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Arts & Culture

The Displaced Person

December 10, 2015 | by

Reading Flannery O’Connor in the age of Islamophobia.

Illustration: June Glasson, for Farrar, Straus and Giroux

At a little more than fifty pages, “The Displaced Person” is one of Flannery O’Connor’s least anthologized stories—and if you share her beliefs about what she called “topical” stories, it’s also one of the most problematic. O’Connor was wary of stories that focused squarely and perhaps sentimentally on social issues. Her own “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” featuring a bigoted white woman riding a newly integrated bus, was, she feared, just such a story—though in a letter to a friend she confided that she “got away with it … because I say a plague on everybody’s house as far as the race business goes.”

In the very same letter, O’Connor writes that “the topical is poison,” lambasting Eudora Welty’s famous story “Where Is the Voice Coming From,” written from the point of view of the man who assassinated the civil rights leader Medgar Evers. “It’s the kind of story that the more you think about it the less satisfactory it gets,” O’Connor wrote. “What I hate most is its being in the New Yorker and all of the stupid Yankee liberals smacking their lips over typical life in the dear old dirty Southland.”

Like many in the South, O’Connor abhorred racism but was slow to embrace integration, feeling that to rush things would lead to more violence. This stance may have been part and parcel of her attitude toward topical writing. To be topical, she thought, was to risk arguing for social changes that couldn’t be brought about by mere idealism, but by the hard, messy, and sometimes violent work of transforming hearts. 

And yet “The Displaced Person” is undeniably topical, right down to its title—and its topic makes it peculiarly resonant at present, when governors are vowing to refuse Syrian refugees and Donald Trump has outlined an arrantly bigoted plan to bar all Muslims from entering the U.S.

O’Connor takes her title from the Displaced Persons Act, which, between 1948 and 1952, permitted the immigration of some four hundred thousand European refugees into the United States. President Truman signed the bill with “very great reluctance” for what he saw as its discriminatory policy toward Jews and Catholics: the Act stipulated that, in order to be eligible, one must have entered Germany, Italy, or Austria before December 22, 1945, which, according to Truman, ruled out 90 percent of the remaining Jewish people displaced by the war. Similarly excluded were the many Catholics who’d fled their largely Communist countries after the December 22 deadline.

“The bad points of the bill are numerous,” Truman wrote. “Together they form a pattern of discrimination and intolerance wholly inconsistent with the American sense of justice.” He called the decision to enforce the December 1945 deadline “inexplicable, except upon the abhorrent ground of intolerance.”

Despite the bill’s restrictions and limits, the public was deeply concerned, as some Americans are now, with the possibility that “subversives” might infiltrate the country under the Act—and that the huge influx of refugees would take jobs from American workers.

According to Brad Gooch’s biography Flannery, the Matysiaks, a Polish family of four who would become the basis for O’Connor’s story, arrived in rural Georgia in 1951, having been eligible for immigration under the Act. They settled in the tiny town of Gray, Georgia, and they met Regina O’Connor, Flannery’s mother, at Sacred Heart Church in Milledgeville, the only Catholic Church for miles. By the fall of 1953 they’d moved into a three-room shack at Andalusia, the O’Connor homestead. Their new home had a stove, but no indoor plumbing, and its curtains were made from feed sacks—not much different from the houses James Agee and Walker Evans had documented nearly twenty years earlier in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

The Matysiaks were not a complete anomaly. The pastor of Sacred Heart, Father John Toomey, had worked through the Catholic Resettlement Commission, an international organization created by Pope Pius XII, to help other refugee families settle in the area. But O’Connor, who didn’t like to travel much because of her lupus, drew her inspiration from those who were closest to her—and so the Matysiaks, having settled almost literally in her backyard, captured her imagination.

The first image in “The Displaced Person” is news-reel footage of “a small room piled high with bodies of dead naked people all in a heap, their arms and legs tangled together, a head thrust in here, a head there, a foot, a knee, a part that should have been covered up sticking out, a hand raised clutching nothing”: victims, the reader should intuit, of the Holocaust. The image is stunning, and the story’s protagonist, Mrs. Shortley, reacts to it with a deep fear, setting the tone for the rest of the story. Whatever evil had caused the death of all those people, she thinks, has infected these refugees, and is now in danger of infecting America:

Watching from her vantage point, Mrs. Shortley had the sudden intuition that the Gobblehooks, like rats with typhoid fleas, could have carried all those murderous ways over the water with them directly to this place. If they had come from where that kind of thing was done to them, who was to say they were not the kind that would also do it to others? The width and breadth of this question nearly shook her. Her stomach trembled as if there had been a slight quake in the heart of the mountain and automatically she moved down from her elevation and went forward to be introduced to them, as if she meant to find out at once what they were capable of.

The word Holocaust is never used in the story—nor are Jew and Hitler. In the absence of specificity, the mass murder feels somehow even more mysterious, senseless, and unspeakable. But it also puts the reader more firmly in Mrs. Shortley’s perspective: completely lacking any context that would move her to see this heap of bodies as victims, as human, as people like her.

Mrs. Shortley’s husband is the caretaker and general handyman on a farm owned by the widow Mrs. McIntyre. The Shortleys oversee Astor and Sulk, two black men who have been hired hands for some time. Mrs. Shortley treats them like wayward children—in her eyes, they should be handled in a way that’s consistent with “their limitations.”

But trouble begins when Mrs. Shortley dies of a stroke and a refugee named Mr. Guizac, known throughout the story as only the Displaced Person, threatens to upset the social order. With Mr. Shortley gone attending to the funeral arrangements, Mrs. McIntyre hires the Displaced Person to assume authority over Astor and Sulk; they complain bitterly that he’s working them too hard. The rest of the story focuses on Mrs. McIntyre and her struggle to get rid of the Guizacs. “I will not have my niggers upset,” Mrs. McIntyre says, confronting the Displaced Person. “I cannot run this place without my niggers. I can run it without you.”

