Catholic Distance University

Naming Sin: Flannery O’Connor’s Mark on Bruce Springsteen

Damian J. Ference

Not so long ago Bruce Springsteen made a surprise visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland to take in an exhibit dedicated to his life’s work.1 The exhibit, which took up two entire floors of the museum, was filled with artifacts from Springsteen’s life, including guitars, clothing, hand-written lyrics, and walls of photographs. One of the photographs was of an eight year-old Springsteen, standing with hands folded in front of the high altar at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Freehold, New Jersey—Springsteen’s first communion picture.

Bruce Springsteen’s relationship with the Catholic Church may have reached its peak on his first communion day. He writes, “In the third grade a nun stuffed me in a garbage can under her desk because, she said, that’s where I belonged. I also had the distinction of being the only altar boy knocked down by a priest during Mass.”2 By the time he made his confirmation, the sacrament which is supposed to seal you with the gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to spread the Gospel to all corners of the earth, Springsteen had had enough. In his words, “I quit the stuff (religion) when I was in eighth grade. By the time you’re older than 13 it’s too ludicrous to go along with anymore. By the time I was in eighth grade I just lost it all.”3 But in reality, he didn’t lose it all. He may have stopped going to Mass and formally practicing his faith, but the Catholic worldview he received through his family and the sisters at St. Rose’s never left him. However, it would take another cradle Catholic to help him understand, appreciate and develop his sacramental imagination and his worldview. Enter Flannery O’Connor.

Original Sin as the First Principle

Unlike Flannery O’Connor, who grew up in a Catholic home that encouraged reading from a very early age,4 Springsteen never read much growing up. He notes, “I wasn’t brought up in a house where there was a lot of reading and stuff. I was brought up on TV.”5 It wasn’t until much later in life that he would begin to take books seriously, and O’Connor was one of the authors whose work resonated with him most, specifically her view of human nature and the world.

In an interview with Walker Percy’s nephew, Springsteen explains his initial draw to O’Connor: “The really important reading that I did began in my late twenties, with authors like Flannery O’Connor. There was something in those stories of hers that I felt captured a certain part of the American character that Iwas interested in writing about. They were a big, big revelation.”That something about O’Connor’s art that resonated so deeply with Springsteen was twofold. First, O’Connor is a master storyteller. She notes, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”7 This too was Springsteen’s principle, and the principle of every good storyteller: show, don’t tell. Second, O’Connor was able to identify a reality present in the world that spoke directly to Springsteen’s Catholic imagination—she had an uncanny ability of naming sin.

According to O’Connor, without sin, you have no story; or you have a very bad story. She notes:

The serious writer has always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point, usually the flaw in an otherwise admirable character. Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not. The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin.”8

For O’Connor, the world is fallen, and this fallenness is not the consequence of an accident or the environment, but the direct result of humankind’s deliberate turning away from God; it is the doctrine of Original Sin.9

Original Sin, then, is the backdrop against which O’Connor writes. She believes that humankind is fallen and is in need of a savior, and she offers no apology for such a view. She professes,“I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that.”10 O’Connor’s ability to look out to the world to see and name sin, and the longing of every human heart to be rescued from that curse, would leave an indelible mark on Springsteen as a man and as a storyteller. He explains:

She got to the heart of some part of meanness that she never spelled out, because if she spelled it out you wouldn’t be getting it. It was always at the core of every one of her stories– the way that she’d left that hole there, that hole that’s inside of everybody. There was some dark thing—a component of spirituality—that I sensed in her stories, and that set me off exploring characters of my own. She knew original sin—she knew how to give it the flesh of the story.11

Springsteen recognized a worldview, ubiquitous in O’Connor’s writing, that he deemed not only probable, but true. From his days of studying the Baltimore Catechism at St. Rose’s grade school, he would have been taught that “sin is divided into the sin we inherit called original sin, and the sin we commit ourselves, called actual sin.”12 O’Connor was able to incarnate this doctrine of sin, to make it believable through characters in her stories. She knew that sin was not a definition to be memorized by students in Catholic schools, but that it was an undeniable reality, which is the starting point of understanding the human drama. She notes that “the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama.”13 This, then, is the mark that O’Connor made on Springsteen; she taught him that a good story is always told against the backdrop of original sin, and that without sin, you have no story.

