Flannery O'Connor read widely in contemporary literature, but there were a good many current authors whom she did not read at all. In her unpublished letters which I have seen, she usually stated briefly her opinion of the books she read, often in no more than a sentence or two. (1) Despite their brevity, the opinions are carefully phrased. They are important both for what they say concerning the writers she discusses and for what they say about Miss O'Connor's own taste and judgment.
In one letter she mentioned that she had read nearly everything by Bloy, Bernanos, (2) and Mauriac. These three writers and Graham Greene, she said, had written virtually all of the powerful Catholic fiction of this age. She had found, however, that she had reached a point at which reading Catholic writers was less useful to her than non-Catholic ones. She mentioned Ernest Hemingway and said of him that he had a longing for the sense of wholeness which the Catholic faith could give. She also mentioned James Joyce of whom she said that he could not rid himself of his Catholic inheritance no matter how he might try. In reading such writers, she went on to say, one might come to recognize the Holy Ghost who took these means of disguising himself. (3)
Miss O'Connor received a request from a Catholic reader who asked that she list modern Catholic writers and comment upon their importance. She said she was not really good at such an enterprise even when she was well and at the time she was full of germs. (4) If a reader wanted to know about Catholic writers, she went on to say, he would have to read them for himself because the significance of none of them could be indicated in a paragraph. She suggested that he begin his reading with the French Catholics, Francois Mauriac and Georges Bernanos. The most important English Catholic writers, she said, were Graham Greene and Muriel Spark. American Catholic writers were J. F. Powers, Wilfred Sheed, and perhaps Edwin O'Connor. Some people would include the last writer, she said, but she was not sure since she had not read him. (5)
She did not include Caroline Gordon in the above list, possibly because most of her fiction was written before she became a Catholic. Miss O'Connor did greatly admire Miss Gordon's novel The Malefactors and once presented it as a gift to a friend. In an accompanying letter, she said that Miss Gordon was a very fine novelist--had been one, in fact, for many years and that more Catholics should become familiar with her work. She related how several years before both Miss Gordon and her husband, Allen Tate, had come into the Church. She mentioned their connection with the Nashville "Agrarian" group of the 1920's and said that they were the only two members of the movement who had ended up in the Catholic Church, though the Church would have seemed to have been the logical end for the writers who shared the ideas and principles of the Agrarians. The movement was a part, she said, of what was now ostentatiously called the Southern Literary Renascence. (6)
In another letter, Miss O'Connor said that she had learned a great deal about writing from Miss Gordon. (7) Earlier, however, she complained about an article which Miss Gordon had written about her, one entitled "Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood." (8) Miss O'Connor said that this article was all mixed up but that she could not afford to say so publicly. (9) She does not specify which opinions of Miss Gordon she objected to.
In March of 1958, Miss Katherine Anne Porter came to Wesleyan College in Macon, where I taught, to read some of her stories and to lecture. While she was in Georgia, my wife and I took her to lunch with Miss O'Connor at her home at Andalusia Farm near Milledgeville. When Miss Porter stepped from the car, one of Miss O'Connor's many peacocks spread his tail in front of her. It seemed a tribute to a beautiful woman.
Both Miss Porter and Miss O'Connor had great charm but it was of totally different kinds. …