Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 776
O’Connor’s letters paint a self-portrait in words. They offer an intimate glimpse of a woman perfecting her art and life despite a debilitating illness. She reveals her considerable intellect, modesty, self-confidence, honesty, and humor. Correspondence was very important to O’Connor. When she lived with the Fitzgeralds, she walked daily to...
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O’Connor’s letters paint a self-portrait in words. They offer an intimate glimpse of a woman perfecting her art and life despite a debilitating illness. She reveals her considerable intellect, modesty, self-confidence, honesty, and humor. Correspondence was very important to O’Connor. When she lived with the Fitzgeralds, she walked daily to the mailbox a mile away, always to find a letter from her mother, to whom O’Connor also wrote every single day. This writing habit became even more important once illness restricted her home. She writes a friend in October, 1951, that mail is very eventful for her. Occasionally she mentions the disagreeable effects of her cortisone treatments, but she remains cheerfully focused on her work and on her friends’ lives. “Let me hear how you do” often occurs in her letters. They testify to her joy of life and her exploration of the full range of her talents. She enthusiastically and regularly wrote friends—(most often fellow writers), her agent and editor, clerics, academics, and even people whom she did not know well. Anyone could write her and get an answer, if not a correspondence.
Central issues in her letters include her and others’ writing, philosophy, religion, contemporary politics, and day-to-day events. During the sixteen years covered, O’Connor worked on two dozen short stories and two novels; thus, the letters often refer to the writing, publishing, and reviewing of her work. Half of writing, she confesses, is overcoming the revulsion felt when sitting down to it. She requests advice about her work from the Fitzgeralds, Elizabeth and Robert Lowell, Caroline Gordon Tate, Elizabeth McKee, Robert Giroux, and Maryat Lee. She also shared her writing with other writers who were establishing their own notable careers: Katherine Anne Porter, Cecil Dawkins, Elizabeth Bishop, Walker Percy, J. F. Powers, and John Hawkes, to name a few. This circle of writer friends supported her emotionally and professionally, allowing her to communicate freely with the outside world despite her restricted travel. She frequently discusses her extensive reading and expresses admiration for the work of Bernard Malamud, William Faulkner, and Thomas Merton, among others. Her most philosophical and theological letters are those to “A” (she prefers anonymity). In 1955, O’Connor tells “A” how pleased she is to find someone who recognizes her work for what she tries to make it, and how although the distance between them is eighty-seven miles, the spiritual distance is shorter. The correspondence with “A” leaves no doubt that O’Connor writes as she does because she is a Catholic and is very conscious of church doctrines of belief.
Besides discussing literature and religion, these letters also reflect O’Connor’s observation of American society in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Intrigued by rapidly changing events in the South, O’Connor comments on various social and political issues. She admires civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., in his battle for racial equality and harmony, but she has serious reservations about militants who came South during this explosive time and about pious intellectuals who misread her stories as racist. Also, politicians bemuse her; her opinion of Vice President Richard Nixon as presidential candidate in 1960 is that King Kong would be preferable. Neither does she have a high regard for actors (who would later be politicians): Having sold the television rights to her story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” to General Electric Playhouse, she imagines Ronald Reagan as Mr. Shiftlet, and she jokes that while they make hash out of her story, she and her mother will make ice in the new refrigerator that they bought with the money.
O’Connor’s epistolary style reflects the same mastery of language and sureness of belief that mark her fiction; her letters are intelligent, interesting, amusing, serious, and precise. Her spelling could be as unique as her ideas. Fitzgerald suggests that O’Connor’s ear was so fine that she got words down as they sounded to her. What emerges is a wide range of voices: intellectual and folksy, serious and playful, philosophical and mundane. For example, not wanting pity, she assumes a jocular tone about her crippling disease, writing that her crutches make her a structure with flying buttresses. She tells Maryat Lee in 1958 that she has a “DREAD DISEASE” that her father died of at forty-four but that scientists hope to keep her alive until she is ninety-six, thanks to pigs’ pituitary glands. Writing more seriously about her illness to “A,” she philosophically compares sickness to a place, more instructive than a trip to Europe—a place where there is no company. Thus, she sees sickness as one of God’s mercies.