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“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.

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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 many of the amusing letters to Richard Stern. The absence of any mail to O’Connor often creates the sense of listening to only one side of a telephone conversation; one must guess to what O’Connor is responding.

Nevertheless, The Habit of Being illustrates the scope and nature of O’Connor’s correspondence. Fitzgerald includes a useful introduction to the collection and brief biographical headnotes to each of the four chronological divisions. The first of these, covering the period from 1948 through 1952, takes O’Connor from her work at the literary colony of Yaddo to the publication of Wise Blood and the discovery that she was suffering from lupus erythematosus, the disease that killed her father and was to claim her life as well. Parts 2 and 3, 1953-1958 and 1959-1963, deal with the completion of her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1960), as she struggles with her writing and her illness. The final and shortest section treats the last eight months of her life, when she miraculously completed Everything That Rises Must Converge, a collection of short stories published posthumously in 1965, and produced some of her finest pieces.

Occasional editorial comments identify an allusion or an individual, though these have been kept to a minimum to avoid interfering with the letters themselves. Striking a balance between too much and too little commentary always poses a challenge for an editor; Fitzgerald has sided with O’Connor in her assessment that too much interpretation is worse than too little. While this attitude spares the reader the burden and distraction of excessive annotation, which might overwhelm the text, it also leaves certain references and abbreviations obscure. One might also wish for a more detailed index that would quickly lead a reader to comments on such matters as writing habits or favorite authors, in other words, one that included subjects as well as people and titles. In general, though, Fitzgerald is correct in assuming that the letters speak for themselves and can, more effectively than any scholarly apparatus, draw the reader into the world and mind of Flannery O’Connor.

The Habit of Being

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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 mother not only with good humor but also with an attitude amounting to creative delight. To the playwright Maryat Lee she complains playfully, “My parent took advantage of my absence to clean up my room and install revolting ruffled curtains. I can’t put the dust back but I have ultimated that the curtains have got to go, lest they ruin my prose.” To another friend she describes an afternoon as “a full horror as my mother elected to remove the rug from under me & my furniture and put another one down. Everything was wiped up with turpentine water & I am waiting for the seven other devils. . . .”

O’Connor was reticent about the disease that made her dependent on others and severely limited her movements and her social life, but when she talked about it, she often adopted the same tone of self-mockery. “You didn’t know I had a DREAD DISEASE didja?” she asked Maryat Lee more than a year after their correspondence had begun:Well I got one. My father died of the same stuff at the age of 44 but the scientists hope to keep me here until I am 96. I owe my existence and cheerful countenance to the pituitary glands of thousands of pigs butchered daily in Chicago Illinois at the Armour packing plant.

One of the rare instances where she drops the guard of self-deprecation is also one of her most moving passages. “I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company,” she confesses to a correspondent who became her closest confidant, identified in the book only as “A.” “Success is almost as isolating and nothing points out vanity as well.”

As guarded as she could be about the things concerning her private life, there are two things about which she wrote with a candor that occasionally amounts to a fierce assertiveness: her work and her faith as a deeply committed Roman Catholic. Her comments on her own work, and that of others which she reads voraciously, could serve, collectively, as an instructive and delightfully entertaining guide to the novelist’s craft. She is “a full-time believer in writing habits,” she tells a fellow novelist, Cecil Dawkins; “I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.” She warns “A” not to write exercises: “Experiment but for heavens sakes don’t go writing exercises. You will never be interested in anything that is just an exercise. . . .” She is exacting of her work-in-progress, sending drafts to friends and asking for, and accepting willingly, their advice. But she draws the line where she feels the integrity of her writing is being questioned. To John Selby, Editor in Chief of the Rinehart publishing firm, she sends this scathing rebuke:I can tell you that I would not like at all to work with you as do other writers on your list. I feel that whatever virtues the novel [Wise Blood] may have are very much connected with the limitations you mention. I am not writing a conventional novel, and I think that the quality of the novel I write will derive precisely from the peculiarity of aloneness, if you will, of the experience I write from. . . . In short, I am amenable to criticism but only within the sphere of what I am trying to do; I will not be persuaded to do otherwise.

The peculiarity or “aloneness” of the experience to which she alludes here, and from which all of her writing flows, is her faith, a faith nourished and formed by the teachings of the Catholic Church. She is at her most eloquent and profound when she writes to “A” about the perceived interdependency of her work, her faith, and the Church. “I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic,” she tells “A.” Elsewhere in their correspondence, she expresses the conviction that her writing talent is a gift and that “the direction it has taken has been because of the Church in me or the effect of the Church’s teaching, not because of a personal perception or love of God. . . .” She progressively defines and redefines this awareness of her unique vocation. “Your freshman who said there was something religious here [in Wise Blood] was correct,” she writes to Cecil Dawkins in May, 1957. “I take the Dogmas of the Church literally. . . . The only concern, so far as I see it, is what Tillich calls the ’ultimate concern.’ It is what makes the stories spare and what gives them any permanent quality they may have.”

Flannery O’Connor reveals herself in her letters as one of the rare writers who seems to have been spared the torture of self-doubt about her talents and her work. She wrote because, as she once told a student, “I am good at it,” and as openly as she confesses delight in the stories she particularly likes, she expresses misgivings about others whose publication she always regretted. Yet there is a curiously melancholic sentence at the end of a long letter she wrote one year before her death to a nun: “I appreciate and need your prayers,” she writes. “I’ve been writing eighteen years and I’ve reached the point where I can’t do again what I can do well, and the larger things that I need to do now, I doubt my capacity for doing.”

