Flannery O'Connor in her letters: "a refugee from deep thought".
Reading through the record of a truly noble life, the autobiography of an author whose deep humility would have prevented her from ever writing one as such, I was heartened and sustained by O'Connor's strength, humor, and vision. Although I never met or corresponded with her--I was 15 when she died--I felt that I had become one of her intellectual companions and, in some sense, a correspondent. Though hardly desperate, I was in rather dire straits. Like O'Connor, I came to see my life anew with each day that passed, as I think she did: continually, through her daily existence, her art, and her letters, she found new challenges and new depths of faith. As the record of a steadfast and heroic life of discovery and insight, O'Connor's letters brought me delight during that miserable time.
With the comforters piled high over my neck and ears, by the dim light of one bare bulb dangling at the end of an old electrical wire, I read for hours, until my elbows became inflamed with a variety of tennis elbow known only to those who read lying stomach-down on thin futons and hard floors. Despite the discomfort, I was absorbed by the drama of O'Connor's life story, moving inevitably, as I knew, toward its appointed and certain end. Having flipped to the last page of The Habit of Being (1979), I even knew in advance the date when the stream of letters would end: 28 July 1964, just over five years to the day before the first human being would walk on the moon. Had she lived, I think she would have been watching that event, though with a sardonic and skeptical eye. America had advanced so far and yet so little in that half decade of exploration.
In O'Connor's case, as probably in many others, the preoccupation with letter-writing originated in a hunger for intimacy of a sort that rarely exists in this world. Despite the unshakable relationship to God that was the foundation of her life, O'Connor suffered from the absence of human companionship, especially a companionship that would engage her extraordinary intellectual and spiritual aptitudes. In spite of daily associations at Andalusia, the farm near Milledgeville, Georgia, where O'Connor lived with her mother, and in spite of a sizable correspondence that she conducted over the course of twenty years, as a Christian artist in the mid-twentieth century, O'Connor was desperately alone. The few persons with whom she was able to share her intellectual and religious convictions were themselves often changeable, as O'Connor said, "rising and falling" in their faith while O'Connor remained resolute in her orthodoxy. Even the steadiest companions, such as Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Maryat Lee, and especially Elizabeth Hester (the "A" of the letters), changed in various ways that separated them from O'Connor in some sense--geographically, socially, philosophically.
Letters are written in the hope of touching the heart of one's correspondent and of deepening the friendship that the exchange of letters represents, but after years in which one finds that the exchange has not entirely succeeded, that the friendship has been broken by disagreements, changing interests, or indifference, or that it has simply not developed beyond the point of polite formality, O'Connor must have come to understand that in her letters she was writing not only to others but also to herself and in response to a need that transcended the inconstant conditions of human relationships. It was a need that O'Connor sometimes hinted at even as she addressed her correspondent's immediate concerns, the need of the artist and of the human being to sustain the direction of her life. To Alfred Corn, a student at Emory University, she wrote: "I think the more you write, the less inclined you will be to rely on theories like determinism. Mystery isn't something that is gradually evaporating. It grows along with knowledge."
This understanding of the presence of mystery within creation and the place of her life within it was continually renewed and refined in O'Connor's writing. O'Connor accepted the authority of the Catholic Church concerning faith and morals, but the application of her faith to a modern world of confusion and doubt had always to be worked out by means of a descent into that world's misery: it was never something that she received, or could receive, on authority. Just the opposite, it was a faith that she had to "work for" through a lifetime of commitment; it was tested against contemporary experience in the most open-minded and risky fashion. Her writing involved a lifetime of engagement with the contemporary realm of unbelief and nihilism, and that it was a struggle for her very survival was apparent early in her life, certainly by the time of her residence at Yaddo in 1948 where, among the talk of "Seconol and barbiturates," she survived "by not being afraid to be different from the rest of them." Hers was a faith that had to be sustained in the context of the throng of agnostics and atheists that O'Connor recognized as the intellectual plurality of her time. Such were the larger struggles that underlay a correspondence that sometimes reads like the stealthy conspiring of a network of spies.
