"DON'T THINK I write for purgation," Flannery O'Connor said in her tough, matter-of-fact way. "I write because I write well." That sentence, from a letter to a dear friend dated New Year's Day 1956, was not written in arrogance. Flannery O'Connor did write well. She recognized that and accepted it, which is not to say that it came easy. "I work from such a basis of poverty that everything I do is a miracle to me," she wrote in that letter; and in another, to the same anonymous friend identified here only as "A," she said, "The gist and the moral of all these unlucid remarks is that all writing is painful and that if it is not painful then it is not worth doing."
It would be a mistake, though, to suppose that these often funny and -- even at their most cerebral -- always down-to-earth letters focus on pain, however abundant it was in her short life. (She died at 39 in 1964, afflicted for her last 14 years with lupus erythematosus, a rare disease of the connective tissue.) The letters begin in 1948 when she asked Elizabeth McKee to be her literary agent, and end with a note written six days before her death. There are hundreds of them: to friends and writers such as Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, Elizabeth Bishop, John Hawdes, Caroline Gordon, Robert and Sally Fitzgerald; to college friends; and to people she never met at all except through correspondence. She did answer her mail, and together her letters make up a kind of pilgrim's progress describing the physical and spiritual journey of a country lady who raised peafowl on a farm outside Milledgeville, Georgia, and who knew, as a friend of mine said, that all the joys and sorrows of the universe lay within arm's reach.
In her lifetime Flannery O'Connor wrote 31 stories, 19 of which she saw to publication in A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965), and two novels, Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960). Her occasional prose was collected by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald and published in 1969, her complete stories in 1971. Now we have these letters, wonderful in themselves and fascinating for the light they shed on her stories so embedded in the particular and the concrete, and suffused with a kind of genius that is at once comic and terrible.
Regarding the particular and the concrete, she wrote: "What personal problems are worked out in stories must be unconscious. My preoccupations are technical. My preoccupation is how I am going to get this bull's horns into this woman's ribs. Of course why his horns belong in her ribs is something more fundamental but I can't say I give it much thought. Perhaps you are able to see things in these stories that I can't see because if I did see I would be too frightened to write them. I have always insisted that there is a fine grain of stupidity required in the fiction writer."
As to the comic and the terrible, Flannery wrote of the uncompromising French mystic Simone Weil, and of herself: "Her life is almost a perfect blending of the Comic and the Terrible, which may be opposite sides of the same coin. In my own experience, everything funny I have written is more terrible than it is funny, or only funny because it is terrible, of only terrible because it is funny.... By saying Simone Weil's life was both comic and terrible, I am not trying to reduce it, but mean to be paying her the highest tribute I can, short of calling her a saint.... Possibly I have a higher opinion of the comic and terrible than you do."
Although not an anachronism, Flannery O'Connor was an anomaly in her world. She was an orthodox, practicing Catholic in Baptist Georgia whose work was viewed with considerable suspicion by many of her fellow Catholics, whom she in turn considered obtuse. Although she found it necessary to request permission from a priest to read Gide and Sartre, authors then on the Church's index of prohibited books, her belief was nonetheless highly sophisticated and tough. It was also total. "Let me make no bones about it," she told a correspondent: "I write from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. I write with a solid belief in all the Christian dogmas.... Many of my ardent admirers would be roundly shocked and disturbed if they realized that everything I believe is thoroughly moral, thoroughly Catholic, and that it is these beliefs that give my work its chief characteristics."
"One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian," she wrote to "A," is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who think God is dead." Therefore, as she worte to Ben Griffith, "I am interested in making up a good case for distortion, as I am coming to believe it is the only way to make people see."
Making people see was her first aim. "The novel is an art form and when you use it for anything other than art, you pervert it," she wrote to a priest, quickly adding, "I didn't make this up. I got it from St. Thomas (via Maritain) who allows that art is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made; it has no utilitarian end. if you do manage to use it successfully for social, religious, or other purposes, it is because you made it art first...."
In her introduction to this book, beautifully put together in every sense, Sally Fitzgerald writes that "Flannery consciously sought to attain to the habit of art, and did, by customary exercise and use, acquire it in the making of her novels and stories. Less deliberately perhaps, and only in the course of living in accordance with her formative beliefs, as she consciously and profoundly wished to do, she acquired as well, I think, a second distinguished habit, which I have called 'the habit of being': an excellence not only of action but of interior disposition and activity that increasingly reflected the object, the being, which specified it, and was itself reflected in what she did and said. It is to this second habit that her letters attest...."
The havit of art and the habit of being -- the two are ultimately inseparable for, in Flannery's view (and in Teihard's), everything that rises must converge. Flannery herself put it simply and directly: "If you do the same thing every day at the same time for the same length of time, you'll save yourself from many a sink. Routine is a condition of survival."
Her routine was simple. "Ah just writes," she said. Fortunately for us, she did just that.