Four Manifestations of the Mark

O’Connor’s influence on Springsteen can be recognized in four particular ways: 1) that a definite change occurred in the themes of Springsteen’s songs and development of his characters as a result of reading O’Connor’s short stories, 2) that Springsteen directly references O’Connor’s work in his style, song lyrics and album titles, 3) that Springsteen holds an unapologetic view of original sin as a ‘first principle’ in his songwriting, and 4) that although Springsteen has personally struggled in his relationship with the Catholic Church, he has not rejected the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, which, according to O’Connor, are essential to good writing.

Springsteen began reading O’Connor’s stories in his late twenties, which was at same the time he was working on Darkness on the Edge of Town, released in 1978. In his review of Darkness in Rolling Stone, Paul Nelson writes, “Many of the characters in the songs on Bruce Springsteen’s new album appear to be trapped in a state of desperation so intense that they must either break through to something better (or at least into something ambiguous) or break down into madness, murder or worse.”14 In the words of O’Connor, “Either one is serious about salvation or one is not.”15 

Springsteen wrote over seventy songs for the Darkness album, and many of those songs appeared on his next album, The River. Of course, one wonders whether Springsteen pulled the album title directly from O’Connor’s story of the same name. It seems a safe bet, especially since he also penned a song during that same period entitled “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”16 

In 1982, Springsteen released Nebraska, which, more than any of his other albums, sounds like O’Connor. Even the reviews that the album received sounded like reviews of O’Connor’s stories: “startling, direct and chilling.”17 Springsteen explains, “At home, just before recording Nebraska, I was reading Flannery O’Connor. Her stories reminded me of the unknowability18 of God and contained a dark spirituality that resonated with my feeling at the time.”19 This theme of God’s unknowability was mistakenly understood by some reviewers as nihilism, especially in reference to the last track on the album, “Reason to Believe,” where in the first verse, a man pokes a dead dog with a stick in an attempt to revive it; in the second verse another man leaves his wife, who waits for him, every day, down at the end of a dirt road; in the third, an old man dies in a whitewashed shotgun shack; and in the final verse, a groom, stood up at his riverside wedding, stands alone and wonders where his bride might be. Like O’Connor, Springsteen is no nihilist, and neither is he naïve. Springsteen recognizes that sin is present in the world, and whether we recognize it or not, it affects all of us. Yet, once recognized, it is ours to determine how we will respond to it.

In the story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the Misfit tells the Grandmother that everyone has a choice to make: for life, which is following Jesus; or for death, which is doing whatever you want—sin. The Misf t says:

He (Jesus) thown everything off balance. If he did what he said he did, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.20

For O’Connor, meanness is sin. This meanness is precisely the reason that Springsteen gives when explaining why the narrator in the song “Nebraska” killed ten innocent people. He confesses,“They wanted to know why I did what I did, well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”21 Again, this meanness isn’t random, it is a consequence of the Fall, and it is something that every human being must respond to, either by turning away from it or by embracing it.

Although O’Connor’s most direct influence on Springsteen is presented on Nebraska, his songwriting, after reading O’Connor, consistently accounts for the presence of sin—a meanness in thisworld—as a backdrop and a first principle for his narrative. On every one of his albums since Nebraska, Springsteen has continued to tell stories of men and women wrestling with original sin and its consequences, which are manifested in narratives of isolation, infidelity, injustice, robbery, terrorism, murder, and death. Yet as O’Connor notes, “There is something in us, as storytellers and listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demandsthat what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.”22 Springsteen, like O’Connor before him, also deals with thethemes of redemption and salvation as a remedy to sin in his writing, but the essential point here is to recognize that there can be no redemption and no salvation without first acknowledging the power, the presence, and the reality of sin as a first principleand starting point.23

But the question remains: Does Springsteen’s worldview, specifically his recognition of sin, make him a Catholic writer, even though he does not practice his Catholic faith, and admits to being the father of three “pagan babies”?24 It is a difficult question, yet by O’Connor’s description of what a Catholic writer is, it seems that Springsteen meets her standards.

