The Writer Who Was Full of Grace

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

The God whom Flannery O'Connor worshiped so devoutly put her faith to a severe test. In 1950, when she was 25 years old, she developed lupus, the same autoimmune disease that had killed her father when she was a teenager; with characteristic stoicism, she called the disease "no great hardship." Six years later she was on crutches, which she laughed off: "I will henceforth be a structure with flying buttresses," which, she said in the Southern vernacular she enjoyed using, "don't bother me none." Then in August 1964 she died, at the age of 39; in the last letter she wrote, mailed by her mother after her death, she apologized to a friend for not sending some short stories because "I've felt too bad to type them."

All of those quotations are to be found in "The Habit of Being," the collection of her letters edited by her close friend Sally Fitzgerald. During her lifetime O'Connor published two novels -- "Wise Blood" (1952) and "The Violent Bear It Away" (1960) -- and two collections -- "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (1955) and "Three by Flannery O'Connor" (1964) -- all of which secured the high reputation she enjoys to this day. Two posthumous books further embellished it: the story collection "Everything That Rises Must Converge" (1965) and a volume of occasional prose, "Mystery and Manners" (1969). "The Habit of Being," though, added a new dimension to our understanding of her: It gave us Flannery O'Connor the person, and what an extraordinary one she turned out to have been.

This very large book (more than 600 pages) appeared in March 1979, a few months after I had joined the Washington Star as its book editor. I revered O'Connor's fiction and essays, and leaped at the opportunity to read and review her letters. I fully expected to like and admire them but never bargained for falling in love with them. That is exactly what happened. The review I wrote bordered on the ecstatic:

"She was, these letters tell us in ways her other writings cannot, a great woman. Like all of us, she had her vanities, her moods, her fits of petulance and selfishness -- but these only made her more human. She had saintly qualities, but she was no saint. She was a great writer who, out of a clear and unwavering vision, told stories that at moments reach the luminous borders of perfection. These letters must be counted among her finest and most durable work; they will be read so long as there is room in the world for love, faith, courage and laughter."

Rereading these letters now, after a quarter of a century, I find no reason to alter anything in that judgment except, perhaps, to make it even more emphatic. "The Habit of Being" is a great American book by one of the greatest American writers. Meticulously edited by Fitzgerald (who died five years ago) with a minimum of editorial intrusion, the letters are not so much correspondence as conversation, between the reader and a woman who turns out to be the perfect conversationalist: a bit gabby, hugely funny, reflective, informative, impudent, wise and -- yes -- inspiring.

O'Connor's life was brief and, apart from her writing and her illness, doesn't come with much in the way of plot. She was born in Savannah in 1925, the only child of a modestly prominent and prosperous family that moved to the small town of Milledgeville when she was 12. She went to college in Georgia and then in Iowa, did some time in writing colonies and New York City, but essentially remained in Milledgeville for the rest of her life. She never married. Her rural South and her Catholicism are essential: "To my way of thinking, the only thing that keeps me from being a regional writer is being a Catholic and the only thing that keeps me from being a Catholic writer (in the narrow sense) is being a Southerner."

She began writing when she was young and proved prodigious at it: She was 21 when her first story was published, and 27 at the publication of "Wise Blood." Her gifts were quickly recognized and her works were received enthusiastically, though too many critics mistook the violence in her work for "Southern Gothic" and overlooked the deeper currents that flow through it. She believed in grace, the action of which "changes a character," and she understood that too many readers missed this in her work:

"Part of the difficulty of all this is that you write for an audience who doesn't know what grace is and don't recognize it when they see it. All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc."

Those words were written to a woman known only, by her own insistence, as "A.," who wrote to O'Connor in 1955 inquiring about religious themes in her work and became, in the nine years remaining to O'Connor, what Fitzgerald calls an "almost uniquely important friend." To the best of my knowledge A.'s identity remains secret to this day, which is not unusual where O'Connor is concerned; no full, authoritative biography of her has been written, because her mother, Regina, shielded her daughter's privacy with a ferocity rare (and by no means unwelcome) among guardians of literary flames.

Whatever the explanation for A.'s insistence on anonymity, it remains that O'Connor's letters to her explore and explain her Catholicism as does little else written by (or about) her. In her very first letter to A., O'Connor made the "bald statement" that "I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic," and she expanded on that theme in letter after letter: "For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction," and (to another correspondent), "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," and, describing a literary evening to A.:

"Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. [Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the 'most portable' person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, 'Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.' That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable."

If there is, among the other major figures of American literature, one with religious faith as deep and heartfelt as O'Connor's, that person does not leap to mind; American writers (and other artists) are more likely to be skeptical about religion than committed to it. Yet religion never descended into religiosity with O'Connor, and it certainly did nothing to ameliorate a sharp sense of humor or tart literary opinions. When A. pressed a book by Nelson Algren on her, O'Connor ruefully opined that his was "a talent wasted by sentimentalism and a certain over-indulgence in the writing." She recommended William Faulkner's "Light in August" to A. but acknowledged that "I keep clear of Faulkner so my own little boat won't get swamped." (Later, in an essay, she memorably reworked the imagery: "Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.") Carson McCullers's "Clock Without Hands" was, O'Connor said, "the worst book I have ever read," but then she disliked "intensely" McCullers's work, period. As for her fellow Catholic Graham Greene:

". . . there is a difference of fictions certainly and probably a difference of theological emphasis as well. If Greene created an old lady, she would be sour through and through and if you dropped her, she would break, but if you dropped my old lady, she'd bounce back at you, screaming 'Jesus loves me!' I think the basis of the way I see is comic regardless of what I do with it; Greene's is something else."

Her letters, like her fiction, are suffused with comedy. She preferred typewriter to pen: "On the basis of the fact that you use ten fingers to work a typewriter and only three to push a pen, I hold the typewriter to be the more personal instrument. Also on the basis of that you can read what comes off it." She loved birds, and kept swans and peacocks at the place in Milledgeville (a photo of one of her peacocks adorns the jacket of "Mystery and Manners"), but she was no more sentimental about them than she was about any of her human characters:

"I came back from my trip with enough money to order me another pair of swans. They are on their way from Miami and Mr. Hood, the incumbent swan, little suspects that he is going to have to share his feed dish. He eats out of a vase, as a matter of fact, and has a private dining room. Since his wife died, he has been in love with the bird bath. Typical Southern sense of reality."

On the central Southern reality of her day, O'Connor was ambivalent. Unlike her approximate contemporary Eudora Welty, she embraced the civil rights cause slowly and skeptically, though eventually she grasped its essential justice. O'Connor cared about people, not categories and races, and she treated her black characters with as much love and compassion as her white ones. Rereading her letters reminds me, with a force I had not anticipated, that she is one of the essential writers of my life, and that it is time to return to the rest of her work.

"The Habit of Being" is available in a Farrar, Straus & Giroux paperback ($22).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address

© 2005 The Washington Post Company