America's civil religion narrows real religion in unfortunate ways.
One of the more agreeable and important books about literature to emerge recently is Good Things Out of Nazareth: The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Friends, edited by Benjamin Alexander who recently retired from teaching literature at the University of Steubenville. This collection of Flannery O’Connor’s correspondence follows three other collections and should not be missed by those interested in O’Connor’s work.
O’Connor punched far above her weight, if her weight is measured in terms of her modest corpus —two compilations of short stories, two novels, and one collection of essays—but her influence has been immense and it seems that her star is still on the rise, judging from the scholarly activity that continues to orbit her legacy. Why is that so? The answer is manifold, but one of the things that has made O’Connor’s work so appealing is O’Connor herself: her correspondence, published posthumously, is a goldmine of piercing insight, astute observations, and startling reflections on everything from literature to philosophy to raising peacocks, all written with her mordant wit. It also provides us with extensive commentary on her own work, more than almost any other author, as she discussed her work with acquaintances, friends, editors (formal and informal), and publishers.
The Finest Collection Since The Habit of Being
The first major collection of O’Connor’s correspondence was compiled in 1988 by her long-time friend Sally Fitzgerald in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. It has been a popular book in in its own right, though it is at times prolix and redundant; the collection is also under-edited. Its organization is chronological, which, while giving the reader a narrative sketch of O’Connor’s life, does not provide a framework in which the conversations might best be synthesized and understood so as to gain the fullest picture of her life, thought, and work.
Good Things Out of Nazareth is the most comprehensive collection of O’Connor’s correspondence since The Habit of Being, and, as its subtitle indicates, little of the correspondence contained therein has been previously published. The collection is ingeniously organized into four chapters chronologically and thematically, with the second mode being the most conspicuous, making the book all the more valuable. The correspondence is not only written by and to O’Connor, but occasionally consists of exchanges—between Caroline Gordon, Walker Percy, or Robert Lowell, for example—which might often include discussion of O’Connor’s work. In this way, we understand O’Connor’s work and thought—and the milieu in which she lived—in a way that would not be clear from Alexander’s headnotes or O’Connor’s letters alone.
The editor supplies meaningful introductions and generous and detailed headnotes, though some may take issue with Alexander’s commentary, feeling that it occasionally wanders too far into topicality. Others, though, will find that his effort to show the relevance of certain themes in the correspondence will enliven their reading. To be sure, the headnotes reveal Alexander’s deep knowledge and sharp insight into the faith and intelligence of the correspondents, especially as the editor is able to place them in their cultural and political milieu, an environment often critical to appreciating the exchanges.
Alexander drew the letters in Good Things Out of Nazareth from seven separate literary estates, a task in itself requiring no small amount of political sensitivity and deft maneuvering. The majority of the Fr. James McCown letters have only been recently introduced, also by Alexander, in a separate essay in my recent edited volume, A Political Companion to Flannery O’Connor. The engaging Fr. Scott (“Youree”) Watson correspondence has never been published save in the New Orleans Review in 1979 in an article by O’Connor scholar John R. May.
The Elizabeth Hester letters were all drawn from the Emory University Collection and were only released in their entirety in 2007 when they were donated by the late William B. Sessions, O’Connor’s and Hester’s mutual friend and the executor of Hester’s estate. Only two of the letters in Alexander’s collection also appear in The Habit of Being. Moreover, in Fitzgerald’s collection those two letters are edited; Alexander provides them in their entirety. In 1955, Hester, an Atlanta file clerk, wrote O’Connor a letter expressing admiration for her work. Hester’s letter drew O’Connor’s attention and they began a vital and frequent correspondence.
These exchanges between O’Connor and Hester, an Atlanta file clerk who initially wrote O’Connor to express admiration for her work, are the weightiest correspondence in Fitzgerald’s collection, as they reveal O’Connor at her most philosophically, theologically, and spiritually reflective. Several of the letters in the Alexander collection are of a similar tone. In just one short letter of December 1959, O’Connor discusses French novelist Andre Malroux’s Voices of Silence, St. Thomas Aquinas, societal manners, two of O’Connor’s short stories, and their friend “Billy” Sessions. In another letter, four years before O’Connor’s death, she writes wistfully, wondering if she has profitably used the time allotted to her. O’Connor is headed to Piedmont Hospital in Milledgeville for an anticipated five-day stay. With her mortality in mind, she writes, “I often think how it looks like I should have done a lot more, been more prolific, in the years I have had; but on the other hand, the writer has to wait for the time when the subject ripens in him. I can’t be forced.”