In her essay on the Catholic novelist, “Novelist and Believer,” O’Connor offers her best explanation of what it means to be a Catholic writer. Of course, Bruce Springsteen is a songwriter, not a novelist, but this distinction does not change the substance of her argument. She writes:

[T]he writer whose vocation is fiction sees his obligation as being to the truth of what can happen in life. . . . The Catholic novelist doesn’t have to be a saint; he doesn’t even have to be a Catholic; he does, unfortunately, have to be a novelist. This doesn’t mean that the writer should lack moral vision, but I think that to understand what it does mean, we have to consider for a while what fiction—novel or story—is, and what would give a piece of fiction the right to have the adjective “Catholic” applied to it.25

Within her description O’Connor seems to point to two components that make one a Catholic writer. The first is that the writer sees the world as it is, and the second is that the writer be good at writing. Springsteen undoubtedly meets both requirements.

Bruce Springsteen does see his obligation as a songwriter “as being to the truth of what can happen in life.” He observes,“Writers and artists create little worlds and control them. You do that well enough, you begin to believe you can live in one of them. But the real world doesn’t work that way.”26 In other words, Springsteen doesn’t create a new world for his characters to live in; he actually writes his characters into the fallen world—the real world. This is precisely what O’Connor meant when she described a Catholic novel (or in our case, a Catholic song) as“one that represents reality adequately as we see it manifested in this world of things and human relationships. Only in and by these experiences does the fiction writer approach the contemplative knowledge of the mystery they embody.”27 

Second, Springsteen is a great songwriter, as is witnessed by exceptionally favorable reviews of his records and his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not to mention his AcademyAwards, Grammy Awards, record sales, concert sales, and faithful fan-base.28 

Meeting both of O’Connor’s requirements as one who sees the world as it is and being a good writer would make it safe to give Springsteen the distinction of “Catholic writer.” And as a matter of fact, Springsteen would not argue with this title, as he himself has explained that there are three reasons he writes the way he does: “Catholic school, Catholic school, Catholic school.”29 Of course, he also admits that O’Connor was the one who helped rekindle those fundamental doctrines of Christianity he learned as a child in order to make them a part of his songwriting, specifically the doctrine of original sin.

The Tradition Continued

Flannery O’Connor served Bruce Springsteen as a bearer of a long tradition of naming sin, which she inherited from reading the Bible, as well as the works of Augustine, Aquinas, Dostoevsky, Joyce, Maritan, Gilson, and Chardin, to name but a few. Through her short stories, O’Connor passed on her worldview to Springsteen, which made a significant mark on his song writing, and which continues to influence the likes of U2, Lucinda Williams, PattyGriffin, Josh Ritter, Arcade Fire, and other contemporary artists who also recognize the fallen world and write good music about it. And although it is true that Springsteen may not be a saint, he continues to be a great Catholic songwriter. He proudly professes that Flannery O’Connor left her mark on him: the ability to name sin—a priceless gift to any postmodern writer.

