There seem to be two kinds of ambassadors for Flannery O’Connor: those who insist you should start with her stories, and those who insist you should start with her letters.
I fall into the first category. But the operative phrase (as it is for the other side) is “start with.” Her dark, violent fiction and her witty, illuminating nonfiction are best understood together.
For many years now, The Habit of Being, a 1979 collection edited by her friend Sally Fitzgerald, has been the single source for Flannery O’Connor’s letters. Whether as a door to her world or a key to unlocking her stories, it has delighted readers with its in-depth look at the friendships, afflictions, and above all, abiding Catholic faith of one of the greatest writers who ever lived.
But this year, Convergent Books has released a brand new collection of letters from Flannery O’Connor, as well as some of her religious and literary acquaintances, titled Good Things Out of Nazareth: The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor & Friends.
I recently spoke with the editor, Dr. Benjamin B. Alexander, about the book, Flannery O’Connor, and a few of the other prominent figures in the collection.
Matthew Becklo: Can you tell me a bit about your own background, and the background of how this book came to be?
Dr. Benjamin B. Alexander: I first heard O’Connor’s unforgettable stories in an undergraduate class taught by Andrew Lytle in the late sixties at Sewanee, the University of the South. “Mr. Lytle” (as we addressed him) had taught O’Connor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was an accomplished novelist in his own right, and as a former actor, performed O’Connor’s stories dramatically. As a kind of confused “moviegoer” undergraduate, I was forever changed by Lytle’s readings of O’Connor that were better than anything on television. I soon wanted to understand O’Connor better and teach her stories from the other side of the desk. I enrolled thereafter in a doctoral program at the University of Dallas. I became acquainted with Caroline Gordon, an opinionated, neglected novelist who had earlier copyedited tediously O’Connor’s stories in the 1950s. There were several other gifted professors at Dallas such as Louise Cowan and M. E Bradford.
Shortly after graduate school in 1979 The Habit of Being was published.Having marked up three copies of the collection, I heard at academic conferences that there were more unpublished O’Connor letters. One memorable hot June day a few years ago, I delighted in reading these letters in the Duke University archives. The same sweltering day, I made my way to Chapel Hill and discovered another treasure trove in the Walker Percy papers. There were the letters of Caroline Gordon to Percy, a doctor retooling himself as a novelist. She was tutoring him in his apprentice years before the publication of The Moviegoer, the National Book Award winner in 1962. I thought I had discovered something remarkable and showed the letters to my mother and close friends. They shared my enthusiasm. These letters became the core of Good Things Out of Nazareth.
MB: This collection is somewhat different from The Habit of Being. It not only consists of letters from O’Connor, but also letters to her, as well as letters between her friends and fellow writers. You’ve also included supplementary commentary before most of the letters. How and why you did you decide on this different structure?
BA: The original providential discovery of the letters of Caroline Gordon to both O’Connor and Percy dictated the structure of the book. Over time other writer friends and theologians were added, such as the Rev. James McCown, who was instructed by both O’Connor and Percy. As “Flannery and Friends” grew, commentary about the friendships was suggested by a brilliant editor at Random House. As wonderful as the The Habit of Being is, he and I came to believe that collection was under-edited with little context provided. I sought to avoid this situation in Good Things Out of Nazareth and crafted the notes to the letters.
MB: In your preface and throughout the book, you compare O’Connor to Dante. Why is the great medieval poet so helpful for understanding her stories?
BA: Although I am academically trained in American literature, in my teaching career I have taught Dante as much as American authors. I learned from T.S. Eliot that I could teach Dante as a believer, not as an Italian linguist. Many students know me as the “Dantesi” professor. I start my course in Dante, “I am here as a storyteller and believer to teach you Dante.” Often I would find myself teaching the Divine Comedy and O’Connor’s stories in back-to-back courses. The fortuitous situation led me to see that both Dante and O’Connor were rooted in Thomas Aquinas. She and Dante were plowing the same field, and O’Connor employed the techniques of the Inferno to “shout to the hard of hearing” as Dante does. In the unpublished letters I found much evidence of O’Connor’s reading and study of the great Florentine. The comparative analysis of O’Connor and Dante has been little done; however, it is a most fruitful way of understanding her. I have also offered popular courses in “American Comedy” over the years featuring O’Connor, Dante, and E.A. Poe.
MB: One prominent figure in the book is Elizabeth Hester—“A” of The Habit of Being—to whom O’Connor wrote some of her most spiritually rich and substantive letters. You even compare their letters to those of Lewis and Tolkien. However, we don’t hear much from Hester, and her life is shrouded in mystery and tragedy. Can you tell us a bit more about their friendship?
BA: The friendship of O’Connor and Hester is one of the great literary tragedies, similar to Poe dying delirious on the streets of Baltimore or Christopher Marlowe stabbed in a barroom brawl. Like Poe and Marlowe, Hester endured a series of horrendous personal events. O’Connor remained a stalwart friend and baptismal sponsor, anchoring Hester through the later vicissitudes and encouraging her own writing. As the letters reveal, O’Connor saw her as every bit her equal and was one of the few whom she asked to review her stories. As with another friend, Robert Lowell, O’Connor feared for those who left the Church and found themselves vulnerable without sacramental graces to combat ravening personal demons. O’Connor’s fears were borne out with Hester’s suicide in 1998. (Some of her writings are in her archives at Emory University.)
