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Edited by Al Bell,
Appeared in Neeha Issue #43.

The 'Old Child' In Faulkner and O'Connor
By Conan Christopher O'Brien

Presented to the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts with Honors

Harvard College, March 1, 1985


How do we relate to our myths? The question is asked by almost every culture at some point in its history, not to find out specifically where it has been as much as to locate itself in the present. The legends and beliefs of our origin are compelling because they invite comparison. They tempt us towards self-examination because -- at a distance -- they appear so starkly absolute and resolute: so resolved. In a Utopian view of the past many anxious questions arise about the present. Are we as good as our fore-fathers? Have we made progress? Have we fallen? The farther we move away from the past the more it commands our attention and forces us to re-negotiate our personal and cultural identity.

The American South has undergone such a period of self-examination in the early and mid-20th century known as the Southern Literary Renaissance. During the Renaissance, historians, fiction writers, and sociologists began to search for a sense of regional character by sorting through the stories, ideals, legalisms and codes of the Southern experience. The search invariably forced these intellectuals to decide which visions of the Old South to keep, which to abandon, and which to re-write. The answers have varied widely but the essential question has remained the same: How should the South's notion of what it was determine its new identity? The purpose of this thesis is not to find the answer but to examine the power and prevalence of the question.

W.J. Cash argues that the South is a child, indulging itself with comfortable myths of innocence, while C. Van Woodward maintains the South is a pre-maturely aged region, stripped of its childhood legends by a series of bitter, awakening defeats. Although they disagree, both men associate the South's old myths with the metaphor of childhood. This image seems appropriate because children need to forge a sense of self and they rely heavily on myths for spiritual sustenance. In their years of rapid growth children thirst for beliefs and ideals as a foundation for their newly-forming identity.

This association between childhood and myth can also be used to analyze Cash and Woodward themselves. As intellectuals of the Southern Renaissance, they too are feeding a New South's craving for self-definition with myths and revisions of myths from the Old South. As writers from the first prolonged period of Southern self-criticism, they have the child's impulse to organize, choose, and interpret past legends in order to construct a new identity. This analogy holds not only for historians but for Southern fiction writers of the Renaissance as well. According to Louis Rubin, these writers intensely re-examined their region's character and were disturbed by what they found:

"These new writers were, in short, modern Americans who were Southerners; and because that identity posed complex problems of self-definition and was fraught with incongruity, discrepancies, oppositions and divisions, and loyalties and contradictions that were rooted in the circumstances of their time and place, their writings probed beneath the everyday surfaces to get at the universal human problems of definition..."

In their child-like forging of identity, these writers encounter traditions unique to the South which contrast with many ideals of the New South. The most obvious of these problematic traditions is that of racism. Most Southern Renaissance writers have had to question how the racial tension in the South's history affects the New Southerner in his youthful state of self-definition.

According to Lilliam Smith, this racist tradition has marred the Southerner, but specifically it has damaged the children of the New South. Smith argues that all Southern children are "stunted and warped" by racial conflict and that it "cruelly shapes and cripples" the personality of the child. In her shocking image of a child "crippled" and distorted by this Southern tradition, Smith is really symbolizing the dilemma of many Southern Renaissance writers. In their child-like state of forming a self, these writers are tortured by the contrasts between powerful Southern traditions and the need to abandon or re-write these traditions in the forging of a New Southern identity. These Old South myths of honor, invulnerability, racism, innocence, and bravery can distort and "cripple" the writer during his formative stage of identity construction. The distinct relevance of this warped child image to Southern intellectuals raises an important question: Have other writers of the Literary Renaissance voiced their innate sense of discrepancy through this image of a warped child? I believe that they have.

I have found that several Southern Renaissance writers have articulated their regional sense of contradiction through what I have termed literary progeria. Progeria is an often fatal disease that strikes children and ages them pre-maturely. In the works of several Southern writers the child protagonist becomes "old" long before his time because he is tormented by the same anxiety over myth which troubles Cash and Woodward. In an effort to construct an identity the child is drawn to past myths and builds the foundation of his character on archaic beliefs. The result is that this child caries the vast experience of these myths as burden; he or she becomes an "old child" who tries unsuccessfully to reconcile his elderly identity with the modern world. I have found variations of the "old child" who tries unsuccessfully (sic) to reconcile his elderly identity with the modern world. I have found variations of the "old child" symbol in Katherine Anne Porter's _Pale Horse, Pale Rider _ as well as in Caron McCuller's _The Heart is a Lonely Hunter_ and _A Member of the Wedding_, but these authors do not explore the symbol extensively enough to establish its characteristics and thematic significance. Both William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor do develop the "old child" symbol extensively, however, and although they differ in their specific fictional concerns it is clear that the image emanates from similar regional instinct. Each author places the "old child" in the center of generational argument over the value of past myths and the child, unable to reconcile opposing views, represents experience and thus an anguished state of conflicting loyalties. The extreme generational attitudes towards myth resemble the same extremes Cash and Woodward delineate in their argument over the South's relation to the past. The myth Faulkner's children turn to is the myth of the Old South and his "old children" suffer from a spiritual progeria. O'Connor adds a second layer of significance to the symbol by incorporating the myth of Christian redemption and this increased complexity produces in her children both a spiritual _and_ a physical progeria which borders on the freakish.

By establishing a close correlation between such disparate Southern Renaissance writers as Faulkner and O'Connor we can begin to appreciate the power of the "old child's" significance. This is not a paradigm which has been examined in detail in the critical literature, but the motif merits our closer examination -- first because it is a figure which recurs throughout the literature of this period and second, because the "old child" represents these Southern Renaissance writers need to dramatize the the bitter argument that rages within them.


Flannery O'Connor's fiction also explores this distinctly Southern paradox through the symbol of the "old child." Like Faulkner, she creates child characters who are disillusioned by the inactivity and lack of belief in their parent's generation and subsequently construct their identity on the model of an elderly figure, only to suffer a tug of loyalties between the past and the present which embitters the child. The difference with O'Connor is that the discrepancy she seeks to capture is not between the Old South and the New South but between the Christian promise of Redemption and a modern nihilism and as a result her "old children" suffer both a spiritual _and_ physical progeria. Her "old children" are more freakish and grotesque than Faulkner's but they still emanate from the Southern question of how to incorporate past myths in articulating an identity in the present. . . .

The Al Bell Late Night Take-Home Exam: Compare and contrast Conan's on-stage persona when he interviews people who knew Elvis and John F. Kennedy with O'Connor's old children.

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