Through most of her letters, however, I followed the far less epochal events of daily life at Andalusia, the middle-Georgia farm where O'Connor lived with her mother, Regina Cline O'Connor, and the various, often temporary members of the farm staff. O'Connor's letters from these thirteen years of her life record an unending stream of miniature crises of the sort that form the crux of so much of her writing: in the story "Everything That Rises Must Converge," Julian and his mother, living "in reduced circumstances" in a shabby Atlanta apartment, face the same problem of how to live with dignity and hope within a world of cynicism, insignificance, and loss, and both Julian, with his heart-rending desire for home, and his mother, with her inflexible and defensive pride in family and race, are recognizable figurations of the life reported in the letters.
In O'Connor's fiction, the "trivial" event is so often the point of entry into revelation of an immense loneliness, a struggle with the world's indifference or hostility, and the horror known to every human being of living a mortal existence circumscribed by pain and death. These were not conditions that set O'Connor's life apart from those of others, just the opposite. Literature is insignificant in comparison to the working out of God's purpose in life, so the artist cannot seal off her energies in the production of "aesthetic" works. She must be more available to the needs of others, even at the sacrifice of her art, and she must practice charity in responding to these needs. In her letters O'Connor attempted to respond to the spiritual neediness of many correspondents, not infrequently to those of total strangers. The limitations of her own daily existence brought home her connection to the ordinary lives of others.
The ordinary affairs of human society were the medium through which O'Connor approached, day by day, closer to understanding the mystery embodied in Christ's birth, Incarnation, and Resurrection. Often these affairs, however, had more to do with the ludicrous gap between human and divine understanding, or even the insufficiency of her own comprehension of the most ordinary matters. In an effort to clarify a matter of usage in one of her stories, O'Connor writes to "A": "So the fender is not the thing that goes across the front?" In other letters, she expresses her heartfelt appreciation for the gift of a book "The Lord knows I never expected to own the Notebooks of Simone Weil" or of a thigh-length Italian sweater, the gift of Sally and Robert Fitzgerald ("The sweater, the like of which I have never seen before, arrived yesterday and I assure you that no day from now until the hot weather will see me outside of it"). Then there was the arrival of a Waring blender, a gift from Maryat Lee, that made possible the experimental production of "Bourbon balls" in the O'Connor kitchen. As she wrote to her friend: "I am at once attracted in the book by something called burbon balls (sic) and if I succeed in producing any, I will send you a sample." It was a happy day, a break from the stream of days that at times must have seemed drearily the same. Playfully, she signed her subsequent letters "Tarblender," "Tarsot," "Unreconstructed Tarbutter," and "Tarpot."
While her daily life was outwardly uneventful, O'Connor found interest, and even fascination, in miraculous details of everyday life that might have passed by unobserved and unrecorded in the lives of most others. Her mother was a prime subject for observation. Also the farm staff, neighbors and kin, the peafowl, the weather. Everything, it seems, except her own agonizing ailment, which is largely ignored or dismissed with humor as if lupus were an inconsiderable burden even though, beneath her humor, there lies a grim and horror-stricken knowledge of what she faces. In a letter to Maryat Lee to which she appended a sketch of a skull and crossbones, she informed her friend she would not be well enough to travel to Europe (she did eventually take the trip, along with her mother), adding: "You didn't know I had a DREAD DISEASE didja? Well I got one."
In reality, O'Connor wrested from life whatever happiness she enjoyed. Despite its romantic sounding name, Andalusia was a struggling dairy farm in a region that was, at that time, regarded as utterly provincial and backward by most in America. There were few visitors with whom O'Connor could have communicated on a profound level; few in Milledgeville, or for that matter outside of the town, understood what she was about in her art or, for that matter, in her life. As an orthodox Catholic and a social conservative, O'Connor knew the fate of Tarwaters such as herself who set themselves against the governing ideological dogma of their times, but she persisted in her art even with the certain knowledge that her writing would lead to rejection and misinterpretation. O'Connor's adult life must have been an incessant struggle unrelieved by intellectual stimulation or companionship except for what she found in her work and through exchanges of letters with a few close correspondents. She must have been far more lonely than she ever admitted.
