Flannery O'Connor: Prophet In Her Own Land

Reviewing "The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon" and "Good Things Out of Nazareth: The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Friends"

I wonder if any age is more likely than the twentieth century to impress a sense of lonesome isolation upon the homebound soul. Shut-ins, the bedridden, et al. have always been with us, but no earlier age provided such abundant means of knowing just how much was going on outside the limiting circle of “home.” Newspaper, radio, and eventually television brought an awareness of the wider world directly into the life of seclusion. The letter, though, was still a medium that could reach in both directions. For Flannery O’Connor, letters were an enduring link to the world her poor health often barred her from.

O’Connor attended the University of Iowa and lived briefly in New York and Connecticut before a lupus diagnosis forced her back to her family home, Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. The prospect of this new retirement so early in her crescent literary career seems to have struck her as bitter and healthful in turns. Two new collections of her letters—Good Things Out of Nazareth: The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Friends and The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon—throw into fresh relief the tension of O’Connor’s being confined, geographically, to the rim of the literary world just as, professionally, she established her place in its hub.

Of these two collections, The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon is easier to speak about because its contents are a simple dialogue, arranged chronologically. Good Things Out of Nazareth, though, boasts the more ingenious arrangement. In fact, editor Benjamin B. Alexander used portions of the O’Connor-Gordon letters as a pillar of the collection. Spiraling out from those are a valuable assortment of uncollected or unpublished epistles from O’Connor’s broader literary circles—Walker Percy and Robert Lowell among them. The twist is that Alexander oscillates between a chronological arrangement and a thematic one. The scheme makes it harder to feel the development of relationships in Good Things than in Letters, but it effectively draws together disparate threads in the thought of these writers and critics so that they can be better understood together. To smooth the less intuitive flow, Alexander also provides far more editorial comment upon the letters and their context. Whether through the specific focus of the one or the novel organization of the other, these collections both strike the reader differently than the well-known edition of O’Connor letters that proceeds them.

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Myriad readers love O’Connor’s jarring fiction, but those who come to an abiding love of O’Connor herself repeatedly do so through her letters collected in The Habit of Being. This earlier collection includes letters to the author, but O’Connor’s own letters dominate and provide a broad personal encounter with the witty, pious, and cheerful young woman suffering in Georgia. The two recently published collections put The Habit of Being in new perspective, though, by revealing facets of O’Connor’s correspondence that it touched on less frequently. Both Letters and Good Things are best described as literary correspondences, largely written about the craft and theory of writing. That first and, for decades, definitive collection included personal exchanges with close friends and family, but was also full of what can only be described as fan mail—appreciations from housewives, questions from children, comically bizarre interpretations from kooky professors—all snapshots of O’Connor reaching out and being touched by an appreciative reading world. By focusing so singularly on communication with her peers, these new volumes punctuate her isolation as a writer so far removed from like-minded artists.

Not long after dear friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald introduced her (by mail) to the novelist and critic Caroline Gordon, O’Connor wrote that

There is no one around here who knows anything at all about fiction (every story is “your article,” or “your cute piece”) or much about any kind of writing for that matter. Sidney Lanier and Daniel Whitehead Hickey are the Poets and Margaret Mitchell is the Writer. Amen. So it means a great deal to me to get these comments.

The Fitzgeralds had sent Gordon an unfinished draft of Wise Blood in the hopes of soliciting for their friend the critical input of an established author. “This girl is a real novelist,” she wrote back enthusiastically. No writer was ever helped by unalloyed praise, though, and in one of her first letters to O’Connor Gordon obliges with thousands of words of frank technical criticism.

“I would like,” she says in summary, “to see you make some preparation for the title, ‘Wise Blood,’ and I’d like to see a little landscape, a little enlarging of the scene . . . and I’d also like to see a little slowing up at certain crucial places I’ve indicated.” Gordon—her senior by thirty years—apologizes if her tone is “overly pedantic,” insisting it is “doubtless the result of teaching,” but a teacher is precisely what the budding writer still needed.

