Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces The Habit of Being Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1735

Both her world and mind are fascinating. In a letter to “A.” she writes, “as for biographies, there won’t be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” Even if her life had been so restricted, she would have been the subject of biographies (of which The Habit of Being will itself always remain among the best), and her correspondence reveals that she, at least, could make good copy of her life at Andalusia, her farm four miles from Milledgeville, Georgia, where she raised peafowl, Muscovy ducks, Chinese geese, swans, and turkeys. To “A.” she sends this delightful vignette of country life:One of my peachickens turned up last week without a foot—cut plumb in two. . . . It fell off in two days—or rather as it was just hanging by a thread I cut it off and now the victim is doing fine but I don’t know what I am going to do with a one-legged peacock.

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She complains to Dawkins that her peacocks refuse to decorate the lawn and instead perch incongruously on trash-can lids. To another correspondent she details the drama of a turkey that hatches a goose egg and is then too perplexed to leave her nest until a gobbler relieves her by killing the gosling. To treat her turkeys suffering from sorehead, she must use black shoe polish, “so we have about fifteen turkeys running around in blackface. They look like domesticated vultures.”

The fowl were not the only amusing bipeds in the area. The unending quest for reliable help demonstrated that a good man is hard to find. One family that the O’Connors hired prompted her mother to comment that although she had never read Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (1932) she was sure that it had just moved in. One of the farmhands, Shot, had to be driven into town each week to take the driving test, which he regularly failed. A lady across the street got a Dwight D. Eisenhower button in the morning; that afternoon the candidate announced that he would try to include a black in his cabinet, and she promptly returned her button.

A keen observer, O’Connor thus found much to amuse herself and her correspondents in the activities that enlivened her native soil. The election of Miss Gum Spirits of Turpentine and Miss North Georgia Chick, the Ku Klux Klan’s use of an electric “fiery” cross, trite Mother’s Day poems on the radio, all such examples of kitsch and human folly served as material for her letters, making them not only a delightful entertainment but also a history and brief chronicle of life in rural Georgia in the 1950’s and early 1960’s.

These letters reveal that her horizons extended well beyond the confines of greater Milledgeville. Before she was diagnosed as having lupus she lived in Iowa, New York City, Yaddo, and Connecticut, and her disease, while restricting her activity at times, did not limit her as much as she sometimes pretended. There were trips to Nashville, Chicago, Greensboro, Minnesota, even Lourdes, and she hosted a cosmopolitan group of guests that included such literary figures are Robert Giroux, Caroline Gordon, Catharine Carver, William Sessions, and “A.”

Just as these letters portray the gregarious, hospitable Southerner, so they reveal the disciplined Catholic writer. From Jacques Maritain she took the phrase “the habit of art”—Sally Fitzgerald’s title for this collection is a variation on the expression—and the volume shows how important habits were to O’Connor. Her disease limited her to only two hours’ writing each day, but, as she told Dawkins, she allowed nothing to interfere with that time. She observed, “if you don’t sit there every day, the day it [writing] would come well, you won’t be sitting there.”

Much of the time when she was not writing she was reading, and her taste appears catholic as well as Catholic. The letters confirm her familiarity with theology from Thomas Aquinas to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Karl Barth, and she read widely among the fictional works of her coreligionists. Yet she also requested permission to read works that the Church had placed on its list of prohibited books, she regarded the decidedly non-Catholic Bernard Malamud as the greatest contemporary short-story writer, and she claimed that the most powerful influences on her own writing were Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Vladimir Nabokov. She defended Lolita (1955), admired J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), enjoyed Henry Miller’s travelogues, and found William Faulkner’s work too overwhelming and humbling to take in large doses. At the same time, she found many of her fellow authors distasteful; among these were Carson McCullers, Andre Gide, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Ayn Rand.

