Religious life in the American South has fascinated and repulsed non-natives for the past few generations. The South’s complex relationship to the tenants of (American) Protestant Christianity bewilders those who are not accustomed to its myriad expressions of faith. Last week in my review of Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel, Wise Blood, I discussed the more “modern” form of religious expression, that of the heretical “movements” that decentralized church hierarchies into a protean mass of storefront chapels and “preachers” that have distilled certain elements of American Protestantism into a sleek package that appeals to those who are searching for a “moral compass” in their lives and who refuse to have any truck with matters of creeds and dogmas. Yet there is something distinctly “Southern” about the characters in O’Connor’s 1953 short story, “The River,” that it bears reminding readers that O’Connor’s stories often focused on the particular socio-religious interactions that dominate Southern culture in ways that are foreign to other Americans (not to mention those from outside the United States). As O’Connor said in her 1963 essay “The Catholic Novelist in the South”:
The things we see, hear, smell and touch affect us long before we believe anything at all. The South impresses its image on the Southern writer from the moment he is able to distinguish one sound from another. He takes it in through his ears and hears it again in his own voice, and, by the time he is able to use his imagination for fiction, he finds that his senses respond irrevocably to a certain reality, and particularly to the sound of a certain reality. The Southern writer’s greatest tie with the South is through his ear, which is usually sharp but not too versatile outside his own idiom. With a few exceptions, such as Miss Katherine Anne Porter, he is not too often successfully cosmopolitan in fiction, but the fact is that he doesn’t need to be. A distinctive idiom is a powerful instrument for keeping fiction social. When one Southern character speaks, regardless of his station in life, an echo of all Southern life is heard. This helps to keep Southern fiction from being a fiction of purely private experience. (p. 855)
This simultaneous lack of “cosmopolitan” characters and “an echo of all Southern life” can be seen in many of O’Connor’s most compelling fictions. Sometimes, as in the case of the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the rigid morality defined by its provincial character is portrayed in all of its glorious hypocrisies and shortcomings. In “The River,” however, there is a tragic quality to this tale of a young boy who seeks redemption, both for himself and for his mother. In it can be found an echo of creek baptisms and even multiple baptisms whenever a teen or adult switches congregations in search for that rapturous moment in which s/he feels as though the symbolic drowning of baptism might this time (the first? second? fifth?) wash them fully of their sins.
The story opens with a little boy, Bevel (actually Harry, but he changes his name to the name of the minister in response to a question from his chaperone), who is about four or five, getting ready to travel with a neighbor, Mrs. Connin to the countryside to hear an itinerant minister perform a healing service at the local river. The opening pages of the story describes in gentle ironic terms the poverty of the place, with the dilapidated hog pens and an escaped shoat hog illustrating the lives that the Connins and their neighbors lived, before the scene at the river accentuates the difference between the squalor of their lives and the intensity of their faith in the cleansing power of river healing. Young Harry/Bevel, dirty as many young boys can be, is largely ignorant of the faith, as is seen in this passage:
You found out more when you left where you lived. He had found out already this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ. Before he had thought it had been a doctor named Sladewall, a fat man with a yellow mustache who gave him shots and thought his name was Herbert, but this must have been a joke. They joked a lot where he lived. If he had thought about it before, he would have thought Jesus Christ was a word like “oh” or “damm” or “God,” or maybe somebody who had cheated them out of something sometime. When he had asked Mrs. Connin who the man in the sheet in the picture over her bed was, she had looked at him a while with her mouth open. Then she had said, “That’s Jesus,” and she had kept on looking at him.” (p. 160)
There is an enduring innocent quality to young Harry/Bevel in this story. He is ignorant of the tenets of Christianity or even the image of the Christ, but he is also oblivious at first to those adults who are also seeking the Sublime at the riverbank. As the Connins and Harry/Bevel arrive at the riverbank, they encounter a rangy youth of perhaps 19 who has waded out into the river and is singing a hymn. This is the preacher Bevel, and what he says captures the conflicting qualities of evangelical Southern revival/healing services:
“Maybe I know why you come,” he said in the twangy voice, “maybe I don’t.”
“If you ain’t come for Jesus, you ain’t come for me. If you just come to see can you leave your pain in the river, you ain’t come for Jesus. You can’t leave your pain in the river,” he said. “I never told nobody that.” He stopped and looked down at his knees.
“I seen you cure a woman oncet!” a sudden high voice shouted from the hump of people. “Seen that woman git up and walk out straight where she had limped in!”
The preacher lifted one foot and then the other. He seemed almost but not quite to smile. “You might as well go home if that’s what you come for,” he said.
