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Betty Smartt Carter

An Unforgiving Eye

In the summer of 1965, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman traveled to middle Georgia to visit the home of Flannery O'Connor. O'Connor had died of lupus a year before, but Hyman met with her mother and neighbors in preparation for a study of her work (published in 1966 as part of the University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers series). As usual, Hyman's wife did the driving, and perhaps some of the literary analysis as well. His note of thanks to her would read, "[The author's] indebtedness to the late Shirley Jackson is beyond the possibility of acknowledgment."

Shirley Jackson, herself a literary legend, died of a heart attack shortly after she returned home with her husband. It's hard even to imagine Jackson, so thoroughly Yankee, chatting with Flannery O'Connor's mother on Southern soil. Over a thousand miles separated Bennington, Vermont, from Milledgeville, Georgia, not to mention light years of culture and point of view. Yet, in this not-quite conjunction of two writers' lives lay a true meeting of worlds.

It's easy to see what drew Jackson to Milledgeville (besides Stanley). Like O'Connor, she excelled at teasing the horrible from the ordinary, the shocking from the mundane. In Jackson's most famous story, "The Lottery," a mannerly group of neighbors draws names to decide which of their own will be sacrificed in a ritual fertility stoning. "Lottery in June," goes their old chant, "corn be heavy soon." When first published in the New Yorker, the story horrified readers who expected right up until the surprise ending that poor Mrs. Hutchinson was about to win a vacation to the Poconos. In the same way, O'Connor's story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" shocked gentle souls who couldn't comprehend why a writer would kill off a family of five (including a grandma) just for taking a wrong turn on the way to Florida.

Both women dealt out violence and terror in a detached, often comical tone. Neither wasted much sentiment on her characters, and neither had much ...

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