She also gave generously of her time to anyone who wrote to her, as the very existence of The Habit of Being proves. If her fiction suggests a writer devoid of charity, her letters amply contradict such an image. Certainly there was an element of selfishness in the correspondence, for it was a way for her to remain in touch with the wider cultural world that she had known before her return to Milledgeville; further, as she told “A.,” writing letters forced her to clarify her attitudes toward a wide variety of literary and religious matters, the two subjects of greatest concern to her. It is clear, however, that in her letters she gave far more than she received. To fledgling writers she provided a veritable course in the theory and practice of the literary craft. She warned “A.” not to impose a form on her work but instead to let the writing find its own shape and length. She repeatedly advised against taking rejection slips too seriously, pointing out that Ernest Hemingway supposedly collected two hundred of them before selling his first story. She patiently read and criticized manuscripts, offering encouragement even when she found them unsatisfactory.

To students of her work she was equally unstinting in her gift of time, though she commented wryly that if she assisted many more doctoral candidates she would claim a Ph.D. for herself. She once commented that irritation was the strongest emotion allowed in her family; it was one that she occasionally demonstrated when would-be critics seemed to miss the point of her works or tried to read too much into them. In an amusing letter to Ted R. Spivey, teacher and author, she tells of an encounter with some professors at Wesleyan College. One asks her, “Miss O’Connor, the Misfit [in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”] represents Christ, does he not?” She replies, “He does not.” Then he wants her to explain “the significance of the Misfit’s hat.” Her response: “To cover his head.”

Yet when she chose, she could offer valuable insights that make The Habit of Being required reading for any student of her fiction. She informs Ben Griffith that “The Artificial Nigger” illustrates “the redemptive quality of the Negro’s suffering for us all.” She informs Dawkins that Sheppard in “The Lame Shall Enter First” strikes her as “the empty man who fills up his emptiness with good works.” To those wondering why she, a Catholic author, always wrote about Protestants, she replied that the latter were more demonstrative in their faith and so provided more fascinating characters.

The letters also allow readers to gain knowledge of her attitude toward her creations and to trace their evolution. “Good Country People,” which she dashed off in only four days, was among her favorite pieces, as was “The Artificial Nigger,” which required several months to complete. Repeatedly she notes that she writes because she is good at it, but she felt uneasy about Rayber in The Violent Bear It Away and Hazel Motes in Wise Blood. She asked that “A Stroke of Good Fortune” and “An Afternoon in the Woods” be excluded from A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955) because she believed that they were inferior to the other stories in the collection.

While “Good Country People” came easily, the ending, one discovers, gave her some difficulty; the published version, with Hulga’s mother and Mrs. Freeman commenting on the vanishing Bible salesman, came from a suggestion by O’Connor’s editor, Robert Giroux. One sees how much The Violent Bear It Away was the product of forced labor. After she had completed the first draft of some 43,000 words early in 1959, she continued to revise it for another year; even when it was in galleys she could not refrain from making changes. On November 2, 1957, she writes to “A.” that she has begun “The Enduring Chill.” More than a month later she reports, “I have torn the story . . . up and am doing it over.” Later in December, Allen Tate read the story and urged her to introduce the Holy Ghost earlier than she had. O’Connor complied, but the suggestion did not solve her problems with the piece; three months later she was still sending revisions to Alice Morris at Harper’s Bazaar. After it was published she remained unhappy with the conclusion and promised the playwright Maryat Lee that when the story was reprinted in a collection she would change it yet again. Ultimately she decided that she would only make it worse, and it appeared without further alteration in Everything That Rises Must Converge.

The title of that volume comes from Teilhard de Chardin, demonstrating one of the many ways her reading of Catholic theology affected her life and works. The Habit of Being contains so many discussions of religion that The Christian Century called it one of the ten best religious books of the decade. O’Connor does not merely repeat pious platitudes. Much as she accepted the teachings of the Church, she admitted to wrestling with doubts and placed “personal loyalty to the person of Christ” above devotion to any institution. Though she maintained that she wrote as she did because she was a Catholic, she insisted that a Catholic writer could choose any subject. This concern for religion informs not only her fiction but also her friendships: She rejoiced when Robert Lowell and “A.” entered the Church and was saddened by their subsequent departure. One sees, too, how much strength she derived from her faith.

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