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The Crop–Flannery O’Connor

An early story from O’Connor’s career, “The Crop” betrays not only an artist not yet at the top of her talents but possessed of a considerable mound of talent to surmount. In this brief span of pages, O’Connor presents a woman rather like herself in some ways: single, relatively affluent, Southern, with writerly aspirations. Unlike O’Connor, however, Miss Willerton, the story’s protagonist, seems not only bereft of talent but of genuine drive. She seems to wish for nothing more than uninterrupted time at her typewriter, yet the most significant interruptions to Miss Willerton’s efforts come from her own imagination. One commentator has this to say about the story’s focus:

In her short story “The Crop” Miss Willerton, a well-to-do literary dilettante, attempts to pound out a composition on her old type writer only to be distracted constantly by her nagging family and, most troublesomely, by her own lack of skill.

Certainly the lack of skill is genuine, but Miss Willerton’s family is neither as intrusive nor as abusive as the woman would like to believe. What stands out to my mind in this story is the remarkable unproductiveness of the character. Her writing is the sort of make-work that the idle southerner might produce. In her exterior life, Miss Willerton labors exquisitely in “crumbing” the dining table and finds the request of a trip to the market to be very demanding. Despite this relative ease, her interior life produces very little as she struggles mightily to progress beyond the opening sentence of her story.

At first, Miss Willerton settles on sharecroppers as the topic for her story. Why? They have a social aspect that might appeal to her intended audience. She also seems to find them picturesque, rolling around in the dirt with a dog in her imagination. After writing herself, mentally, into the story and allowing it to morph into a revoltingly sentimental piece of wish fulfillment, she recognizes that the story, in reality not yet past that absurd opening sentence, appears destined to go no where. She then determines to write a story about the Irish.

In this story, O’Connor reveals very little of any consequence about farmers, since her main character knows very little about them. In Miss Willerton’s mind, the sharecropper is a topic of the most maudlin sort of romance. This woman who finds a trip to the store too arduous, glosses over the very real and very difficult work involved in the small-scale subsistence farmer. One imagines the workings of her mind to be allied with those of a child who believes somehow that running away from home will solve the trivial problems of the day.

Miss Willerton, in O’Connor’s able hands, emerges as a woman completely unaware of the work required to place the food in the kitchen whence it can appear on her family’s table, leaving crumbs for her to remove. She has evidently proved herself unequal to the task to visiting the market, witnessed by her sister’s repeated admonition to “get ripe tomatoes this time” and her own inability to keep the two-item shopping list straight.

As I reflect on this story, I’m reminded of the Proverbs 31 woman. In Proverbs 31:31, this idealized woman is lifted up for public honor and praise. Clearly, Miss Willerton is none of these things. O’Connor, having experienced a academic life but not the sort of domesticity expected of upper-middle-class southern women of her day, perhaps worried that she might wind up like this character, unproductive and irrelevant. Her diagnosis with lupus still several years away, we can still imagine the author wondering how those around her would view this apparently idle, apparently unproductive woman.

Happily, O’Connor, unlike Willerton, did produce a crop. A reader could do worse than to own the Modern Library’s Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor.

Posted in American Literature, Contemporary.

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