Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces The Habit of Being Analysis

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.

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 entire section is 1735 words.)