The Story of the Month: “A Late Encounter with the Enemy”

Welcome one and all to the 2014-2015 cycle of the English Reading Circle at the International Institute. This year’s theme is a bit of a mouthful: “Great Short Stories from Lesser Known Authors/Lesser Known Short Stories from Great Authors.” You’ll find some famous and not-so-famous names on our list of authors; the same goes for the stories we’ll be reading this year. The idea is to expand our knowledge of the American short story by looking at works that made an impact (even if their authors’ larger career perhaps didn’t), and by exploring the lesser-trod terrain of some of the titans of the genre.

We’ll begin the year with one such titan: Flannery O’Connor. “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” was first published in 1953, and was later included in A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955), the short-story collection that helped cement O’Connor’s reputation as a literary virtuoso with something to say. The story after which the collection is named is perhaps the most well-known of O’Connor’s catalogue. However, “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” while barely eleven pages long, is nevertheless a rich gem that deserves close consideration, not only for the technical mastery of language that it demonstrates, but also for the unique place it holds within the larger universe of O’Connor’s work.

Surprisingly, this story is the only one of O’Connor’s that deals directly with the American Civil War. Coming from an author whose work is frequently seen through the lens of “Southern Literature,” this fact is noteworthy in and of itself, since for many Southern writers the Civil War remains in the foreground of their imagination, casting a long shadow over all that has followed. The rest of O’Connor’s work is generally rooted firmly in the present moment of incident; while the characters in her gothic landscapes are undoubtedly the products of the history of their place, they generally avoid dwelling on it overtly, choosing instead to pursue the lives in front of them, usually to less than inspiring ends.

In this sense, “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” is perhaps not such a departure for O’Connor, since the legacy of the Civil War is treated less as a topic for philosophical reflection than as a visceral reality that the main character, George Poker Sash (or General Tennessee Flintrock Sash, for all the ‘beautiful guls’ out there), has spent the latter part of his life intentionally ignoring. The humor and profundity weaved into Sash’s character is quintessential O’Connor, as are the characters that surround him, particularly Sally Poker Sash. As is true with all of O’Connor’s stories, the characters are vivid and, in many ways, driven by pettiness, ignorance, sloth, and any number of other human vices. Sally for one demands our attention, as her relationship to the past is well worth exploring. Like so many others, these characters are, judging from a distance, unredeemable.

Or are they? One question I would like to address next Tuesday the 29th in our session is the question of General Sash’s potential redemption. In so many of O’Connor’s stories a character is made a victim of their own human folly, often dying without the reader witnessing a change of heart. Yet in “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” we are treated to a first (or third) row seat within General Sash’s mind, and are allowed to witness the historical reckoning that he managed to fend off for so long. Does the intimacy granted the reader imply a possible redemption? Or is his death simply inevitable, a lesson for all of those who choose to willfully erase the past? As you read this week, think carefully about O’Connor’s use of perspective and what it means. Every narrative device and tactic deserves the reader’s attention in such a dense piece, and recognizing them and the value they bring will make the experience even richer. I look forward to enriching my own reading of this story with you next Tuesday, and hope the same will be true for all of you.

Andrew Bennett.

(Short story available at: )