Fiction by Welty, Cheever, Ellison, Essay

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Yet perhaps no American author embraced the grotesque with the same enthusiasm as the Southern Flannery O'Connor. In "A Good Man is Hard to Find," O'Connor uses the example of a family annihilated by the side of the road by an outlaw named the Misfit to show the bankruptcy of American life. Instead of an evil serial killer, the Misfit is portrayed as a kind of force of divine justice, who unintentionally allows the grandmother of the family to experience grace. She says that she believes the man is like one of own her children before he kills her. In O'Connor's stories, the characters do not fight for their insight, rather it is given in mysterious, often deadly ways, and it always originates with the divine, not with the human will.

If O'Connor represents the most extreme version of grotesque American literature, Ralph Ellison represents perhaps the most balanced use of the grotesque in American letters. Invisible Man begins with a "Battle Royale," or a forced fight between young, African-American men for money. The title character is so alienated from society by the suffering inflicted upon him as a black man he begins to embrace his invisibility, after he finds no available model of 'blackness' untainted by racism and white self-interest. Ellison uses humor and grotesque characters, like the nervous white trustee of an all-black college who faints when he is actually near 'real' black people, with realistic and truthful examples of racism, such as race riots and employment discrimination.

Virtually all of these authors try to create or rewrite new American myths -- whether in the form of O'Connor's Southern, Catholic challengers and submitters to the divine will, Welty's symbolically named Phoenix, or Ellison's wandering, Ulysses of an Invisible Man. American authors may embrace the grotesque when chronicling the social problems of sickness, ignorance, despair, and death, but because of their desire to create a uniquely American vision they also make use of realistic, humble, American details of regional and ethnic life to create their visions of extremity, apocalypse…

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