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Flannery O'Connor: A Self-Portrait in Letters

The Habit of Being: Letters, edited and with an introduction by Sally Fitzgerald

by Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published in 1983 in The Profane Art

Profundity, Nietzsche said, loves the mask. And so it will be no surprise to admirers of Flannery O'Connor's enigmatic, troubling, and highly idiosyncratic fiction to learn that there were, behind the near-perfect little rituals of violence and redemption she created, not one but several Flannery O'Connors. And how wildly they differed . . . . The experience of reading these collected letters (which are, in fact, rigorously selected letters) is a disturbing one: but tonic, provocative, intriguing. For while it cannot be said of Flannery O'Connor's fiction that she revealed herself anywhere within it—her strategy was to submerge herself, to "correct" emotion by means of art—it must be said of the letters that they give life to a wonderfully warm, witty, generous, and complex personality, surely one of the most gifted of contemporary writers. At the same time they reveal a curiously girlish, childlike, touchingly timid personality, so conventional that the very idea of allowing James Baldwin to visit her in Milledgeville, Georgia, in 1959 frightened her into saying that she observed the traditions of the society she fed upon (which was, in most respects, defiantly untrue)—and that the meeting, "innocent" elsewhere, would cause her the "greatest trouble and disturbance and disunion" in Georgia. The letters give voice, on one side, to a hilariously witty observer of the grotesque, the vulgar, and the merely silly in this society, and in the rather limited world of the Catholic imagination; and then they reveal a Catholic intellectual so conservative and docile that she will write to a priest-friend for permission to read Gide and Sartre (at that time on the Church's Index of forbidden writers) and she will remark, to another friend, that the Church is correct in "warning" believers against Teilhard de Chardin since his work is "incomplete and unclear on the subject of grace." Her view of "Cathlicks" was by no means a sentimental one; she knew that, as she said so succinctly, "The silence of the Catholic critic is so often preferable to his attention." (She did indeed endure ignorant misinterpretations of her work.) But then she will piously condemn the film of Tennessee Williams's Baby Doll as a "dirty little piece of trash"—without having seen it.

A brief review is not the place to count, even to categorize, aspects of personality: masks, voices, disingenuous roles. But I counted at least five distinctly different Flannery O'Connors here, in these pages, and it struck me as highly interesting that the O'Connor of the fiction is nowhere present. She simply doesn't exist—in the letters. She exists, as she must, only—and supremely—in the fiction. One should not read The Habit of Being with the hope of penetrating the "secret" of Flannery O'Connor's art, or even with the hope of learning more about her intentions and habits of composition than is already available in her posthumous collection of essays, Mystery and Manners. She wrote slowly, so slowly that it took her the same length of time (seven years) to write the brief, spare The Violent Bear It Away that it took Joyce to write Ulysses. (And Joyce too suffered ill-health.) Each paragraph, each sentence, each word was written with great deliberation, and rewritten, and rewritten, so that the final product—austere, "comic," allegorical, parable-like—was inevitably somewhat artificial, and inevitably profound. The person, the woman, the gracious, rather shy Southern girl Flannery, certainly could not embody such high seriousness in her being. She says in a letter to Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell, in 1954: "... I don't look very intelligent. I was in Nashville ... and met a man who looked at me a while and said (of Wise Blood), 'That was a profound book. You don't look like you wrote it.' I mustered up my squintiest expression and snarled, 'Well I did,' but at the same time I had to recognize he was right." Apart from such rare remarks she seems not to have been troubled in the slightest by the contradictory, even warring aspects of her personality. If something disturbed her enough it found its way, no doubt, into her art: it did not touch her life. Or so it would seem, judging from the evidence of The Habit of Being.

The first letter in the collection was written in 1948, when Flannery was "up north" at Yaddo, the writers' colony in Saratoga Springs. (I am following Sally Fitzgerald in referring to Flannery O'Connor as Flannery: the full name seems inappropriately formal.) The last letter, a heartbreaking one, was written just before her death on August 3, 1964, when she knew she was dying (she had already taken the Sacrament of the Sick a month earlier) of complications following an operation for the removal of a tumor. The years between 1948 and 1964 were rich, full ones, despite the fact that Flannery's debilitating condition (lupus) kept her at home, and frequently bedridden, for long periods of time. She was not at all a solitary, reclusive person; she had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, and clearly loved seeing them, and writing to them often. Among her "literary" and "interleteckchul" friends were Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate; Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell; Richard Stern; Robie Macauley; Elizabeth Bishop; Granville Hicks; John Hawkes; Walker Percy; J. F. Powers; Marion Montgomery; Robert Giroux (her editor); Andrew Lytle; and of course Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, at whose home in Connecticut she stayed. (She was evidently friendly with James Dickey as well, but for some reason no letters of hers to Dickey are reprinted here.) All the letters are warm, frank, bright, and courteous; only a few exhibit impatience with asinine questions about the deep symbolic meaning of her stories, put to her by "professors of English" and their students, and indefatigable pseudo-Freudians given to hallucinating phallic imagery on every page. (Perhaps Flannery was too kind, and wasted her tragically limited energies...? It is a pity that she felt obliged to reply to people who clearly misunderstood her work, or who took offense at it, as if she felt, despite her confidence in her art, that she must defend it. Her sharpest remark—which is very much justified—is made in response to a "litterary" person's queries about Freudian imagery in The Violent Bear It Away: "I'm sorry the book didn't come off for you but I think it is no wonder it didn't since you see everything in terms of sex symbols .... My Lord, Billy, recover your simplicity. You ain't in Manhattan. Don't inflict that stuff on the poor students there; they deserve better."

