I never met Flannery O’Connor, but we had been exchanging occasional letters for the last eight years or so. She invited me to visit her at “Andalusia” in Milledgeville, and how deeply I regret now that I never did. The closest I got to it was once when a freighter I was traveling on to South America put into Savannah for overnight. Wandering through those dusty, fusty little squares, I suddenly realized I was in Flannery O’Connor country and thought perhaps I could get to see her. I put in a telephone call from the booth in the lobby of the largest hotel; I remember that while I waited I studied a display of pecans and of boxes of “Miss Sadie’s Bourbon Balis” on the candy and cigar counter just outside the booth. Quite soon a very collected, very southern voice answered and immediately invited me to “come on over.” Alas, the bus connections didn’t work out so that I could get back to my freighter in time to sail.
Later she sent me some colored snapshots of herself, some with her peacocks, some of her alone, always on crutches. In these amateur snapshots she looks, in spite of the crutches, younger than her age and very much alive. From Brazil I sent her a cross in a bottle, like a ship in a bottle, crudely carved, with all the instruments of the Passion, the ladder, pliers, dice, etc., in wood, paper, and tinfoil, with the little rooster at the top of the cross. I thought it was the kind of innocent religious grotesquery she might like, and I think she did, because she wrote:
If I were mobile and limber and rich I would come to Brazil at once after one look at this bottle. Did you observe that the rooster has an eyebrow? I particularly like him and the altar cloth a little dirty from the fingers of whoever cut it out…I am altogether taken with it. It’s what I’m born to appreciate.
I feel great remorse now that I hadn’t written to her for many months, that I had allowed this friendship to dwindle just when she must have been aware she was dying. Something about her intimidated me a bit: perhaps natural awe before her toughness and courage; perhaps, although death is certain for all, hers seemed a little more certain than usual. She made no show of not living in a metropolis, or of being a believer,—she lived with Christian stoicism and wonderful wit and humor that put most of us to shame.
I am very glad to hear that another collection of her stories is to be published soon. I am sure her few books will live on and on in American literature. They are narrow, possibly, but they are clear, hard, vivid, and full of bits of description, phrases, and odd insights that contain more real poetry than a dozen books of poems. Critics who accuse her of exaggeration are quite wrong, I…
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