O’Connor also found in Gordon, who entered the Catholic church shortly before their acquaintance began, a sympathetic Catholic intellectual. In various letters, she complains to Gordon of her mother’s reticence to discuss her writings, and of an “83 yr. old cousin” who will only read sentimental religious “trash.” In another place she recalls a pamphlet by a Jesuit who “seemed to think that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was about as good as you could get. Somebody ought to blow the lid off.” So the collections together are an obliging corrective to the common and erroneous notion that at Andalusia O’Connor was a lone Catholic in a “Christ-haunted South.” It was not Catholics she was geographically cut off from, but thinkers.

Gordon was not alone in making up this deficiency, as Good Things thoroughly reveals, but her role as literary mentor was unique. Pages upon pages of their correspondence show Gordon bluntly critiquing weaknesses in her stories, but the final drafts suggest O’Connor dutifully incorporated the feedback in her revisions.

The exchanges in Letters amount to a master class in technique as Gordon not only critiques O’Connor’s own fiction (sometimes line by line), but also breaks down the method and style of master writers. She unfolds the intricacies of narrative voice in Flaubert, perspective in Henry James, the setting of scenes in Joyce, dialogue in Faulkner, and so on. The most important breakthrough, though, is O’Connor’s growing sense of her vocation—and not mere talent—as a writer. In 1951 she writes, “I don’t really like to write, but I don’t like to do anything else better.” After two years of corresponding with Gordon she says, in a strikingly different tone, “It scares me to death when I think how good the Lord is to give you a talent and let you be able to use it. I re-resolve to become responsible, and to Madame Bovary I go.”

Gordon remains O’Connor’s essential editor and literary counselor (“Whenever I finish a story I send it to Caroline before I consider myself really through with it”), but by the time they exchange their final letters in July of 1964 Gordon has playfully detached her “pedantic” critical persona (“Old Dr. Gordon”) in an apparent effort to underscore the personal affection that now characterizes much of her attention to the woman dying of lupus. True to form, however, Gordon’s letter includes thousands of words of feedback on “Parker’s Back.” And yet, she sees a possible end approaching. “I—or rather that old Dr. G—have been writing to you as if you were in the pink of health. But your doctor may have discovered, by this time, that there is a bit of work involved in the writing of fiction and may have forbidden you such effort.” O’Connor, lacking the strength for revision, remarks “I did well to write it at all.” She would die early the following month.

Epistolary collections like these are appearing on at least a yearly basis and the well still seems deep and undrunk. Faber & Faber’s attempt at a complete edition of T.S. Eliot’s letters has already run to eight volumes with three decades of his life still to cover. The poet Donald Hall, who died only last year, spoke of still spending hours each week writing or dictating letters. Fat years inexorably give way to lean years, though, and no corner of the West portends to be producing the next generation of letter writers.

For all of our advancements in communication, we also have yet to produce a fitting successor to the letter. The personal diary can be an adequate human record, but is limited in its mono-logic, its self-focus. Email is no better, if my own “Sent” folder is representative. Newer forms of communication have made the very idea of communication so ubiquitous that no single exchange is worth much to posterity. Because we can say whatever we need to say whenever we need to say it, we never say much.

Apparently, my fear was already shared by some in O’Connor’s lifetime, but she balked at it:

I have just finished reading a piece in the Commonweal by a man named Lukacs who says there’s no more literary correspondence and that good writers don’t pay any attention to the young ones because there’s no more charity among them. This has not been my experience. I think of your detailed letters to me about my book and wonder what makes him so sure of what he says.

If she’s right, and the requisite charity and willingness still exist, then perhaps unlooked-for “good things” are still forthcoming from other Nazareths like Milledgeville. If they are, their value cannot be overestimated. 

Sean Johnson is an associate editor of the FORMA Journal and the FORMA Review. He teaches humanities at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, Florida.

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