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Flannery O’Connor’s Gifts

The Habit of Being

letters by Flannery O’Connor, edited and with an introduction by Sally Fitzgerald
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 617 pp., $15.00

It is startling to recall that Flannery O’Connor would be only in her mid-fifties if she were alive today—roughly the same age as Allen Ginsberg and the Beat writers whose sentimental bohemianism she condemned. A majority of her correspondents are still alive and active. But though she lived into the age of rock ‘n’ roll and the cartoons of Jules Feiffer (which she enjoyed), she has already taken on the aura of a classical writer, of one who, despite the small body of her work and the narrowness of its range, seems as permanently seated among the American immortals as Emily Dickinson or Hawthorne. The South that she wrote about—the South of snuff-dipping poor whites, evasively sweet-talking Negroes, and sunken-eyed back woods prophets—was undergoing a dizzying transformation even as she (a contemporary and qualified admirer of Martin Luther King, Jr.) was writing about it on an electric typewriter.

Now, of course, the transformation seems superficially complete: the South has become the Sun Belt, the prophets have their own television programs, and Good Country People occupy the White House. Although she sometimes violated their tenets of sound writing, she matured, literarily, under the aegis of the New Critics—of Brooks and Warren, Allen and Caroline Gordon Tate, and John Crowe Ransom. Perhaps nowhere is the pastness of the past more obvious than in the special quality of the Catholicism she breathed—a Catholicism belonging to that heady period just before Vatican II when intellectuals, literary artists, and industrial magnates were being very publicly converted, when Jacques Maritain was still living in Princeton, when Cardinal Spellman was writing The Foundling and condemning Baby Doll, when there was an identifiable—one might say quasi-official—body of Catholic novelists (Mauriac, Greene, Waugh, M. Spark, J.F. Powers, and W. Sheed), when scholars struggling on low academic pay defiantly produced five children in six years of marriage, and when Flannery O’Connor herself could write, “The Church’s stand on birth control is the most absolutely spiritual of all her stands….”

Part of the fascination exerted by this thick volume of letters has to do with their evocation of the period which they embrace; much more derives from their revelation of the personality and literary practice of a writer remarkable for the single-mindedness with which she developed and protected a talent that she regarded, quite literally, as God-given. The letters—the first sent from Yaddo to her future agent in 1948, the last a nearly illegible scrawl written six days before her death in 1964—cover her professional career as a writer almost as thoroughly as any biographer might wish. Regrettably, none of the letters written from the years (crucial to her development both as a writer and as a reader) spent at the School for Writers at Iowa State University could be included. Missing also are the letters (presumably of greater personal than literary interest) which she wrote every day to her mother during her year’s stay with Sally and Robert Fitzgerald in Connecticut in 1949-1950. The only other gap that has come to my attention and that one might wish to be filled are the letters to Walker Percy, with whom she corresponded for several years; only a brief note of congratulations to him is included.

No doubt it is churlish to want more when nearly six hundred pages of letters have been provided, but I found myself tantalized and frustrated by the fact that the volume contains only Flannery O’Connor’s letters; although much can be inferred from her replies, it would be nice to know not only the contents but the exact tone of the letters addressed to her by such literary correspondents as the Fitzgeralds, John Hawkes, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Cecil Dawkins, Robert Giroux, Catharine Carver, and others. I would particularly like to see the often lengthy commentaries which Caroline Gordon enthusiastically wrote for each of Flannery O’Connor’s stories and novels before they were finally revised and sent to the publisher.

The life unfolded in this collection can only be characterized as richly lived, despite the confinement imposed upon it by the disastrous metabolic disease, lupus erythematosus, which struck her in 1950 when she was twenty-five and remained with her, causing endless complications, until it killed her in August, 1964. The details—the effects of cortisone, the softening of her hip bones, the crutches, the prospect of new surgery—these are reported in brief, bulletin-like paragraphs in letters to her friends:

Me I have other problems. My last X-rays were very bad and it appears the jaw is going the same way the hip is. I had noticed a marked change in the position of my mouth. Anyway, Tuesday I enter your last year’s hangout, Piedmont Hospital, for a general inspection of my bones.

(December 8, 1960)

I’ve had four blood transfusions in the last month. The trouble is mostly kidneys—they don’t refine poisons out of the proteins and therefore you don’t make blood like you should or you lose it like you shouldn’t or something. As far as I am concerned, as long as I get at that typewriter, I have enough. They expect me to improve, or so they say. I expect anything that happens….