We will never know to what heights of literary perfection and quality O’Connor could have risen. She left a modest body of work—two brief novels, thirty-one short stories, and a few essays—that has enriched and ennobled American literature. Now we possess, in addition, in The Habit of Being, an unsolicited testimonial to her life, and we may well come to count that which O’Connor never intended for publication as her most splendid gift.

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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 with O’Connor at twenty-three, writing Wise Blood and trying to publish it. She left Yaddo in the spring of 1949 and spent some time in New York City and Milledgeville. Then O’Connor lived with Fitzgerald and her husband from September, 1949, until December, 1950. On her trip home, she had an attack of lupus, a then-incurable disease of the blood vessels (her father died of lupus when she was fifteen). “Day In and Day Out, 1953-1958,” along with the last two sections, details her daily activities at Andalusia, the O’Connor farm near Milledgeville, and her comments on her work and others’ writing. “ ‘The Violent Bear It Away,’ 1959-1963” describes work on her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1960). The concluding (and shortest) section, “The Last Year, 1964,” follows her rapid decline in health and her struggle to complete her last three stories: “Revelation,” “Parker’s Back,” and “Judgment Day.” Her last letter, a scrawled note written six days before her death at thirty-nine, is to her friend Maryat Lee. Fitzgerald illuminates these letters with explanations to clarify context, and an index allows quick access to specific letters.

O’Connor’s letters provide wonderful insight into the mind of a major American short-story writer whose undeniable reputation has increased since her death. This book might owe its genesis to fellow author Katherine Anne Porter’s comment that she would have liked some record of O’Connor that captured her finest qualities. The Habit of Being accomplishes exactly that: It is a picture reflecting O’Connor’s true likeness, her inner self.

Context

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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 correspondence, evaluating her views on women’s issues proves difficult. Readers do not have here a sizable portion of O’Connor’s letters (especially the daily letters to her mother), and they do not know the content of many passages deleted without ellipses to mark omissions. Fitzgerald’s edition of Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works (1988), which devotes 340 pages to O’Connor’s letters and includes twenty-two new letters, supplements The Habit of Being. Nevertheless, readers need a complete picture to assess O’Connor’s views accurately. For example, Simone de Beauvoir, the author of the landmark feminist study Le Deuxième Sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953), is mentioned briefly in five letters in The Habit of Being. O’Connor writes that Beauvoir has probably led people to the Catholic church, yet readers do not know the full context of this comment. In another letter, O’Connor admits she has never read Beauvoir’s works—and never intends to do so.

Judged on the content of her letters here, O’Connor remains peripheral to the feminist literary tradition. She is a woman writing about her day-to-day life without any particular focus on women’s issues. Yet her true likeness is undeniably that of a remarkable writer and deeply spiritual person. The way she articulates her “habit of being” proves instructive to women and men alike.

Bibliography

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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 State University Press, 1980. A psychiatrist offers a unique slant on O’Connor’s depiction of characters’ conflict and anxieties.

Feeley, Kathleen. Flannery O’Connor: Voice of the Peacock. 2d ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 1982. Feeley, a Catholic nun, approaches O’Connor’s work through the writer’s nonliterary reading, drawing extensively on her essays.

Ficken, Carl. “Theology in Flannery O’Connor’s The Habit of Being,” in Christianity and Literature. XXX (Winter, 1981), pp. 51-63.

Friedman, Melvin J., and Beverly Lyon Clark, eds. Critical Essays on Flannery O’Connor. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. Various critical approaches, an annotated bibliography of twenty-two books and articles, and “Reminiscences and Tributes” by Katherine Anne Porter, Allen Tate, Thomas Merton, and Alice Walker provide a broad view of O’Connor scholarship.

Hawkins, Peter S. “Faith and Doubt First Class: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor,” in Southern Humanities Review. XVI (Spring, 1982), pp. 91-103.

Montgomery, Marion. Why Flannery O’Connor Stayed Home. Vol. 1 in The Prophetic Poet and the Spirit of the Age. LaSalle, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1981. Montgomery shows how Western culture’s great philosophers shaped O’Connor’s thought, making her a prophetic voice of the modern spiritual crisis. Rather than offering a detailed critical reading, this work synthesizes O’Connor’s ideas.

Napier, James J. “Another Look at Flannery O’Connor’s Opinions of Other Writers,” in Antigonish Review. XLVI (Summer, 1981), pp. 95-101.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971. Editor Robert Giroux provides a good overview of O’Connor’s publishing career. The thirty-one stories range from those written for her thesis in 1947 to her last story, completed a month before she died.

O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Edited by Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. O’Connor’s essays provide an excellent companion to her letters, with topics ranging from religious belief to Southern writers.

Pastva, Agnes Ann. “Too Good to Miss,” in English Journal. LXIX (November, 1980), pp. 70-72.

Walters, Dorothy. Flannery O’Connor. New York: Twayne, 1973. One of the best critical overviews. Walters intelligently examines the theology and literary sources influencing O’Connor.

Westling, Louise. “Flannery O’Connor’s Revelations to ‘A,”’ in Southern Humanities Review. XX (Winter, 1986), pp. 15-22.

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