Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

“I always answer any letter I get, at once and at length. This may be because I don’t get many.” The Habit of Being, a collection of more than eight hundred of Flannery O’Connor’s letters, reveals the truth of her first sentence and the understatement of her second. Assembled by O’Connor’s friend and correspondent Sally Fitzgerald, the wife of O’Connor’s literary executor, the collection begins with a letter to O’Connor’s agent in 1948 and concludes with a barely legible, scrawled note to Maryat Lee written six days before the author’s death in August, 1964. In between are letters addressed to a wide circle of correspondents—famous writers such as John Hawkes, Robert Lowell, and Robert Fitzgerald; lesser-known authors such as Cecil Dawkins; her editor, Robert Giroux; and, perhaps most interesting of all, a woman known only as “A.,” an Atlanta writer of O’Connor’s age and build who chose to remain anonymous.

Not all of her correspondents are represented or represented fully. O’Connor’s mother refused to allow the publication of the letters her daughter sent to her, claiming that these were of private interest only. One finds virtually nothing about her early work on her first novel, Wise Blood (1952). Except for a brief note, Fitzgerald has omitted all the letters written to Walker Percy and there are few to Caroline Gordon, O’Connor’s favorite source of advice about her work. Absent, too, are...

(The entire section is 591 words.)

The Habit of Being

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Book reviewers were not among Flannery O’Connor’s favorite people. They invariably have “hold of the wrong horror,” she bristled early in her career when she saw her stories reviewed as horror stories. Again toward the end of her life, after eighteen years of writing, she summarily dismissed “the racket that’s made over a book and all the reviews. The praise as well as the blame—it’s all bad for your writing.”

O’Connor’s possible disapproval notwithstanding, this book deserves a racket of praise. It is a masterful collection of letters that she wrote to friends, acquaintances, publishers, and agents—to anyone, in fact, who felt compelled to write to her, no matter for what reason. They sparkle in a chiaroscuro of feelings, are full of sometimes delightful, sometimes provocative insights, and flow in a style that is forceful, precise, and although on occasion amusingly oblivious to correct spelling, free from the usual ugly infelicities and clichés. Sally Fitzgerald, one of O’Connor’s most intimate friends, has edited them with superb, unobtrusive scholarship. Her pithy comments and explanations provide helpful information and sustain the letters’ continuity. On all counts, The Habit of Being is a remarkable event in this genre of literature.

Appropriately, the collection begins with a letter in which O’Connor, in 1948, introduces herself to Elizabeth McKee, who was to become her lifelong agent and friend. Twenty-three years old at the time, she had already published one story, and two others had been accepted for publication. The last letter is dated July 28, 1964, six days before her death at the age of thirty-nine. During the sixteen years spanned by this collection, she came to be considered by her admirers as one of the finest short story writers in the English language, and by her critics as, at best, bizarre.

In contrast, O’Connor’s life was transparent. She was born an only child in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925, and when she was twelve, moved to Milledgeville, and central Georgia town, where her father died three years later. She was graduated with a B. A. degree from Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia State College) in Milledgeville; received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the State University of Iowa; and after having spent some time at Yaddo, a retreat for writers and artists in Saratoga Springs, New York, lived for two years in the country home of the Fitzgerald family in the woodlands of Connecticut. When, after her return to Milledgeville in 1950, it was discovered that she suffered from lupus erythematosus—an incurable but controllable disease of metabolic origin and varying severity—she and her mother moved to the nearby family farm, “Andalusia.” There she spent her life, most of it on crutches, until she succumbed to the disease twelve years later.

O’Connor’s letters abound in vivid descriptions of life at “Andalusia,” reflecting the extraordinary power of observation that characterizes all of her work. Nothing she sees is trivial to her, and with the turn of a phrase she elevates the commonplace to an event of significance. “I have twenty-one brown ducks with blue wing bars. They walk everywhere they go in single file.” As an avocation, O’Connor raised peacocks, “something that requires everything of the peacock and nothing of me,” and she also painted. To the poet Robert Lowell, she wrote that her mother preferred that she paint rather than write. Her mother, Regina Cline O’Connor, is ubiquitous in O’Connor’s correspondence, whether she reports on life at “Andalusia,” her work, or her reading. Almost without exception, Regina stars in wickedly funny stories or is referred to in humorous quips, but the lighthearted tone reveals more than it conceals an abiding affection.

Whereas in O’Connor’s stories the dependency of family members on one another in the intimacy of day-by-day living is often governed by sentiments ranging from indifference and irritation to open resentment and murderous hate, she embraces her own necessary dependency on her...

(The entire section is 1686 words.)

The Habit of Being Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The title The Habit of Being alludes to “the habit of art,” a concept that Flannery O’Connor admired in the writings of philosopher Jacques Maritain. Sally Fitzgerald, the editor of this collection of O’Connor’s letters, explains in her introduction that “habit” refers not to mere mechanical routine, but to an attitude of mind; hence, the habit of art allows an artist to sharpen intellectual activity so that art becomes a virtue of the intellect. As O’Connor consciously worked to attain this quality in her writing, she acquired a secondary “habit of being”: the essential quality of a mind perfectly alive to life. O’Connor’s letters attest her achievement of this heightened consciousness.

Following Fitzgerald’s introductions and editing notes is a brief biographical sketch. Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925, O’Connor moved to Milledgeville, Georgia, when she was twelve. After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Georgia State College for Women and a master’s degree from the State University of Iowa, she worked on her first novel, Wise Blood (1952), at Yaddo, a writers’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York. Here in 1948, O’Connor wrote Elizabeth McKee, asking her to be her literary agent; this letter appropriately begins the collection of selected correspondence.

The letters and editorial notes are organized chronologically into four parts. “Up North and Getting Home, 1948-1952” begins...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

The Habit of Being Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

O’Connor’s most significant contribution to women’s studies is that she succeeded as a writer at a time when men dominated the field. The Habit of Being clearly justifies her inclusion in the canon of modern American writers. Since writing is the dominant theme of The Habit of Being, readers come to understand the original literary genius and strong religious belief that infuse both her fiction and her nonfiction. Her body of work includes the short-story collections A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955), Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965), and The Complete Stories (1971); the novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away; and essays, collected in Mystery and Manners (1969). Her book reviews have also been published. Attracting the most attention, however, are her stories, especially “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “Good Country People,” and “The Displaced Person,” with their shocking violence and puzzling religious themes. Because of this fascination with O’Connor’s works, her letters are all the more intriguing and insightful. Indeed, the large number of critical works on the writer is impressive, considering her relatively modest output.

Reviewers have praised these letters for their wit, brilliance, intelligence, and precision of statement. Yet, because this volume does not reflect accurately the entire scope of O’Connor’s massive...

(The entire section is 441 words.)

The Habit of Being Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Asals, Frederick. Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982. This useful scholarly critique analyzes the texture and conflicts of O’Connor’s fictional universe. A limited bibliography includes works from O’Connor’s personal library.

Cash, Jean W. Flannery O'Connor: A Life. University of Tennessee, 2002.

Coles, Robert. “Flannery O’Connor: Letters Larger than Life,” in The Flannery O’Connor Bulletin. VIII (Autumn, 1979), pp. 3-13.

Coles, Robert. Flannery O’Connor’s South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana...

(The entire section is 452 words.)