A Flannery O'Connor Christmas Card

By Michaels, J. Ramsey | Flannery O'Connor Review, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

A Flannery O'Connor Christmas Card


Michaels, J. Ramsey, Flannery O'Connor Review


Who would ever use the word "nauseous" (misspelled at that!) on a Christmas J Ë /Ê / card? Who but Flannery O'Connor? I found the card for sale online one w/ t/ day while marveling at what signed editions of her books were bringing in the S' rare book market. The item was labeled an ALS ("Autographed Letter Signed") and offered for sale by a Pennsylvania book dealer. It was nicely framed, alongside a rather familiar photograph of O'Connor on a porch somewhere facing right,1 and it was expensive, though less so than the available signed copies of Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, or A Memoir of Mary Ann. The card itself was about as modest and generic as a Christmas card can be, just a depiction of two small red Christmas tree ornaments on either side of a slightly larger one. No named recipient. The name must have been only on the envelope. No printed inscription, just Flannery's own handwritten note and Christmas greeting:

I appreciated those kind

words in The Commonweal-an

excellent selection of adjectives,

said I to myself. Did you

see the editorial in America

about Rabbit Run? Nausesous.

I hope your various projects

are going well and I wish

you a Merry Christmas.

Flannery OC

The reference to John Updike's Rabbit, Run dates the card in all likelihood to Dec. 1960, but who was O'Connor's correspondent? As it happened, the dealer brought the item to Boston in Nov. 2013 for the annual Antiquarian Book Fair, where my daughter and I were actually able to handle it and examine it closely. A year later at the same fair it turned out to be still available. This time I made an offer and bought it, because in the intervening months I had managed to gather considerable information about its provenance. The question was, who had written "those kind words" about O'Connor "in The Commonweal" right around Christmas 1960? The answer was not hard to find. In a letter to Robert Giroux about The Violent Bear It Away, dated 23 Jan. 1961, O'Connor wrote

I like the idea of a brochure on my book because all the good reviews are stuck off where nobody will ever see them. If you do get it up, I wish you would include Richard Gilman's remarks on it in the Christmas book issue of Commonweal. (HB 429)

Who was Richard Gilman? Born Jewish in 1923, he grew up in Brooklyn and converted to Roman Catholicism in 1954, left the Church five years later, and yet never entirely lost a sense of mystery not so different from O'Connor's.2 During these years he worked as a freelance writer and literary critic in Greenwich Village, before joining the staff of The Commonweal as a drama critic.

Flannery O'Connor's acquaintance, even friendship, with Gilman is well documented, most notably in his two accounts (eight years apart) of an overnight visit with Flannery and her mother Regina on 1 Sept. 1960. The first is taken from his article (under the pseudonym Robert Donner) in The Sign; the second, from a review of Mystery and Manners in The New York Review of Books (Conversations 51).3 At the very beginning of the latter, Gilman reveals that their acquaintance went back earlier:

I first came to know Flannery O'Connor through a shy little note of thanks she sent me for some words of praise I had written about her first book of stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, in an obscure Catholic magazine called Jubilee. I remember that I described the stories as strange, brilliant, wholly original, and also that I resolutely kept from discussing them in any "Catholic" perspective. She was especially grateful for that, she told me later when we had become friends. It wasn't that she thought there shouldn't be a Catholic perspective on her work-far from it-but that such a procedure ought to wait until her art was secure, as art.4

From there he briefly traces the steps that led to his visit to Milledgeville in 1960:

After my reply to her note we corresponded at long intervals, mostly Christmas cards and an occasional postcard of mine to her from Europe or Mexico and of hers to me from the farm, one of them with a photograph of peacocks on it. …

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