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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.”

She was, of course, absolutely right. For she had by then published a dozen or more stories as good as any written by an American in this century—stories notable not only for the spare brilliance of their technique but for the God-like mixture of pitiless insight and (ultimately) merciful acceptance that she brought to the characters—driven or complacent, grotesque or absurd—with which she populated her fictional terrain. Nonetheless, horrified at the idea of having something appear in print that was not as good as she could possibly make it, she regularly sought the advice not only of Caroline Gordon but also of Catharine Carver and the correspondent identified merely as “A.” in the collection. Much of this advice was followed, evidently to the improvement of the work. The debt to Caroline Gordon’s generous and abundant criticism is acknowledged again and again, though Flannery O’Connor was always clear-eyed about what she could use and what she could not. Only during the last exhausted days of her life do we find a really querulous response to the older novelist’s suggestions.

…Caroline gave me a lot of advice about the story [“Parker’s Back”] but most of it I’m ignoring. She thinks every story must be built according to the pattern of the Roman arch and she would enlarge the beginning and the end, but I’m letting it lay. I did well to write it at all. I had another transfusion Wednesday but it don’t seem to have done much good.

(July 25, 1964)

She also took seriously the strictures of intelligent readers whom she did not know. When someone wrote her that he had been bored and exasperated by Wise Blood because the leading character, Hazel Motes, was not human enough to sustain his interest, she recognized the justness of the criticism and resolved to make her new novel “more human, less farcical”; in this she succeeded, for, whatever its deficiencies, The Violent Bear It Away is much more convincingly and interestingly “fleshed-out” than its predecessor. On the other hand, she firmly rejected (“he doesn’t know what he’s talking about”) the same critic’s opinion that several of the stories were marred by a “religious reference that didn’t fit in.”

But let foolish readers beware—especially when they indulged in the kind of symbol-hunting forays that were so often encouraged by classroom misapplications of the New Criticism plus Freud. What is probably her most widely read story—“A Good Man Is Hard to Find”—was particularly subject to such treatment.

…There were a couple of young teachers there and one of them, an earnest type, started asking the questions. “Miss O’Connor,” he said, “why was the Misfit’s hat black?” I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats. He looked pretty disappointed. Then he said, “Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?” “He does not,” I said. He looked crushed. “Well, Miss O’Connor,” he said, “what is the significance of the Misfit’s hat?” I said it was to cover his head; and after that he left me alone. Anyway, that’s what’s happening to the teaching of literature.

(May 25, 1959)

She accepted, though a little defensively, her friend “A.“‘s observation of the “lacking category” in her work: love between men and women. Citing Chekhov’s remark to the effect that “he-and-she is the machine that makes fiction work” and labeling it “too exclusive a view,” she went on to say that her inability to handle sexual love so far might be purely personal—“as my up-bringing has smacked a little of Jansenism even if my convictions do not.” Considering such love to be “the center of life and most holy,” she felt that she should keep her hands off it in her fiction until convinced that what she could do with it would be right, “which is to say, given.” Later she protests as a “historical inaccuracy” “A.“‘s comment that the stories “scream” that she (Flannery) had never “consented to be in love with anybody.” “I have,” she writes, “God help me consented to this frequently.”

The fate of the hapless teacher need not deter us from considering the crucial importance of Christian doctrine in Flannery O’Connor’s life and in her art (which are not really to be separated). Describing herself to John Hawkes as “a Thomist three times removed” who lived “among many distinctions,” she read such authorities on Catholicism as Maritain, Gilson, Baron von Hügel, and Romano Guardini not to bolster her faith (in which she seems to have been perfectly secure) but to expand her understanding of it. She liked to discuss aspects of the Church’s teaching and made, as Sally Fitzgerald remarks in the introduction, “a striking apologist for Catholicism.” When several of her correspondents were converted, she rejoiced; when others—among them Robert Lowell and “A.”—abandoned the faith, she grieved. The centrality of her faith to her writing is not to be doubted. “I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic,” she proclaimed in her first letter to “A.”

As part of a Catholic minority in an overwhelmingly Protestant section of the country, she had much to say in her letters and elsewhere1 about the advantages of such a position for a writer of fiction. Nearly all of her memorable characters are Protestants, many of them primitive fundamentalists rather than members of the “respectable” denominations. In a letter to Sister Mariella Gable she says that she can write about Protestant believers better than Catholic believers “because they express their belief in diverse kinds of dramatic action which is obvious enough for me to catch. I can’t write about anything subtle.”

…Another thing [she continues, with special reference to Old Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away], the prophet is a man apart. He is not typical of a group…. When you leave a man alone with his Bible and the Holy Ghost inspires him, he’s going to be a Catholic one way or another, even though he knows nothing about the visible church. His kind of Christianity may not be socially desirable, but it will be real in the sight of God. If I set myself to write about a socially desirable Christianity, all the life would go out of what I do….

