The Letters of Flannery O’Connor
Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page
A white, southern, conservative Catholic who published in a largely liberal and secular literary milieu, Flannery O’Connor was one of the most misunderstood writers of the twentieth century. Her fiction is inhabited by haunted prophets, holy fools, and brutalized innocents, but because her bizarre subject matter and wickedly penetrating eye appeal greatly to northern agnostics who have very little religious context, she’s often taken to be a freethinking anarchist whose “carnivalesque” worlds are a critique of the very religion and tradition that rooted her work. Even readers who know of her religious leanings often interpret her fictions as ironic mockeries of religion in general—or, because of her Catholicism, specifically of southern Protestantism, evangelism, and homegrown prophecy, which are the kinds of religion most often found in her work. O’Connor constantly railed against these interpretations, and although she declined to give simple explanations for her rich and complex writing, she knew the kind of audience she was facing and was often exasperated at how readers could look into her crystalline works and only see an opaque mirror of their own imagining. All the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments found in her fiction may seem outlandish to a secular audience, but as we read in her letters, O’Connor saw the secular viewpoint as completely off center, and she refused to give in to the expectations of her readership—a sticking point that made her hammer away at the same tedious point about accepting Christ’s call in her two novels, making both Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear it Away (1960) suffer artistically, but that in many of her stories offered moving examples of true grace. O’Connor was as compulsive a correspondent as she was a fiction writer, and her letters reveal much that lies in plain sight in her fiction. Her friend Sally Fitzgerald collected her letters in the decades after her death and published them in 1979 as The Habit of Being—and then expanded the collection of letters for the Library of America’s 1988 Collected Works—and these letters are as sharp and funny and relentless as her fiction, offering not just a key to her stories and novels, but also one of the most profound and moving portraits of any writer of the past century.
The first collected letter is from 1948, an inquiry from the twenty-three-year-old O’Connor to New York literary agent Elizabeth McKee, who would represent O’Connor’s literary output until the author’s early death in 1964. The O’Connor of the early letters is already spirited, headstrong, and uncompromising, and when she finds her life radically curtailed by the onset of lupus just a few years later, she’s humbled in a physical sense, but her sense of purpose is undefeated, and her continued correspondence reveals a spirit filled with wit, willfulness, aspiration, and devotion, and all of it bound together with an actively engaged concern for the real lives and souls of her friends and family.
Although O’Connor can be intensely thorny, she reaches out in her letters for true connection, and some of her closest friendships arise when she responds to letters from sensitive readers of her fiction. Her most involved and personal correspondence is with a woman only identified as “A” (a friend who stipulated that she remain anonymous when she submitted her collection of O’Connor’s letters for publication), and the ups and downs of their friendship are the stuff of literary legend. “A” was attracted to O’Connor’s fiction both for its artistic quality and for its religious significance, and in the early years O’Connor fed her friend books and articles on Catholicism and even stood as a kind of sponsor for her baptism into the Church. Eventually “A” loses her faith and takes up a kind of ecstatic pantheism that grieves and annoys O’Connor and affects not just their spiritual correspondence, but their discussions of everything from literary matters to their daily lives. The strain on their friendship can be quite distressing, but O’Connor holds her friends dear, even when she doesn’t understand them, and in her waning years of sickness she and “A” draw close and focus on the love and care that transcend their differences.
One of the most fascinating and entertaining things about O’Connor’s letters is that each correspondence reveals wildly different aspects of her personality, and one correspondent who brought out the most varied and engaging responses from O’Connor was Maryat Lee, a playwright who held widely diverging ideas and beliefs from O’Connor but whose unconventional attitudes and playful wit prompted O’Connor’s most inventive and inspired expressions of self. O’Connor’s letters to Lee are simply hilarious, and their differences—especially about race issues and religion—serve as a binding agent rather than as a divider, their comical ribbing of each other opening up a field of play between the two that remained animated until the end.
|Flannery O’Connor, self-portrait, 1953|
O’Connor’s other correspondents ranged from a who’s who of mid-century literati—including Robert Lowell, Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Bishop, John Hawkes, and Walker Percy—to religious figures to just about any reader who reached out to her with a question or a word of praise. Her letters reveal a mind engaged—and often in battle—with the real life of her times, and her varied correspondents often elicited strong opinions from the writer who proudly stood as the most deeply conservative member of her family of religious white landowners living in the apartheid American south. She had no sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan, but she unapologetically touted herself as xenophobic, anti-intellectual, religiously intolerant, and fiercely impatient with the integrationist movement. One of the most heartbreaking moments in her letters occurs when a friend offers to arrange a meeting with black American writer James Baldwin and O’Connor refuses because that’s something that’s simply not done in Jim Crow Georgia.
Reading everything in context, of course, it’s clear that O’Connor was merely a product of her time and place, like all of us, and shouldn’t be expected to transcend the mindset that she inherited and that was so deeply entrenched around her. Her contrary nature wasn’t aimed at her own upbringing—the way that, for instance, James Joyce’s was toward Catholic Ireland—but rather at the northern secular intellectuals who she felt were trying to rationalize away her beliefs and traditions. What’s fascinating is that she was something of a misfit on her own turf as well. While she was unquestioningly orthodox in all the articles of the Catholic faith, she had no patience for what she saw as the inane pieties of the average Catholic believer—and especially of the Catholic press that so thoroughly exasperated her. Just being a writer made her an object of curiosity and confusion in her hometown, and her devotion to aesthetics insured that she would never produce anything “nice” that any of the good country people could easily digest. Thus, she was a misfit to almost everyone who didn’t know her personally: an enigma to northern readers who loved her work and something of a bizarre embarrassment to her fellow southerners, who by O’Connor’s own admission were not her target audience.
Humanizing all of these intense polemics and keeping them subservient to the things that really matter, O’Connor’s correspondence revels most often—and most enjoyably—in the day-to-day activities of writing, making a living, raising birds, and living with her mother. Regaling her friends with ongoing accounts of her ducks and geese and swans and peafowl, as well as of her family’s ever-evolving farm, with its epically embattled tenants and servants, O’Connor’s letters remind us that great writers are merely human and that they spend most of their time just trying to get by. O’Connor’s relentless battle with lupus is an especially brutal and heartbreaking reminder of her daily struggle, and as we wade through letter after letter, sifting through ideas and beliefs that aren’t always easy to digest, what rises above all else is O’Connor’s simple humanness. Her voice is addictive and impossible to forget, and what haunts us in her letters is not so much the dazzling chamber of horrors that she channeled into her books, but the luminous presence of her brief life among friends and family who were more real to her than any mere book or idea. Like “A”, we may have profound differences with Flannery O’Connor, but her voice draws us in keeps us close until the end.