The most unanticipated, and perhaps the most unsettling, of the various Flannerys is the disingenuous hick, the self-conscious, self-mocking bumpkin who emerges in certain letters with great zest. This is the Flannery who never hesitates to make bad jokes and puns, to misspell words in a coyly illiterate way, to tell outrageous tales about Georgia doings; she refers to her Opus nauseous, she alludes to the tragedy of Edipus, she sprinkles her comments freely with "aint," "it don't," "yestiddy," "naw," "bidnis," "Cathlicks," "pilgrumidge," "litterary." The affectation of a sub-Socratic irony may strike some readers as embarrassing, particularly when it is overdone; and despite Sally Fitzgerald's insistence in her excellent introduction that Flannery loved and respected her mother, Regina, it is difficult to know how to interpret the numerous comic sketches in which Regina appears, often as a good-natured, bumbling idiot. The portrait is funny but cruel. But it is funny:

My mamma and I have interesting literary discussions like the following which took place over some Modern Library books I had just ordered:

SHE: "Mobby Dick. I've always heard about that."

ME: "Mow-by Dick."

SHE: "Mow-by Dick. The Idiot. You would get something called Idiot. What's it about?"

ME: "An idiot." (From a letter of February 1953)

Regina is getting very literary. "Who is this Kafka?" she says. "People ask me." A German Jew, I says, I think. He wrote a book about a man who turns into a roach. "Well, I can't tell people that," she says. "Who is this Evalin Wow?"

Poor hapless Regina struggles with stray mules and with her hired help, who are every bit as grotesque as the poor whites in Flannery's stories; she despairs over her daughter's diction and her evident disdain for the more explicit Southern graces. She tells Flannery in exasperation, "You talk just like a nigger and someday you are going to be away from home and do it and people are going to wonder WHERE YOU CAME FROM." Certainly Flannery was hiding behind this mask, and yet one must assume that it did express her feelings, for there is a consistency about her country-cousinish persona that suggests the shrewd simplicity of a number of her characters. From a letter to Richard Stern, July 1963:

What you ought to do is get you a Fulbright to Georgia and quit messing around with all those backward places you been at. Anyhow, don't pay a bit of attention to the Eyetalian papers .... All us niggers and white folks over here are just getting along grand—at least in Georgia and Mississippi. I hear things are not so good in Chicago and Brooklyn but you wouldn't expect them to know what to do with theirself there.

Then there is the conservative Catholic, who would seem, in my imagination at least, to seriously underestimate the artist: as if Flannery the docile, "good" little girl, schooled by nuns, were incapable of comprehending the other Flannery's gifts. Again and again she insists that "I write the way I do because and only because I am a Catholic. I feel that if I were not a Catholic, I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason ever to feel horrified or even to enjoy anything." Of the novella Wise Blood: "The book was not agin free-will ... which all the characters had plenty of and exercised .... The thought is all Catholic, perhaps overbearingly so." The celebration of the Mass, the taking of the Eucharist (which Flannery believed to be Christ's actual body and blood, and not "merely" a symbol), were for Flannery the "center of existence"; "all the rest of life is expendable." Though Flannery's ill-health must have caused her untold suffering, she insists upon the fact that such suffering, coming from personal experience, is less significant than the Church's teachings. If one gains in insight it is primarily through the Church: "simply from listening to what the Church teaches." God is Love, and all good, all complete, all powerful. That children may suffer hideous deaths is of course a mystery, not to be comprehended by mortal man, but there is never any doubt that God is All Good. Flannery, unlike her marvelous comic creation Hulga (who believes defiantly in nothing, and has a wooden leg), believes and accepts witout the faintest protest.

