The Best Books of the 1950’s

When writer friend Valerie Taylor proposed a Best Book of the Decades project for the “Books Live Forever” Facebook page, I claimed my own decade, the fifties. I remembered reading Little Women, the Hardy Boys and the Trixie Belden series but I wanted to check out what the grownups were into back then.

I googled the top books of the era and I really admired Lit Hub’s take on this idea. They zeroed in on books that captured “some element of the culture of the time” and evoked an “aspect of American life, actual or intellectual.”

It’s a great list. I’ve read all these books. But they’re all written by men, with the exception of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and I couldn’t go there.

Instead, I selected A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND, Flannery O’Connor’s first collection of short stories, which was published in 1955 when I was three years old. This wasn’t a book my parents ever had on their bookshelves. They were partial to Reader’s Digest Condensed Versions. They actually didn’t buy many books. Instead, we went to the library. I’d never heard of Flannery O’Connor until I started to try to write fiction in Professor Lisa Alvarez’s class at Irvine Valley College. My husband and I walked by O’Connor’s house last June when we were in Savannah last year.      

O’Connor is known for her craft advice in her collection of essays MYSTERY AND MANNERS. One of my favorites O’Connor quotes: “Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”

I can relate. I just sent my second novel to the publisher.

Ms. O’Connor’s short stories resonate with me for several reasons: I’m a transplanted southerner who moved to California in 1964 just as schools in North Carolina were desegregating. O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia and her stories are set in the Jim Crow South. I love complicated characters and O’Connor’s cast are all not only complicated they are morally flawed. I’m partial to darkness laced with humor and O’Connor’s stories are equally comedic and disturbing.

Some comedically dark examples from the GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND collection–a bickering family is shot in the backwoods of Georgia. A bible salesman seduces a woman in a hayloft and takes her wooden leg. A tramp marries an intellectually disabled girl and steals her mother’s car.

I realize these kinds of stories aren’t everyone’s glass of sweet tea. O’Connor is fond of pointing out that underneath the ordinary surfaces of modern life, menacing evil can intrude without warning. Her view of the world is definitely bleak. Many of her characters suffer terrible fates. What she offers as consolation is the possibility of spiritual redemption.

O’Connor was a devout Catholic after all, which made her an outsider in the Protestant South. She was a highly educated woman too, which in those days also made her somewhat of an outlier. She had a bachelor in sociology and literature and earned an MFA in creative writing at the University of Iowa.

Lauren Goff says in her introduction to the collection that A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND is “the most American book she knows” because it speaks to “the hypocrisies of the American soul as seen by a brave, blazingly angry and mordantly funny observer.”

After I reread the collection, I found myself agreeing with Goff’s “blazingly angry and mordantly funny” description but I’m not sure how brave O’Connor really was. She wrote about race and her stories exposed some of the hypocrisy of her characters in parable-like ways. But O’Connor liberally (and almost gleefully) uses the N-word throughout the collection, even titling one story “The Artificial N….” Further research shows that she also made blatantly racist remarks all through her life, disparaging James Baldwin and Martin Luther King.

Toni Morrison discussed “The Artificial N….” story in her book, THE ORIGIN OF OTHERS, reminding us that discrimination and racism are learned by example. In the story, a white man educates his nephew on racial hierarchy. When a prosperous Black man passes by, the nephew at first sees “a man,” then “a fat man…an old man.”

“No,” his uncle says. “That was a n… .”

Morrison explains that this process of inventing an ‘Other’ is an age-old formula, with the illusion of power and the need for control at its core. She still enjoyed O’Connor’s work though. When Literary Hub asked Toni Morrison which writers she admired she said, “There’s a woman I love, she’s really hostile, Flannery O’Connor, she’s really really good.”

Alice Walker also admired O’Connor’s ability to “cast spells and work magic with the written word.” “The magic, the wit, and the mystery of Flannery O’Connor I know I will always love,” Walker said. “But I also know the meaning of the expression ‘Take what you can use and let the rest rot.’”

Some modern readers are willing to forgive O’Connor’s racism now, saying that she simply mirrored the time and the society she lived in. Possibly it never occurred to her that people of color (like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker) would even read her stories. I have a hard time understanding how someone who is educated, an artist and a careful observer of life can be a racist. I can be naïve though and I have my own blinders.

I still enjoy O’Connor’s wit and magic and her advice on writing. Like Toni Morrison, I appreciate a hostile woman’s point of view and I admire any exposition of the hypocrisy of American culture. But I agree with Alice Walker. I’ll take what I can use and let the rest rot.



2 Responses

  1. I can’t remember WHERE I read some of O’Connor’s diaries – I found her handwriting very similar to my own (Catholic schools? Even though I grew up in Mexico).

    I believe she was excoriating herself for that very unChristian racism in the excerpt. It bothered her, and she knew it was wrong (IIRC). But she didn’t seem to manage to overcome her ‘education’ in the world. It really doesn’t go well with Catholic formal beliefs that each of us is made by God and is equally valuable – but she lived in a very different world from the one I grew up in.

    I read the extracts for another reason: she had to deal with illness – died at 39 from the complications of lupus – and I, who am now much older than that have now had to deal with chronic illness for 33 years (got ME/CFS at a physics conference, at 40, in 1989). I know what it’s like to struggle to get the brain to function, the words out, to maintain continuity when days go by when you couldn’t work. I love that she left her stamp on the world anyway – it can’t have been easy.

  2. Those diaries sound fascinating. And I agree, her life wasn’t easy. So sorry that you are dealing with chronic illness as well. Thank you for reading my post.

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