Hear Flannery O’Connor’s Short Story, “Revelation,” Read by Legendary Historian & Radio Host, Studs Terkel

flannery terkel

Images via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Flan­nery O’Connor’s sur­gi­cal satire has the abil­i­ty to strip away the pre­ten­sions of not only those char­ac­ters we are already pre­dis­posed to dis­like, but also those with whom we may sympathize—that is, edu­cat­ed peo­ple with broad­ly human­ist views who think they see right through the self-impor­tant prej­u­dices and provin­cial­ism of peo­ple like Mrs. Hopewell in “Good Coun­try Peo­ple” or Mrs. Chest­ny in “Every­thing that Ris­es Must Con­verge.” Both sto­ries dra­ma­tize gen­er­a­tional ten­sions in the form of mother/child pairs at odds. In the for­mer, super­fi­cial, con­de­scend­ing Mrs. Hopewell and her daugh­ter Joy—a mis­er­able, grad­u­ate-edu­cat­ed amputee who prefers to call her­self Hulga—battle over their con­flict­ing moral philoso­phies, only to both be tak­en in by a devi­ous bump­kin pos­ing as a Bible sales­man.

In the lat­ter story—also the title of O’Connor’s most wide­ly read col­lec­tion, pub­lished posthu­mous­ly in 1965—a moth­er and son pair present us with two kinds of intol­er­ance. Mrs. Chest­ny is an overt big­ot whose self-impor­tance depends on her sense of her­self as a descen­dent of a proud, if decayed, South­ern aris­toc­ra­cy. Julian, her unem­ployed son, a despair­ing recent col­lege-grad with designs of becom­ing a writer but with no real prospects, thinks him­self above his mother’s ugly racism and desires noth­ing more than that she learn her les­son: “The old world is gone,” he says, “You aren’t who you think you are.” When she final­ly gets her come­up­pance at the end of the sto­ry (on the way, com­i­cal­ly, to a “reduc­ing class”) it may have come, to Julian’s dis­may, at the cost of her life. Though we are inclined to sym­pa­thize at first with the bit­ter­ly iron­ic son, as the sto­ry pro­gress­es, the nar­ra­tor reveals his moti­va­tions as hard­ly more ele­vat­ed than his mother’s hate and fear.

These are not char­ac­ters we fall in love with, but we nev­er for­get them either. Through them we come to see that none of us is who we think we are, that the human capac­i­ty for self-decep­tion is bound­less. This is the les­son com­mon to each of O’Connor’s sto­ries, one she offers anew with wit and vari­ety each time, and each time through a kind of rev­e­la­tion. Her sto­ries draw us into points of view that reveal themselves—through sud­den epipha­nies and grad­ual unfoldings—to be inad­e­quate, delud­ed, pro­found­ly lim­it­ed. And though O’Connor’s South­ern Catholic pes­simism has aston­ish­ing­ly uni­ver­sal reach, the region­al ground­ing of her sto­ries and nov­els present us with par­tic­u­lar­ly Amer­i­can ver­sions of the pet­ty mean­ness and con­ceit com­mon to the human species.

In “Rev­e­la­tion,” anoth­er sto­ry from Every­thing Ris­es Must Con­verge—read above by Studs Terkel—O’Con­nor lays bare some par­tic­u­lar­ly Amer­i­can race and class bias­es in the char­ac­ter of Mrs. Turpin, anoth­er old­er South­ern lady whose prej­u­dices are more vicious and spite­ful than both Mrs. Hopewell and Mrs. Chest­ny put togeth­er. The sto­ry achieves a sub­tle exam­i­na­tion of some very unsub­tle atti­tudes, and the read­ing by Terkel, in his Chica­go-accent­ed radio voice, does it jus­tice indeed. Terkel read the sto­ry on his radio show, The Studs Terkel Pro­gram, in 1965, the year of its pub­li­ca­tion and a lit­tle over a year after O’Con­nor’s death. See a com­plete tran­script of the broad­cast at the Terkel show’s Pop Up Archive. The audio above has been kind­ly enhanced for us by sound design­er Berrak Nil.

As an added treat, hear “Every­thing that Ris­es Must Con­verge” read above by Acad­e­my Award-win­ning actress Estelle Par­sons, who became known in her lat­er years for play­ing an over­bear­ing moth­er like the sto­ry’s Mrs. Chest­ny in the TV sit­com Roseanne. Despite the quaint­ness of O’Con­nor’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tions, we are not far at all from the world she depict­ed, giv­en the stub­born per­sis­tence of human big­otry, self­ish­ness, and blind self-regard. For more clas­sic O’Con­nor, hear the sharp-tongued writer, who died too soon of com­pli­ca­tions from her lupus at age 39, read her sto­ry “A Good Man is Hard to Find” here.

The read­ing above can be found in our col­lec­tion, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Studs Terkel Inter­views Bob Dylan, Shel Sil­ver­stein, Maya Angelou & More in New Audio Trove

Rare 1959 Audio: Flan­nery O’Connor Reads ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’

Flan­nery O’Connor to Lit Pro­fes­sor: “My Tone Is Not Meant to Be Obnox­ious. I’m in a State of Shock”

Flan­nery O’Connor’s Satir­i­cal Car­toons: 1942–1945

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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