The piety is touching, if sometimes implausible, and certainly it tells us nothing about the art to which Flannery devoted herself. The conservatism is rather more unpleasant, suggesting, as conservatism so frequently does, a refusal to examine one's beliefs, even one's vocabulary. I was saddened to read, and could not help interpreting in the context of the speaker's debilitating illness, and the small likelihood of her ever conceiving an unwanted child, such remarks as these:

The Church's stand on birth conttol is the most absolutely spiritual of all her stands and with all of us being materialists at heart, there is little wonder that it causes unease. I wish various (priests) would quit trying to defend it by saying that the world can support 40 billion. I will rejoice in the day when they say: This is right, whether we all rot on top of each other or not, dear children .... Either practice restraint or be prepared for crowding .... (June 1959)

By twisting words about Flannery can convince herself that the Church's stand on birth control is "liberal"! Though she is well aware of the Church's history of persecution, she nevertheless insists in an ongoing debate with one of her closest friends, "A," that one cannot connect the Church with a belief in the use of force. "The Church is a mystical body which cannot, does not, believe in the use of force (in the sense of forcing conscience, denying the rights of conscience, etc.). I know all her hair-raising history ... but principle must be separated from policy" (September 1955). In such circumspect, sophistic ways have the meek always aligned themselves with the bullies, allowing the organization, the hierarchy, to be their conscience for them, and to commit those crimes the meek would never dare entertain, even in fantasy. One has the feeling, in reading these passages, that the imaginative, artistic Flannery O'Connor had been nearly silenced by the bigot—and would have to take her revenge in art.

Though she had, evidently, no more than a conventional critical sensibility—she dismissed Randall Jarrell's marvelous Pictures from an Institution as bad fiction, she referred to Virginia Woolf as a "nut," and declared that she couldn't tell Mozart from Spike Jones, and despised the piano "and all its works"—she did possess a highy reliable talent for assessing her own work. She seems always to have known that she wrote well; that she was gifted. She saw how Wise Blood failed, she saw how certain of her stories—"Revelation," "Judgment Day," "Parker's Back"—succeeded beautifully. Having spent months on the long story, The Lame Shall Enter First, she saw that it simply didn't come off, and tried—too late, as it happened—to stop its publication in Sewanee Review. Her instincts about her own fiction were always right. She wrote ingenious parables of the spiritual life, and her characters were drawn with broad, slashing strokes—"I am not one of the subtle sensitive writers like Eudora Welty," she says—meant to suggest, but not to embody, "reality." A creator of romances, like Hawthorne, or even Poe; but one with a fine, sharp eye for the absurd. (It is not surprising that she first wanted to be a cartoonist, and sent off cartoons, week after week, to The New Yorker, where they were invariably rejected.) Though she could not resist traveling to writers' conferences and to universities, where, in her words, "clichés are swapped" about the art of writing, she always knew that the process of creation was subjected to no rules, and that, as an artist, she "discovered" the truth of her stories in the writing of them. She enjoyed writing—perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say that she lived for it, and in it. Easily exhausted, she forced herself to work two or three hours every day, in the morning, and managed by this discipline to write about one story a year during the worst periods. During the final year of her life, 1964, when everything seemed to go wrong (tumor, operation, infections, reactivation of lupus, side effects of cortisone) she was completing the volume that would be her finest achievement, Everything That Rises Must Converge) which would be published, to wide critical acclaim, after her death. (One cannot imagine an ailing person less given to self-pity. When, as a fairly young woman, she learned that she would probably be on crutches the rest of her life, she says merely, "So, so much for that. I will henceforth be a structure with flying buttresses .... " Writing to a friend, Louise Abbot, in 1964, she says that she must submit to an operation because "I have a large tumor and if they don't make haste and get rid of it, they will have to remove me and leave it." It is only near the very end of her life that she says, briefly, to the same friend: "Prayers requested. I am sick of being sick.")

Partly because of her condition, and partly because of her temperament, Flannery O'Connor seems to have lived one of the most circumscribed lives ever lived by a distinguished artist. In a sense she enjoyed a prolonged childhood which was never ravaged by adolescence or the complications of "adult" life. (Judging by the collected letters and by Sally Fitzgerald's remarks, Flannery did not, evidently, write a single love letter, and there are no allusions to romantic relationships in her letters to friends. At the age of thirty-seven she writes defiantly to a friend, "I've usually had my own room but it's always been subject to intrusion. The only thing in mine that is not subject to intrusion is my desk. Nobody lays a hand on that, boy." Nobody meaning, of course, her mother Regina.)

"As for biographies," Flannery said in 1958, "there won't be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy." But we measure an artist by the quality and depth of interior vision, and by the maginitude of achievement: and by these standards Flannery O'Connor is one of our finest writers. The Habit of Being is a deeply moving, deeply disturbing, and ultimately very beautiful record of a highy complex woman artist whose art was, perhaps, too profound for even the critic in her to grasp.