Technique and Piety
The preface to Good Things Out of Nazareth itself merits the cost of the book. It is a fine essay and, with some enlargement and modest adaptation, could have been released elsewhere as a self-standing composition of its own. Alexander provides us with the most succinct and clear explanation available of O’Connor’s craft and the way in which it coexists with her faith. Alexander quotes Caroline Gordon, wife of Southern Agrarian Allen Tate and occasional literary mentor to O’Connor and Walker Percy, noting that Percy and O’Connor represent a rising generation of writers producing novels “written by people who are consciously rooted and grounded in the faith . . . People who don’t have to spend time trying to figure out what moral order prevails in the universe and therefore have more energy for spontaneous creation.” Gordon elsewhere notes that O’Connor “is a real novelist . . . She is already a rare phenomenon: a Catholic novelist with a real dramatic sense, one who relies more on her technique than her piety.” Elsewhere, Gordon declared, “Well this is the season when the good things come out of Nazareth.” This, of course, is an allusion to the first book of the Gospel of John where Nathaniel asks in regard to Jesus’ humble hometown, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” In her case, Gordon is referring to Percy’s Greenville, Mississippi; and O’Connor’s Milledgeville, Georgia, both remote rural locales.
Alexander thus explains the motive and trajectory of his collection: “The comment is the foundation of Good Things Out of Nazareth. Gordon’s emphasis on ‘technique’ over ‘piety’ is a vital principle. It has largely been abandoned in the pedagogy of many creative writing programs today, even those in Catholic institutions.” As O’Connor explains to a correspondent, “Your Catholicism affects your art, no doubt about it, but an intense application to the discipline of an art or even some craft should intensify your Catholicism. I have about decided that form is one’s moral background transposed to the subject at hand.”
In Chapter One, “Good Things Out of Nazareth,” it becomes clear just how much influence Gordon exercised at times over both Percy’s and O’Connor’s writing. Accordingly, much of the correspondence in this chapter is a kind of workshop in writing fiction. Especially interesting is a long letter to O’Connor from Gordon that constitutes a kind of retrospective critique of Wise Blood. On the one hand, Gordon declares how impressed she is with the novel. On the other hand, Gordon offers several general comments on O’Connor’s writing using Wise Blood as the context. She suggests that the stage on which the action of the novel occurs is at times too bare. Hazel Motes, the protagonist, Gordon argues, would be enriched by more attention to his environment.
Chapter Two is concerned with O’Connor’s friendship and correspondence with two Jesuit priests, Fr. James McCown and Fr. Scott Watson, and secondarily with her friendship with Professor Tom Gossett and his wife Louise. In a collection of valuable chapters, this is the most valuable. The letters O’Connor exchanged with the two priests show how ardently she tried to live by the Catholic faith that informs her work and how deeply O’Connor influenced the lives of others, in this case, highly-educated clergy.
Tom Gossett was a professor of English at Wesleyan College, a private, all-women’s college in Macon, Georgia. Gossett was a pioneer in studying African-American literature and was kicked off the faculty in 1958 for his support of integration. Fr. McCown was also a progressive in civil rights. O’Connor’s close friendship with both parties, therefore, should be taken into account when considering O’Connor and race relations. At the same time, O’Connor was guilty of an occasional use of “the N-word.” Alexander does not omit those few references, although he treats them delicately, substituting “n______” for the word itself. Remarkable in this chapter is Father Watson’s very long, detailed letter to O’Connor on February 3, 1960 about The Violent Bear It Away, both its substance and its technique. For example, Watson writes, “After reading it I thought I had been through a storm or perhaps a bombing.” He compares the novel with The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky: “The Violent Bear It Away, though less than half the length of The Brothers, makes a stronger, if less complex, impression.”
“Her Kind of Literature: Places and Folks,” is the third chapter in the collection and contains the Betty Hester correspondence. Featured also is O’Connor’s notable correspondence with Katherine Ann Porter, best known for her 1962 novel Ship of Fools and for her short stories.
Removed So Soon
The final chapter, “Removing Choice Souls So Soon,” certifies the chronological nature of the collection, even if that chronology is not slavishly followed. The title is also a reminder of how short and difficult O’Connor’s life was. Her father died at the age of 40 of lupus and, despite being assured that the disease had no genetic origins, O’Connor was diagnosed with the same affliction and died at the age of 39 in 1964. The last dozen or so years of her life, then, she was often seriously ill, which necessitated regular steroid injections, blood transfusions, and occasional sojourns in Baldwin County Hospital in Milledgeville and then later in Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. Accordingly, much of her mature writing was done under considerable duress and with the suspicion, if not the expectation, of her impending death, an expectation that lent a single-minded intensity to her work.
The letters in this chapter chronicle O’Connor’s demise, though she continued meaningful epistolary exchanges as much as she was able. Only days before her death, she wrote her friend Janet McKane, “Thank you so much for having the mass said. . . . My blood count has dropped again and I just don’t have the energy to answer any letters . . . Going to hosp for another transfusion etc.” In the last letter in Alexander’s collection, one day after the letter to McKane, O’Connor gives Caroline Gordon the same medical report but adds, “Anyway maybe I’ll learn something for the next set of stories.” Those stories were never written.
As a fitting epitaph, Fr. McCown wrote a month later to the Gossetts,
I am still in a kind of amazement as I try to assess the incredible depth and variety of graces that have been bestowed upon this young woman of such limited environment and experiences, of such a short and restricted life. Yet she was able to cast outward the fruit of these graces upon her family and friends, and upon the people who are fortunate enough to have read her stories. As I read I felt myself saying over and over what a marvelous gift she has been to this country, to the Church, to the human spirit!
Readers of these collected letters will learn from and appreciate “the fruit of these graces.”