(May 4, 1963)

And later in the same important letter she says, “I am more and more impressed by the amount of Catholicism that fundamentalist. Protestants have been able to retain. Theologically our differences with them are on the nature of the Church, not on the nature of God or our obligation to him.”

In any case, such concepts as Grace and Redemption are working elements in her fiction, as is the presence of the Devil, in whom she literally believed, and she was regularly exasperated (though hardly surprised) by her public’s failure to perceive them. So vivid and urgent were these elements in her creative imagination that she sometimes fails, I believe, to embody them sufficiently in the words on the page, thereby causing curious lacunae in the working out of the action or the theme. Often the religious significance is explicit—as in the passage in “A Good Man…” where the escaped convict, The Misfit, complains about the way Jesus “thown [thrown] everything off balance.” An attentive reader of the same story can be expected to see that something extraordinary happens when the silly, terrified old grandmother, her head clearing for a moment, suddenly murmurs to The Misfit (who has just massacred her entire family), “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my children!” and reaches out to touch him.

But can such a reader, whether a believing Catholic or not, be expected to see in this unexpected burst of empathetic recognition the operation of divine grace? Or to realize that grace is working in The Misfit (who, recoiling from the grandmother’s gesture, has shot her dead) when he says, “She would have been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life”? Yet the author, in several letters as well as at readings, insisted upon such an interpretation.

A similar assumption that fairly occult religious implications would be perceived partly accounts, I believe, for Flannery O’Connor’s failure to make sufficiently human the characters of Wise Blood and for her attempt to make the battered plaster figure of a watermelon-eating Negro in “The Artificial Nigger” perform not only as a symbol of the redemptive suffering of the Southern black but also as a Christ-like conferer of grace and mercy upon the two white ignoramuses—grandfather and grandson—who come upon it. Though Flannery O’Connor warns that “meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation” and deplores the habit of approaching a story “as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious,” she indulges occasionally in some rather recondite interpretations of her own work. The publication of these letters, with all their explicit references to the fiction, is bound to produce a new and lively spate of interpretative activity in the academies and elsewhere.

Never mind. The stories are strong enough to survive any amount of exegetical excess—whether committed by the reader or the occasionally overzealous author. As with the work of any profound artist, an element of the mysterious—of the unspoken, the unacknowledged—hangs like a shining mist over all that has been consciously intended and consciously achieved.

Sally Fitzgerald deserves high praise for the way she has gone about editing and introducing the letters of her old friend. Large as this volume is, we do well to remember that it is only a selection and that the judgment of the editor as well as permission of the correspondents has been involved. The deletions necessary to protect the privacy of Flannery O’Connor’s living friends have been made so unobtrusively and tactfully that the reader is hardly conscious of their existence; it seems unlikely to me that anything of literary significance has had to be sacrificed. In addition to an affectionate, evocative, and beautifully written introduction to the book as a whole, the editor has provided briefer, very useful introductions to each part—introductions which establish the biographical context for the letters that follow. Other editorial interpolations introduce the new correspondents as they come upon the scene and comment upon certain important developments in Flannery O’Connor’s career and health.

I am aware of only one instance where the editor’s assessment of a situation can be seriously challenged. It concerns the curious happenings at Yaddo in 1949—as the Cold War was getting under way—when Robert Lowell, supported by Flannery O’Connor and two others then in residence, denounced the director, the late Elizabeth Ames, before the trustees of Yaddo for harboring communists and engaging in other subversive activities. Sally Fitzgerald’s account—commendable though it may be in its loyalty to her friends Lowell and O’Connor—is in conflict with the version of the episode given recently by Alfred Kazin in New York Jew2—as well as with other accounts that have reached this reviewer. These concur in associating the events with Robert Lowell’s mental condition at the time—something that Sally Fitzgerald fails to mention. Nor is it fair of her to characterize the effort—by Kazin, Eleanor Clark, and others—to round up support for Mrs. Ames as “the unexpected and violent attack of the organized left.”

These droll, moving, intelligent letters are to be cherished not only for what they reveal of the life, mundane and spiritual, of an exceptionally gifted and exceptionally afflicted young woman but also for what they have to say about a writer’s intimate, almost daily, relationship with her vocation. While it would be excessive to place Flannery O’Connor’s letters with those of Keats, D.H. Lawrence, or Virginia Woolf in their literary significance, they are certainly among the most valuable produced by any twentieth-century American writer—only a handful by F. Scott Fitzgerald come to mind as their equal. Admirers of Flannery O’Connor who are too impatient to wait another quarter century or so for the complete text can only be grateful to Sally Fitzgerald for undertaking the complex and demanding task involved in putting together this generous volume.

  1. 1

    See especially “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South” in Mystery and Manners, the selection of Flannery O’Connor’s occasional prose edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969).

  2. 2

    Cf. New York Jew (Knopf, 1978), pp. 204-205.

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