"The Human Comes before Art": Flannery O'Connor Viewed through Her Letters and Her Critics

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Letter writing mattered a great deal to Flannery O'Connor, especially in the period from early 1951 until her death in August 1964--when lupus gave her life a decisive sedentary turn. She explained her special circumstances in a letter written to a priest friend: "I never mind writing anybody. In fact it is about my only way of visiting with people as I don't get around much and people seldom come to see us in the country" (p. 139).

Sally Fitzgerald has performed a noteworthy service, as well as a loving gesture, in making a generous selection of these letters available. Her own discreet and understated introduction and her occasional intertextual commentary assure that the "last word" will be Flannery's. Sally Fitzgerald has avoided the elaborate paraphernalia of the scholarly edition--just as she and her husband did when they brought out Mystery and Manners in 1969--which, at a certain sacrifice, helps eliminate the eyesore of the footnote-cluttered page and helps rivet one's attention more uncompromisingly on the epistolary text.

The letters themselves do not disappoint. Neither do they offer any particular surprises. Readers of the fiction and of Mystery and Manners should be fully prepared for virtually everything in The Habit of Being (a happily chosen title with a nod to Jacques Maritain). Besides, bits and pieces of the correspondence were already in print in The Added Dimension: The Art and Mind of Flannery O'Connor and in the pages of Shenandoah and Saturday Review. Thus one reads along in the letters and can enjoy their rather even narrative flow, spiced by O'Connor's occasionally savage wit and by her engaging word plays. Any large claim for these epistolary gestures strikes me as unjustified, especially something like the following (found in a review in The Chronicle of Higher Education): "The Habit of Being is one of the great collections of letters in American literature, equal in range and quality to those of Hawthorne and Melville and comparable, in what they tell us about the craft of fiction and writing, to the notebooks and prefaces of Henry James and the journals of Henry David Thoreau." O'Connor herself would probably have been amused and slightly embarrassed by this assertion.

Certainly the large number of letters she sent to "A." (a woman "who wishes to remain completely anonymous," we are told by Sally Fitzgerald), which cover the period from July 20, 1955, through July 25, 1964, have quite special properties. They are usually more formal and serious, with something more of a "high" style, than the correspondence with other friends. A remark made in one of these letters, dated November 25, 1960, "the human comes before art," sets the tone for this epistolary exchange. O'Connor is concerned with her friend's spiritual dimension, her "habit of being," and worries when "A." seems to be turning away from the Church in favor of the gospel according to Iris Murdoch. She is also upset somewhat at "A." 's inability to get published and encourages her own agent, Elizabeth McKee, to circulate two of her novels. But O'Connor is quick to point out that she, too, benefits from the relationship: "Your writing me forces me to clarify what I think on various subjects or at least to think on various subjects and is all to my good and to my pleasure" (p. 103).

As I read through this trove of letters to "A." I was reminded several times of the correspondence between Jacques Riviere and Alain-Fournier. The spiritual and the literary mingle in the same happy way in this other epistolary crise de conscience which, incidentally, also went on for nine years (1905-1914) and also ended abruptly with the early death of one of the letter-writers (Alain-Fournier). The principal difference is that we have both sides of the exchange with Riviere and Alain-Fournier while we have only O'Connor's contributions in The Habit of Being. We can hope someday Farrar, Straus, Giroux will bring out both ends of the correspondence in a single volume, just as Harper and Row recently did with the Nabokov-Wilson letters. …

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