The Habit of Being
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 …