Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

Survival of a Favorite

Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

Survival of a Favorite

Article excerpt

Introduction

lannery O'Connor was a great admirer of the work of J. F. Powers, noting in one letter, "Powers and I are, I suppose, the only two young writers in this country who are well thought of and connected with the Church" (23 Dec. 1958, HB 309-10). The closest they came to meeting would have been at a reception given for O'Connor in Minnesota in late 1958. In a footnote to that letter, Sally Fitzgerald, editor of The Habit of Being, informs us that Powers wrote to her "that he was somehow in the black books of the department at the time" and had not been invited to the reception. Yet his recently published volume of letters, Suitable Accommodations, edited by his daughter, places him in Ireland at the time. In any case, the two writers would never meet, but O'Connor's letters (three to Powers himself, along with many others referring to him) are peppered with praise for his writing. In a review of his story collection The Presence of Grace, she referred to Powers as "one of the country's finest story writers," and in a letter to a writer friend, O'Connor said she considered the stories "that deal with the Catholic clergy" to be "as good as any stories being written by anybody" (8 June 1958, HB 287). As early as 1952, O'Connor responded with enthusiasm ("a wonderful idea" [undated, Summer 1952, HB 40]) to Sally Fitzgerald's suggestion that Powers review her first novel, Wise Blood. In 1958 their affinity was recognized when Critique, a publication of the University of Minnesota, devoted an entire issue to the two writers. O'Connor warmly applauded Powers's winning of the National Book Award in 1963, the same year she got the O. Henry Award. In her letters, she elevates him above Carson McCullers, whose work she "dislike[d] intensely" (28 Nov. 1963, HB 550), as well as Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, both of whom made her "plumb sick" (8 Dec. 1955, HB 121).

Her praise, however, was not unmitigated. In two letters, she referred vaguely to three of his stories she didn't care for: "I do remember there was an awful story in there about an old couple and a baseball one I didn't like and I don't recollect that I liked the racial one" (12 July 1957, HB 229). The three letters from O'Connor to Powers included in The Habit of Being reveal an almost teasing relationship, one in which each felt free to comment honestly on the other's work. When Powers chided O'Connor for killing off Mrs. May in "Greenleaf," preferring her to be left alive for a future novel, she defended him in a letter to her friend Betty Hester, calling his "instincts . . . too good on what to do with short stories" (28 Dec. 1956, HB 190). In turn, O'Connor made no bones about what she thought of Powers's two short stories narrated by a cat: in a review that appeared in The Bulletin in 1956, she noted that while the cat was "admirable, in his way," it nonetheless "lowers the tone and restricts the scope of what should otherwise have been a major story." She went on to express her "hope" that the cat will "prove to have only one life left and that some Minneapolis motorist, wishing to serve literature, will dispatch him as soon as possible" (PG 15). And in a letter to Powers himself, she wrote, "I admire your stories better than any others I know of even in spite of the cat who, if my prayers have been attended to, has already been run down" (19 Apr. 1956, HB 151). She recounted his response in a letter to friends: ". . . he wrote me he wasn't going to use the cat anymore so I could quit praying for it to be dispatched" (10 Nov. 1957, HB 252).

When Powers's collection of letters (Suitable Accommodations) came out, my father wrote a review for the Flannery O'Connor Review. In the first paragraph, he included a parenthetical aside: "(Try to imagine 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find' as told by the cat!)" (139). I imagined it, and then wrote it, complete with a cat who can remember six lines of lyrics from The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan (386). …

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