The Scaffolding of Friendship

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One of the most famous (and beautiful) lines of O’Connor’s Wise Blood is her description of Taulkinham: The black sky was underpinned with long silver streaks that looked like scaffolding and depth on depth behind it were thousands of stars that all seemed to be moving very slowly as if they were about some vast construction work that involved the whole order of the universe and would take all time to complete.

In 1981, while delivering the Thomas Merton Memorial Lecture at Columbia University, Sally Fitzgerald discussed the evolution of this passage and Caroline Gordon’s role in the revision.

“[T]he passage about the sky over Taulkinham was written after the novel had been sent to the publisher,” Fitzgerald writes, “in response to Caroline Gordon’s criticism of the manuscript as lacking physical detail of scene or setting. Flannery tended, Caroline told her, to spotlight her characters and the lack of concrete sensuous description in the settings gave these people the aspect of actors moving about with lighted faces on a more or less totally dark stage. Similarly, a discernible philosophical background or context was somehow missing in the original manuscript. In the nocturnal Taulkinham passage, written after she had received Caroline’s criticism and recognized its validity—and, incidentally, also after her first savage attach of lupus, the beginning of her own dark night of the soul—Flannery managed to come up with something that was not only physical, but metaphysically very powerful, as well.”

When I think of how much I have learned from the writing of Flannery O’Connor, I think also of her–and my–great debt to the teaching of Caroline Gordon. I also think of my debt to Sally Fitzgerald: the woman who triangulated this friendship is the woman who helped to bring us all a fuller understanding of both Gordon and O’Connor.

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