The story is full of such barbs, suggesting that the perceived racial pecking order ultimately overrules any notions of Christian charity. “I am not responsible for the world’s misery,” Mrs. McIntyre thinks to herself as she scolds Guizac.

*

“The Displaced Person” brims with overt criticism of Christian racists—but there seems to have been an even deeper personal and spiritual need for O’Connor to write about the Matysiaks. In December 1953, just a few months after the displaced family arrived, O’Connor received a Christmas gift from Catholic Worker magazine, the publication arm of the movement founded by the Catholic activist Dorothy Day. The gift was a prayer card printed with “A Prayer to Saint Raphael”:

O Raphael, lead us towards those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us! Raphael, Angel of Happy Meetings, lead us by the hand towards those we are looking for! 

. . . Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of earth, we feel the need of calling to you and of pleading for the protection of your wings, so that we may not be as strangers in the Province of Joy, all ignorant of the concerns of our country.

According to Gooch’s biography, the prayer became a favorite of O’Connor’s, eventually working its way so deep into her imagination that it inspired some of the rhetoric and imagery in the final section of “The Displaced Person.” Mr. Shortley, feeling that his job might be at risk, begins complaining to Mrs. McIntyre, asking her why the Displaced Person should be afforded better treatment than someone who had “fought and bled and died in the service of his native land.”

O’Connor is so often remembered as a misanthropic homebody—but she was comforted by the idea of a God that gave preferential treatment to the most vulnerable among us. The very concept of displacement­—to be without a community to care for you—rises to the surface in this story, and, as in much of O’Connor’s work, ostensibly Christian characters lose the courage of their convictions.

When a priest tries to calm Mrs. McIntyre down, to help her see the lack of charity in her thinking, he evokes a version of John 3:16: “When God sent his Only Begotten Son … ” McIntyre interrupts with words that shake the foundations of the story:

“Father Flynn!” she said in a voice that made him jump.

“I want to talk to you about something serious!”

The skin under the old man’s right eye flinched.

“As far as I’m concerned,” she said and glared fiercely, “Christ was just another D.P.”

Reading O’Connor’s work with broader notions of displacement in mind, you begin to see it in nearly every story, and even in her personal life. The traveling Bible salesman in “A Good Country People,” the one-armed con man in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” the senile and disoriented Civil War vet in “A Late Encounter with the Enemy”—and especially the misfit and grandmother from O’Connor’s most famous story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the former an escaped convict who cannot recollect “all he done to deserve the punishment he got” and the latter a “good Christian woman” who reflects sentimentally on the old order of the South, an order that is now, in one of O’Connor’s most hilarious jokes, “Gone with the Wind.”

All of these characters are displaced, if not literally, then figuratively. They’re either morally rudderless, existentially lost, or both; they cannot accept that the world has changed and passed them by. These displaced persons are dark agents of change. Their pitifulness causes them, and the reader, to confront the radical command to love our neighbor as ourselves, to be like the Good Samaritan who sets aside deeply engrained bigotry to minister to the needy.

But the Guizacs’ displacement is different. Mr. Guizac and his family are unique in O’Connor’s fiction in that they are the only Catholics, and they’re the most blameless of any of O’Connor’s displaced characters. They are in need of refuge and willing to work hard to earn their keep. The judgment they confront is the result of what the theologian Kelly Johnson calls “the fear of beggars,” a distrust and anger that stems from all that the indigent make us contemplate in ourselves: our deficiencies, our brokenness. These encounters end, at best, in neglect, but they can also lead to violence.

As she grew older, O’Connor became more and more displaced herself. While her friends and contemporaries were winning grants and traveling abroad, she was marooned in Georgia. Her only romantic relationship—at least the only one we know about—was with Erik Langkjaer, a Norwegian traveling book salesman, likely the inspiration for Manley Pointer in “Good Country People.” He visited her at Andalusia whenever he was in the area, bringing with him news of the outside world. He had lived in New York and had an aunt closely connected to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, which is how O’Connor came to subscribe to their magazine. In a letter recounting one of her visits with Langkjaer, O’Connor writes, “The only conclusion we came to about [ministering to the poor] was that Charity is not understandable ... Strange people turn up.”

Indeed, Christian charity is a constant challenge. Its necessity arises not from any soggy sense of guilt or social responsibility but from Jesus’s description of the final judgment, found in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. Only those who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the ill, and visited the imprisoned will be gain eternal life. And yet an overwhelming number of Americans, if polls are still to be believed, consider themselves Christian and believe America to be a Christian nation, one where the nativity scene is as recognizable as the Stars and Stripes: a tableau intended to remind even nonbelievers of the virtue of giving shelter to the weary traveler.

Many of our self-styled Christian leaders would do well to seek out “The Displaced Person,” which, like O’Connor’s best work, carries a dark moral force without recourse to didacticism or sentimentality. In its dogged focus on the obligation of Christians to help the oppressed, the story shrugs off its topical elements; O’Connor dwells not on the abominations of the Third Reich but on the long shadow cast by this kind of evil. In this way, Mrs. Shortley was, in a sense, correct when she looked upon that pile of bodies in the news reel—violence is a contagion, as the late René Girard theorized, begetting more violence, which begets more violence, and on and on and on.

Dave Griffith is the author of A Good War Is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America. He lives in Northern Michigan, where he directs the creative-writing program at Interlochen Center for the Arts.