Saturday, September 4, 2010

Christian Smith

Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Sociology, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, and director of the Center for Social Research at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers and Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture.

His new book is What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up.

Last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve been reading a collection of personal correspondences of a favorite “Southern gothic” author, Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). The book was originally published the year I graduated high school, 1978, but the content is fresh and engaging. For one thing, O’Connor is super at metaphors, turns of phrases, and witty digs. Her letters are as fun to read as her fiction. It is also instructive to me as a writer to see in her early letters O’Connor’s struggles with editors, publishers, agents, and the general business of publishing. It is easy in retrospect to look back on great writers and assume that their gifts were readily recognized by early readers and that their paths to success were smooth. But of course that is often not the case. It was not for O’Connor. For starters, she was, by her own admission, a slow writer who re-wrote her prose over and over again. She seemed both confident and somewhat uncertain about what she was writing. She also had an unusual vision and style (“angular,” as she sometimes characterized it) that some early editors did not appreciate. They instead tried to force her into what she viewed as a boring, standard-novel format and style. Happily for us, O’Connor pushed back and did things her way, even though that involved all sorts of difficulties with contracts, royalty advances, time delays, etc. But, as a result, we now enjoy her short stories (e.g., the collection in A Good Man is Hard to Find) and novels (Wise Blood, The Violent Bear it Away) as the amazing pieces she meant them to be.

But why am I, an empirically-oriented sociologist and sometimes social theorist, reading the personal letters of a literary great? In fact, I read very little fiction, but do try to make myself read some every now and then for a change of pace and as another kind of window of insight on a complex and sometimes ineffable world. I recently read a lot of O’Connor’s fiction, and loved it. Then someone I work with told me that their life was literally changed years ago by reading The Habit of Being, which intrigued me. I also find O’Connor to be simply a fascinating person—a devout Catholic living in the mid-twentieth-century Bible-belt American South, a strong-minded women making her way in the world of letters before the rise of the feminist movement that post-dated her death, someone who saw clearly and named the twisted evils and strange redemptions embedded in human lives, and herself an impressive human being stricken early in life by a debilitating and eventually fatal disease. One does get a sense of O’Connor as a person in and through her fiction. But reading her personal correspondences with various people—well edited by a good friend who supported her career at a critical time—adds new dimensions of insight. Not sure it will change my life (am pretty happy as it is), but so far The Habit of Being is immensely enjoyable—difficult, in fact, to put down for the night before it gets way too late to get to sleep.
Read more about Christian Smith's What Is a Person?.

--Marshal Zeringue