June 3, 2023


Of Songs and Stories: What Bruce Springsteen Learned From Flannery O'Connor: Warren Zanes on the Literary Influences Underpinning Nebraska (Warren Zanes, May 10, 2023, LitHub)

Springsteen would eventually speak of the connection between Nebraska and O'Connor's writing, describing himself as being "deep into O'Connor" just before writing the Nebraska material. He'd discovered her work when Barbara Downey, his manager Jon Landau's wife, gave him a copy of O'Connor's collected stories. "My wife and I had a summer place in the '80s," says Landau, "and Bruce came out to visit. My wife had been reading Flannery O'Connor, and she thought Bruce might like it. So she gave him a copy of the short stories, which he still references to this day. With Bruce, you don't know what's going to stick, where it's going to come from, or what it's going to influence, often because his eyes are going to focus on something other eyes are not."

Writer Toby D'Anna describes Flannery O'Connor's short stories as shining "lights in moments of incredible darkness." O'Connor became known for coaxing something monumental from the stillness of American life. Remarking on her own living situation in Georgia, she said, "Lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy." Nonetheless, that's where she went to work as a writer. A devout Catholic, she found in the stillness a violence and a stupidness, a "meanness," to borrow a word that resonated for Springsteen, that O'Connor's critics would have to reconcile, often clumsily, with her Catholic faith.

How could a believer such as O'Connor see the world as she portrayed it in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," "Good Country People," "The Life You Save May Be Your Own"? "To the hard of hearing you shout," O'Connor explained, "and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures." Grotesques, really. "The characters are not 'likeable,'" Joseph O'Neil writes in The Atlantic, "but my God they are alive." The very same thing could be said of characters one finds in Nebraska.

In a 1998 conversation with Will Percy, nephew of the novelist Walker Percy, Springsteen spoke further of Flannery O'Connor:

The really important reading that I did began in my late twenties, with authors like Flannery O'Connor. There was something in those stories of hers that I felt captured a certain part of the American character that I was interested in writing about. They were a big, big revelation. She got to the heart of some part of meanness that she never spelled out, because if she spelled it out you wouldn't be getting it. It was always at the core of every one of her stories--the way that she'd left that hole there, that hole that's inside of everybody. There was some dark thing--a component of spirituality--that I sensed in her stories, and that set me off exploring characters of my own.

O'Connor's stories didn't hinge on redemption. Among her most lasting images is that of the traveling salesman's Bible in the story "Good Country People," a book hollowed out and containing a bottle of booze, some condoms, and a deck of cards with naked women on them. Just when you think it's one thing, the Good Book, it becomes another. The grandmother in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" comes into her moment of grace, a word O'Connor liked, only as the killer on the loose, the Misfit, holds a gun in her face. In that instant, late in the story, she sees his humanity as it's bound up with her own... and then she's dead. "'She would of been a good woman,' The Misfit said, 'if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.'" In Flannery O'Connor's words, she was after those moments when she could reveal "the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil."

Until Nebraska, one got the sense that redemption was almost structural to the songs of Bruce Springsteen. "Thunder Road," "The River," "Racing in the Street." The redemption didn't always come easy, was sometimes only implied, but it came often, as some measure of hope, something to live for, an outline of possibility, sometimes delivered not just through words but through the music itself. But with Nebraska it's gone.

Flannery O'Connor trusted that her readers could see in her grotesques something more. Her fiction, and her Catholicism, hinged on that. Though Springsteen didn't work with what could be called grotesques, he did create characters caught in their own blocks of stone. Nebraska closes on "Reason to Believe," which might be summarized thus: there isn't one. "It's a common misinterpretation of 'Reason to Believe,' that it's a hopeful song," Springsteen told me. "It's hard to find a basis for that misinterpretation. I suppose the title does it. But it was one of the darkest songs on the record and it was the way I decided to finish that album. In that density." It might have been O'Connor who let Springsteen know that he could end right there and his listeners would, hopefully, know what to do with it.

Posted by at June 3, 2023 12:00 AM