It was not only the absence of friends such as Sally and Robert Fitzgerald or those like Elizabeth Bishop with whom she corresponded but never actually met. The period in which she wrote was shrouded by the thick fog of nihilism. In the intellectual culture of her time, a culture that continues to control the academic and literary institutions of our time, the ruling ethos was an agnostic detachment from life that involved a refusal to discriminate good from evil, an unwillingness to recognize life as purposeful or even meaningful, and a lack of faith in the value of life itself. As O'Connor wrote to Ted Spivey, even among those "modern people" who seek to return to "a sense of the Holy Spirit," "the religious sense seems to be bred out of them in the kind of society we've lived in since the eighteenth century." Except for the relatively small and not entirely dependable circle of friends and supporters with whom she maintained connections through letters, O'Connor was working alone. As she noted in "The Fiction Writer and His Country," the "distortions" that the Christian author finds in modern existence appear to much of his audience as "natural"; she had to assume that her audience did not share "the same beliefs" as she did.
Still, despite her isolation, O'Connor displayed a wonderful humor and humanity. Lying in the cold and dark, I laughed out loud, again and again. To Richard Stern in Italy she wrote: "What you ought to do is get you a Fulbright to Georgia and quit messing around with all those backward places you been at." To her friend Maryat Lee, who was visiting Japan, she began a letter of 19 May 1957: "Greetings from historic Milledgeville where the ladies and gents wash in separate tubs." Some of her sentences contain double or triple doses of humor, irony piled on irony, one absurdity after another until the world stands before one's eyes, stripped of pretense and wanting. With O'Connor, we always arrive at this point of brutal clarity, but her realism is joined by a depthless mercy, her honesty assuaged by forgiveness of the faithless world. I relished the hawklike vision and the precise irony. I was absorbed by the ceaseless concern for truth, but I also found simple delight in her pleasures, her triumphs, in the beauty of nature, and--yes--in the madcap production of Bourbon balls.
The secret of O'Connor's letters, of her life, is precisely this: her fidelity to experience joined with the integrity of her faith. In opposition to the tendency toward irony and sarcasm that might ultimately lead to a surrender to the cynical mode of disengagement that she opposed, O'Connor strove to value every moment of life for the potential goodness that it contained. Even the smallest and simplest matters of creation were filled with meaning for an author who was patient and willing enough. Her gaze, designedly innocent of intellectual pretense, must have seemed "simple" to contemporaries such as Mary McCarthy, a "Big Intellectual" as O'Connor styled her, whose ridicule of religion O'Connor recorded in a letter to "A". O'Connor herself was never dismissive of any aspect of life, other than the intellectual's own dismissiveness or the bigot's blindness. Though guilty of all manner of venality--common pride, gluttony, sloth--she managed to avoid the distinctly modern sin of intellectual contempt for the commonplace. O'Connor knew the miracle of a sunrise after a hard and lonely night; the value of a mother's care and the responsibility of care for a mother; the miraculous working of prayer, the most difficult and yet the simplest of all endeavors; and she knew the horror of illness and of death's approach.
Perhaps the most distinctive quality of her letters, however, lies in something other than the cultural debate in which O'Connor participated or even the support for her art that she found from correspondents like novelist John Hawkes or her agent Elizabeth McKee. This quality entails something unique to the very act of letter-writing: the pleasure of friendship, its discovery coming like a sudden and miraculous gift; its delight over months and years of exchanges; its inevitable end, as correspondents drift apart, quarrel, lose interest, or inevitably die.
Finally, O'Connor's letters represent her willingness to give of herself in fellowship with others even with the knowledge that such fellowship, like all human relationships, is insufficient in the face of life's "death, decay, destruction." Ultimately it is not the intellectual perceptiveness, the searing honesty, or even the humor that one values most in her letters or in her fiction: it is the love. O'Connor's letters testify to her openness to participation in divine creation. That is why, on those awful winter nights, often stretching sleeplessly into winter mornings, cold and dark and alone, I found not just humor and wit in O'Connor's letters but life itself. Though I never knew her, I became O'Connor's friend and her devoted correspondent. With the coming of spring, cherry blossom time in Japan, it became warmer, and the days bright and long, but, oddly enough, I cherished those winter nights as a beautiful time of fellowship, the meeting of souls within a dark, cold, and lonely world.
JEFFREY J. FOLKS has taught in Europe, America, and Japan. He is the author, most recently, of In a Time of Disorder: Form and Meaning in Southern Fiction from Poe to O'Connor.
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|Author:||Folks, Jeffrey J.|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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