References

1     The exhibit entitled “From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen” ran from April 1, 2009 until February 27, 2011.
2     John Duffy, Bruce Springsteen: In His Own Words (Musselburgh: Omnibus Press, 1993), 8.
3     Ibid., 86.
4     Consider the famous picture of three-year-old Flannery on display at O’Connor’s childhood home in Savannah, or her insistence on writing reviews on the title pages of children’s books, reviews such as “This book isn’t very good.”
5     Ibid., 10.
6     Will Percy, “Rock and Ready: Will Percy Interviews Bruce Springsteen,” Doubletake No. 12, 1999, available from www.doubletakemagazine.org/mag/html/backissues/12/steen/, accessed 10 October 2010, 2.
7     Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, sel. and ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1969), 96.
8     Ibid., 167.
9     Ibid.
10     Ibid., 32.
11     Percy, “Rock and Ready,” 2.
12     The Baltimore Catechism, Part I, No. 3., Lesson 6.
13     O’Connor, Mystery & Manners, 167.
14     Paul Nelson, “Springsteen Fever,” Bruce Springsteen: The Rolling Stone Files, 13 July 1978, (New York: Hyperion), 1996. 70.
15     O’Connor, Mystery & Manners, 167.
16     Springsteen would eventually release “A Good Man is Hard to Find” on the 1999 boxed set, Tracks.
17     Steve Pond, “Nebraska Album Review; Springsteen Delivers His Bravest Record Yet,” The Rolling Stone Files, 28 October 1982, (New York: Hyperion), 1996. 131.
18     The unknowability of God is a major theme not only in O’Connor’s writing, but in Catholic theology as a whole. Thomas Aquinas, O’Connor’s favorite theologian, taught her that God is infinitely other and cannot be known as he is through our natural powers (Summa Theologica, I, 12, 4). However, just because God cannot be known as one might know some material thing or even a formal geometrical proof does not mean God does not exist. It simply means that God exists in a different way, as the sheer act of being, and that God’s ways are not our ways.
19     Bruce Springsteen, Songs (New York: HarperCollins), 2003. 136.
20     Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Collected Works (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), 132.
21     Springsteen, Songs, 143.
22     O’Connor, Mystery & Manners, 48.
23     Perhaps in another article I can address the theme of redemption as found in the work of O’Connor and Springsteen, but I am not afforded the time or space to deal with this topic here.
24     Bruce Springsteen, “Question and Answer Session,” VH1 Storytellers, prod. Patrizia Di Maria, dir. Dave Diomedi, Viacom International, 2005, DVD.
25     O’Connor, Mystery & Manners, 172.
26     Springsteen, Songs, 218.
27     O’Connor, Mystery & Manners, 172.
28     Flannery O’Connor was once asked, “Miss O’Connor, why do you write?” She responded, “Because I’m good at it.” (O’Connor, Mystery & Manners, 81)
29     Springsteen, “Thunder Road,” Storytellers.

Comments

  1. brilliant–well written, charitable!

  2. icefalcon says:

    Very insightful article. As a long-time fan of Springsteen and admirer of O’Connor, I agree with your assessment of O’Connor’s influence on Bruce’s work. It would be wonderful if Springsteen continued to push himself to write songs of the same caliber as those on his earlier albums. O’Connor never lowered her standards, but Springsteen seems to be resting on his laurels with his last few offerings. Maybe he’s no longer capable of being great, but this article reminds me that he once was.

  3. Interesting article, thank you so much! I started reading O’Connor because of the Percy interview.

    This might interest you as well, especially this week:

    http://erikbuys.wordpress.com/2011/04/06/bruce-springsteens-passion/

    Cheers!

  4. I was never a fan of Springsteen, though many of my friends growing up in the Youngstown, OH area loved him for identifying with the blue-collar, steel-town types. In later years, I grew to dislike him even more for his politics. Now, living in Cleveland, I would see the billboards for the Rock Hall exhibition and think, “Not if you paid me to go.”

    However, I adore Flannery O’Connor, and I have to say, all political and musical tastes aside, this article gives me a greater appreciation for him as an artist and a writer. That quote from A Good Man is Hard to Find contain some of the best words ever written. And The River? Oh–what words can you use to describe that story?

    Springsteen loves Flannery? OK, I will no longer grimace when I hear his music, and I might even listen for a minute to see if I can detect a bit of Southern Catholicism seeping through.

  5. listen to the song “Land of Hope and Dreams” or anything on the new “Wrecking Ball” (except that song) and you’ll get an appreciation for an artist who is NOT “resting on his laurels.” I can’t think of another classic rock artist who has stayed relevant for 40 plus years. Bruce is a great writer and a an even greater performer. This article was really wonderful to read and I even found out about Flannery O’Connor which I knew nothing of. Thanks!

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