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...