Then he lifted his head and arms and shouted, “Listen to what I got to say, you people! There ain’t but one river and that’s the River of Life, made out of Jesus’ Blood. That’s the river you have to lay your pain in, in the River of Faith, in the River of Life, in the River of Love, in the rich red river of Jesus’ Blood, you people!” (p. 162)
The audiences are searching for a release from their pains: from arthritis, from heartbreak, from the abandonment of kinfolk and friends. They desire to be cleansed of their real and perceived sins, to be able to walk out of the river changed irrevocably from what they were before. From the testifying of those on the shore in response to the preacher’s call-and-response sermon, a fervor arises that O’Connor captures perfectly. In reading this middle section of the story, I was reminded of my adolescence, occasionally having to travel with my parents on Sunday afternoons to gospel singings that my Baptist relatives (I was raised Methodist, before abandoning that denomination in my early 20s) would participate in. I can still recall vividly the thundering sermons calling for people to (re)commit themselves to Christ, lest the baptisms that many of them had would be rendered ineffectual. In hindsight, it was confusing for me and in reflection the services differed significantly from the liturgies of my youth and present. So when O’Connor has the young Harry/Bevel come into contact with the preacher Bevel and hear what baptism means, it felt so true to the events I witnessed in the 1980s:
The preacher didn’t smile. His bony face was rigid and his narrow gray eyes reflected the almost colorless sky. There was a loud laugh from the old man sitting on the car bumper and Bevel grasped the back of the preacher’s collar and helf it tightly. The grin had already disappeared from his face. He had the sudden feeling that this was not a joke. Where he lived everything was a joke. From the preacher’s face, he knew immediately that nothing the preacher said or did was a joke. “My mother named me that,” he said quickly.
“Have you ever been Baptized?” the preacher asked.
“What’s that?” he murmured.
“If I Baptize you,” the preacher said, “you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life. Do you want that?”
“Yes,” the child said, and thought, I won’t go back to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river.
“You won’t be the same again,” the preacher said. “You’ll count.” Then he turned his face to the people and began to preach and Bevel looked over his shoulder at the pieces of the white sun scattered in the river. Suddenly the preacher said, “All right, I’m going to Baptize you now,” and without more warning, he tightened his hold and swung him upside down and plunged his head into the water. He held him under while he said the words of Baptism and then he jerked him up again and looked sternly at the gasping child. Bevel’s eyes were dark and dilated. “You count now,” the preacher said. “You didn’t even count before.” (pp. 164-165)
Here occurs the beginning of the heartache that comprises the story’s final third. The boy wants so desperately to be good, to be redeemed, to truly “be counted,” now that he is told that he “counts.” He wants a prayer for his mother, whose illness at the beginning of the story is finally revealed. Yet this revelation, that he wants the good Lord to heal his mama from the pain of her hangover, draws anger from the preacher and derisive laughter from the crowd. The innocence of child only goes so far, it seems, and the boy is stung by this. When the Connins return him late that night to his parents and his mother is informed of the boy’s pseudonym, baptism, and prayer for her, she is in turns horrified and offended that he was exposed to such religious matters. His parents’ irritation at the credulous believers who believed in the efficacy of river baptisms is misinterpreted by the young boy as being a commentary on his quality of his own recent “conversion.” He wants to “count,” he wants to have the pains “washed away,” like the preacher talked about. He wanted to be cleansed, no matter how many dipping into the river waters it would take.
The end result is tragic. It is sobering to read and it make make one’s heart ache. O’Connor, who earlier described with detached irony the peculiar beliefs of the local Protestant evangelicals, does not play up the end for laughs. We see the end unfold from the boy’s perspective and his sincere, burning desire to find the Kingdom of Christ (of which he knew nothing until the morning before) is disturbing because the new-found fervor is expressed in such a sad, moving fashion. The final three paragraphs transform “The River,” making it not a mocking commentary on rural Southern Protestant practices, but instead a commentary on how the combination of ignorance and faith can lead one into a disastrous revelation. The symbolic drowning of Baptism, which O’Connor references in places throughout the story, becomes all too real: the literalization of the figurative is tragic. Yet there is no sense here that O’Connor ridicules Harry/Bevel. Instead, she takes pity on him, showing through his viewpoint the circumstances that led to his fateful end. He at least found peace and that is a quality that is so hard to demonstrate in fiction, much less in real life. That O’Connor is able to accomplish this within 18 pages is a remarkable achievement and “The River” perhaps is one of her strongest fictions due to this.