(June 24, 1964)

That typewriter…. One of the secrets of her essentially cheerful endurance was her writing, in which she persevered triumphantly, working on one of her best stories, “Parker’s Back,” during the last weeks of her life. The other, of course, was her religious faith. We can only guess how far these and other supports (her mother’s devoted care, her hobby of raising peacocks and other exotic fowl, her friends-by-letter) went toward making her affliction endurable; my guess is that they went nearly all the way. As Sally Fitzgerald writes in an introductory note to the last section of the volume, “…she was not so much stoical as quite serene; she had attained her personal form….” Unless contradictory biographical evidence is forthcoming, we must accept that assessment as fundamentally true. There is no reason to doubt the astonishing claim made by Flannery O’Connor in her final year to a new friend, Janet McKane: “I haven’t suffered to speak of in my life….” What most of us would have regarded as pretty dreadful suffering must not have seemed worthy of the name to a woman whose standard of real pain seems to have been set by the Crucifixion and a belief in Hell.

Life in and around Andalusia, the family farm in Georgia where she and her mother lived, blossomed with absurdities, and Flannery picked them with a relish that brings to mind Jane Austen, a writer with whom—despite the differences of epoch and circumstance—she often reveals a startling affinity. She also made her own contribution to the fun, naming a family of ducks Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and Bean and (with the wink of a born Catholic in the direction of one of the Church’s most publicized converts) calling one of her geese Clair [sic] Booth Loose Goose. Her mother’s dealings with the hired help, white and black, provided many anecdotes with which the daughter regaled her correspondents, often in the “down-home” dialect that she enjoyed using. Some of these later found their way into her fiction, as did the following, which was transposed, with some modification, into her longest short story, “The Displaced Person”:

…My mamma is getting ready for what she hopes will be one of her blessings: a refugee family to arrive here Christmas night. She has to fix up and furnish a house for them, don’t know how many there will be or what nationality or occupation or nothing. She and Mrs. P., the dairyman’s wife, have been making curtains for the windows out of flowered chicken-feed sacks. Regina [Mrs. O’Connor] was complaining that the green sacks wouldn’t look so good in the same room where the pink ones were and Mrs. P. (who has no teeth on one side of her mouth) says in a very superior voice, “Do you think they’ll know what colors even is?”

(Christmas, 1951)

Regina O’Connor emerges from the correspondence as not only a remarkable woman with great managerial capacities but as perhaps the most memorable of her daughter’s comic characters. Here are some excerpts from the ongoing presentation:

Regina is getting very literary. “Who is this Kafka?” she says. “People ask me.” A German Jew, I says, I think. He wrote a book about a man that turns into a roach. “Well, I can’t tell people that,” she says. “Who is this Evalin Wow?”

(undated; April, 1952)

…Harcourt sent my book [Wise Blood] to Evelyn Waugh and his comment was: “If this is really the unaided work of a young lady, it is a remarkable product.” My mother was vastly insulted. She put the emphasis on if and lady. Does he suppose you’re not a lady? she says. WHO is he?

(May 2, 1952)

…My mamma asked me the other day if I knew Shakespeare was an Irishman. I said no I didn’t. She said well it’s right there in the Savannah paper; and sure enough some gent from the University of Chicago has made a speech somewhere saying Shakespeare was an Irishman. I said well it’s just him that says it, you better not go around saying it and she said listen SHE didn’t care whether he was an Irishman or a Chinaman. She is getting ready to build herself a pond for the cows to lie down in and cool off in the summertime.

(undated; summer, 1953)

And later:

…The Easter rabbit brought her a man with a bulldozer so she has just finished her pond. She says she is not going to have but four feet of water in it because if anybody drowns she wants to be able to go in and get them out without draining it. Practical.

(undated; 1953)

The fact that so many of the stories (“Good Country People,” “Greenleaf,” “The Comforts of Home,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “The Enduring Chill,” and “Revelation”) involve the antagonism between active, insensitive, well-intentioned, and controlling mothers and embittered, arrogant “intellectual,” and often incapacitated daughters (or sons) has inevitably led to speculation about the relationship of Regina and Flannery O’Connor. Whatever the situation may have been, the letters reveal, as they do in the case of the illness, only the most positive aspects of it; they proclaim affection, gratitude, awe, frequent amusement, and a touch of condescension—but never antagonism. That area of speculation must await other testimony.

Flannery O’Connor’s attitude toward her own work combined a healthy self-confidence with an equally healthy willingness to entertain the criticism of readers she respected. “I certainly am glad you like the stories,” she wrote to Robie Macauley after the publication of the collection called A Good Man Is Hard to Find, “because now I feel it’s not bad that I like them so much. The truth is I like them better than anybody and I read them over and over and laugh and laugh….” When asked at one of her readings why she wrote, she tartly replied, “Because I’m good at it.”

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