Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

Billy, We Hardly Knew Ye: A Tribute to William A. Sessions (1928-2016)

Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

Billy, We Hardly Knew Ye: A Tribute to William A. Sessions (1928-2016)

Article excerpt

Anyone who knows anything about the life and work of Flannery O'Connor knows about Billy Sessions. We knew him as the veteran plenary speaker and panel member at numerous O'Connor conferences. We knew him as one of the last surviving friends of O'Connor herself, having first visited her in 1956.1 We knew him most recently as the able preserver, editor, and introducer of Flannery O'Connor's A Prayer Journal. We knew him also as Bobby Lee might have known him. Lee is a sidekick to the Misfit, the serial killer in O'Connor's signature story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." "She was a talker," Bobby Lee declares to the Misfit, "wasn't she?" (CW 153) We've all been regaled (and sometimes wearied) with Bill's endless stories about the famous and infamous he had known, about his friends and kin in their various states of ill or well-being, about his own life story from his Southern Baptist upbringing in Conway, South Carolina, to his matriculation at the University of North Carolina at age 16, about his career as a dancer in New York, about Walker Percy's instructing him to bring back a wife while visiting Greece, indeed about Billy's doing just that in marrying his lovely Grecian maiden Jenny. Billy was a talker. O'Connor herself was put off by his garrulousness. When Flannery's New York editor visited the Trappist monastery in Conyers, Georgia, he was surprised to find Billy there. O'Connor narrates the outcome:

In a half hour Billy had given him his (Billy's) life history, driven him into town, eaten dinner with him (on Farrar Straus), instructed him to look for him (Billy) an apartment in New York this summer, and I suppose given him various incidental information relative to the place he was supposed to visit. (16 May 1959, CW 1096)2

Even Billy's generosity proved off-putting when he brought Flannery and her mother a jar of bootleg wine made in his native Horry County, South Carolina: "As it tasted like gasoline we did not avail ourselves of the offer to keep any of it" (3 Jan. 1959, CW 1087).

It wasn't only the flapping tongue and gauche gifts that troubled O'Connor. She confessed, perhaps wryly, that Billy's posturing required charity greater than she could muster. Yet she shrewdly discerned that his galling bluster and name-dropping pretense disguised a hidden insecurity. He knew so very many things that he may have feared having his ignorance of many other things exposed-an unease common to the cocksure and seemingly arrogant. Concerning his visits to Andalusia, therefore, O'Connor confessed that they left her and her mother in a state of "extreme irritation. You have to know him in the Light of the Lord to put up with him" (1 Dec. 1957, CW1053). She also waxed caustic when, in The Violent Bear It Away, he found phallic symbolism at work not only in a door handle but also in an innocent arboreal description: "The fork of the tree! My Lord, Billy, recover your simplicity. You ain't in Manhattan" (13 Sept. 1960, CW 1131). Bill was stung by such scathing rebuffs, noting that he had been both "nailed and brutalized." Yet he took no offense, refusing to return sarcasm for sarcasm. Despite her snappish reproofs,3 he never lost his lasting regard for Flannery. Instead, he embraced Brad Gooch's description of him as Flannery's "piñata, Wild Billy, Wee William, and worse" (Sessions, e-mail 30 May 2009). In another note, he adds, "Absurdity, thy name is Billy" (11 June 2007). Finally, there is his humorous but also acute assessment of O'Connor's estimate of others:

Flannery saw us all like so many Muscovy Ducks on one level and then became on another level generous and responsive pretty much to each collapse on our part. Her letters were . . . always individual and directed to your situation, although she was judging and seeing you (and this included everybody) if not sub specie aeternitate [in relation to the eternal] then sub specie avitiis [in relation to the birds]. Human beings were so many fowl on one level, absurd and funny with the same vulnerability of being frozen and eaten. …

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