Welty and Peter Taylor; read the Russians, not Tolstoy so much but Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov and Gogol. I became a great admirer of Conrad and have read almost all his fiction. I have totally skipped such people as Dreiser, Anderson (except for a few stories) and Thomas Wolfe. I have learned something from Hawthorne, Flaubert, Balzac and something from Kafka, thought I have never been able to finish one of his novels. I've read almost all of Henry James--from a sense of High Duty and because when I read James I feel something is happening to me, in slow motion but happening nevertheless. I admire Dr. Johnson's Lives of the Poets. But always the largest thing that looms up is The Humerous Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. I am sure he wrote them all while drunk too.

--Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being

She would've been 82 today.


  1. Such an interesting blogpiece, Susan.
    I have always been a reader, always, but not a true literature addict. My addiction to literature I can trace to a single event, and your blog makes me recall it.
    I was in college... and finsished my final exams quite a bit prior to my flight back home.
    Mmmmm.... some unaccounted for time!
    Is there anything better?
    Well, I walked past a Coles bookstore in Peterborough, and there was a copy of Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles on sale!
    I have never been the same since.
    I remember reading that book, in my dorm-room bed with more interest than ANYTHING I had studied for, in the weeks previous!
    I've never been the same since, and Hardy remains one of my favorite authors.

  2. I was so excited about the section on her reading influences. Started to include it in my post, then decided to save it 'til tomorrow. Well, now I can just link it 'cause this is exactly what I was going to post!

    I'd never heard of The Humorous Tales of E.A. Poe! But when she described them, I thought: hmmm, I can surely see the influence of odd!

  3. How far are you, JenClair? I didn't start reading it until Sunday afternoon, and then I couldn't stop. I have you to thank for getting me interested in this one. I need to slow down and pace myself.

    (And don't you love her misspellings? Humerous, Tennysee, etc.)

  4. And Cip, how cool that you know exactly when and what turned you onto literature. I've always loved to read, I started to read better stuff in ninth grade as well as to search for it on my own (I'd never been required to read a book for school until ninth grade).

    And per the O'Connor quote, I love that she grew up with The Book of Knowledge because I did, too. It was my first exposure to Alice in Wonderland.

  5. That was a great quote -- she's really an amazing person.


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