MB: Another prominent figure in the book is the Jesuit priest Rev. James H. McCown, who (as you note) appears sparingly in The Habit of Being, but who appears quite a lot from in this collection. What insights do you think we gain from O’Connor’s correspondence with Fr. McCown and other Jesuits?
BA: Father James McCown and his brother, Father Robert, stand out as vital clergy emissaries of acceptance and understanding when some critics disappointed O’Connor in alleging her stories to be “grotesque.” Pietistic readers, on the other hand (Percy calls them “Catholic puritans”), were offended by O’Connor’s stories of serial murders, gorings, and hangings in the attic. O’Connor quipped that Father James McCown “was the first priest who said turkey-dog to me about my writing.” He introduced O’Connor’s writing to other Jesuits such as Father “Youree” Watson and the Reverend Harold Gardiner, literary editor of the Jesuit journal America. Their support was vital in O’Connor’s emergence in Catholic intellectual communities outside the South. They also provided rich analysis of The Violent Bear It Away. O’Connor’s Jesuit friends exercised faith and reason in interpreting her fiction, but they also shared a vital regional history with her. The McCown brothers, for example, perceived Thomist truths in her fiction but, as natives of Alabama, heard humorous rural dialect as good any written by Mark Twain. Jesuit erudition and an understanding of Southern storytelling were allied in O’Connor’s Jesuit commentators of the 1950s and 60s. The rare combination is needed to understand O’Connor fully. The oral tradition, however, is being lost in digital age, while Southern history has been badly eviscerated or caricatured. Good Things Out of Nazareth helps to restore these vital elements necessary for understanding O’Connor.
MB: Walker Percy appears in the book a fair amount—we’re even treated to a few of his letters to Thomas Merton—and [he] corresponded with Fr. McCown and O’Connor’s mentor Caroline Gordon. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have any direct letters between them, although you do allude to their first and only meeting at a lecture in New Orleans. What does the collection tell us about their relationship?
BA: Percy, of course, admired O’Connor’s fiction and delighted in hearing about her from mutual friends such as Father McCown and Caroline Gordon. The collection’s title originates in a letter from Gordon to Percy in which she coins the phrase, “good things out of Nazareth.” Long before anyone else, Gordon in the early fifties predicted that O’Connor and Percy, far from the publishing centers and famous universities, would in their own “Nazareths” alter modern American literature. O’Connor received a steady stream of visitors who conversed with her for hours on the front porch. Even though Caroline Gordon encouraged Percy to visit the master in Milledgeville, this was not his style. He could not bring himself even to meet Willian Faulkner and sat in a hot car while his friend, Shelby Foote, visited the Nobel prize winner. Temperamentally Percy enjoyed solitude. It allowed him to craft the prophetic novel The Moviegoer in which heforesawthe alienation and angst of the digital age often manifested in senseless violence.
MB: I was surprised to read about the story “Revelation” being born out of a friend’s stories and her correspondence with him. It was also fascinating to hear about all the different books O’Connor was reading. What most surprised or fascinated you as you pulled this collection together? What do you think readers, especially those already familiar with Flannery’s published works, will find most intriguing?
BA: Editing these letters has forced me (and will perhaps others) to revisit the conventional understandings of modern authors and literary history that has been taught for at least a generation in American schools and colleges. O’Connor entertained a warranted skepticism of the academic world, though she enjoyed receiving “stinking” honorary degrees and was amused by pedantic queries. Stressing both “technique” and “piety,” O’Connor exchanges letters with Caroline Gordon that reveal their esteem for the works of so-called “bad” Catholics such as Hemingway, Graham Greene, and James Joyce. Carefully crafted works could be written by dissenters or those of poor churchmanship. At the same time, O’Connor could be scathing in Wise Blood or “The Enduring Chill” of religious rebels such as James Joyce. Caroline Gordon came to understand through her copyediting of Wise Blood that O’Connor’s novel required a reassessment of Joyce’s normalization of religious rebellion in his highly influential Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. O’Connor recast Joyce’s fashionable theological dissent. She made it look ridiculous in the idiom of fundamentalism by an ardent atheist preaching from the hood of his car. This is only one of many examples in the letters that will encourage a rethinking of canonical literary works in light of O’Connor’s brilliant fiction and letters.
MB: It’s powerful to read O’Connor’s latest letters in this collection, and see how she kept doggedly thinking, reading, writing, and working, even in the last year of her life. Do you think Flannery O’Connor was a person of heroic virtue, and even potentially a future saint of the Catholic Church?
BA: The prospect of O’Connor’s sainthood was not lost on those who attended a Rome conference devoted to her near the Vatican in 2009. In conversations with colleagues at the meeting, several of us concluded that if Dorothy Day was being considered for canonization, so should O’Connor. O’Connor’s letters sparkle with wit and show a dedication to her vocation in the face of protracted suffering. They also reveal O’Connor as anapologist for the faith and spiritual director for searching friends. O’Connor nourished my own spiritual hunger. Often amused at O’Connor’s unparalleled sense of humor, I also was instructed by her unflinching catechesis. What a Jesuit friend wrote about the letters in The Habit of Being also summarizes the riveting new ones in Good Things Out of Nazareth: “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!”