The Letters of Flannery O'Connor and Caroline Gordon

By Carrigan, Henry L. | The Christian Century, October 23, 2019 | Go to article overview

The Letters of Flannery O'Connor and Caroline Gordon


Carrigan, Henry L., The Christian Century


The Letters of Flannery O'Connor and Caroline Gordon

Edited by Christine Flanagan

University of Georgia Press, 272 pp., $32.95

Good Things Out of Nazareth: The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O'Connor and Friends

Edited by Benjamin B. Alexander

Convergent, 416 pp., $26.00

When Flannery O'Conner died in 1964 at age 39, she left behind two collections of short stories (A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories and Everything That Rises Must Converge) and two novels (Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away). At the time of her death, she was developing a voice that had an edge. A rural Southerner, she had learned to dress her sardonic remarks in sly humor. Anytime she dispensed her wisdom through the voices of her characters, she pointed to the truth of a situation as she saw it--and her readers could take it or leave it.

O'Connor also shone a light on the character of redemption in her stories and novels. But in her characteristic picaresque manner, she revealed that grace didn't come easy. Finding Christ hiding behind every tree in her rural Georgia--the "Christ-haunted South," as she called it--didn't always lead to redemption. For example, the swaggering Bible salesman in "Good Country People," who carries condoms and whiskey in a hollowed-out Bible, is the misfit Messiah who reveals to Joy/Hulga her need to embrace her vulnerability and open herself to love. At the end of "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," the Misfit carries a revelation about the nature of hypocrisy and truth: "She would've been a good woman," said the Misfit, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

When O'Connor died, readers felt bereft of a voice that spoke hard truths in an unsentimental way. Her fiction presented a landscape shot through with violence and grotesque characters, but she said she wrote in such a way because sometimes you have to shout to proclaim the truth to those who are hard of hearing. Several collections of her essays were published posthumously, and The Complete Stories (1971) won the National Book Award in 1972. But readers continued to thirst for another drink from O'Connor's well.

That thirst was slaked in 1979 with the publication of a collection of letters, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor, selected and edited by her good friend Sally Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald writes in the introduction, "I have come to think that the true likeness of Flannery O'Connor will be painted by herself, a self-portrait in words, to be found in her letters." Readers pored over the letters, which do reveal O'Connor's personal side: her warm humor, her sometimes ambivalent, though mostly loving, relationship with her mother, her thoughts about her lupus, the progressive neurological disease that killed her, and her thoughts about writing and religion. Her correspondents included writers such as Walker Percy, Elizabeth Bishop, and Caroline Gordon.

Now, within a one-year span, we have two more collections of letters: one based on her friendship with Gordon and the other based on her letters to friends.

The more exciting of these collections is Christine Flanagan's The Letters of Flannery O'Connor and Caroline Gordon. These letters not only chronicle the 13-year friendship between the two women, they provide remarkable insight into what functioned as a kind of epistolary writer's workshop with the two women offering critiques of each other's work in progress. They reveal that Gordon had a hand in shaping some of O'Connor's best-known writings, including Wise Blood, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and "The Displaced Person."

The letters also provide glimpses of Gordon, a writer who should be better known. She studied with Ford Madox Ford, who later called her novel Penhally (1931) the "best constructed novel that modern American has produced." Gordon met and married poet Allen Tate in 1925 (the year O'Connor was born), lived in New York, and befriended Dorothy Day, Katherine Anne Porter, and F. …

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