The collected letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald, in The Habit of Being: they’ve been on my bookshelves for a couple of decades.
They date to the time when I gave less thought to the number of inches that a book required for storage. To the time when assembling books about classic writers was a reflex rather than a decision.
Nonetheless, in more recent years, when space and time have been front-of-mind, I’ve hung onto this volume.
Even though I’d never troubled to explore her fiction, simply a matter of other work appealing more, and had since learned of her devout and fervent Catholicism, which led me to wonder if her work would appeal less.
When I began my #WritingLife explorations this year, starting with Mary Flannery O’Connor seemed a random choice: why not select someone whose works I’d already read and admired, someone whose life I’d previously caught a glimpse of, on the page. The Habit of Being and its enduring positioning in my library transformed random into directed: Flannery O’Connor is a fine beginning.
But where I actually began, in the broader context of this beginning, was with her stories: A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955). Laila mentioned that she was going to be reading it in January, and I like the idea of company, when I’m finally reading a longtime-shelfsitter. If I falter, a reading friend can urge me to continue turning pages.
How fortunate to have company here: these stories are immediately and wholly disorienting. (I’ll have more to say about these stories another time.) With just one story, it wasn’t enough to know whether the strange and disturbing tone was a reflection of the story or the writer; after the second stinging slap, I went straight for a peek into her biography, beginning with a documentary film: Uncommon Grace (2017) Directed by Bridget Kurt and Written by Daniel Kurt.
Viewers sink into the landscape, so that you can imagine the hayloft in “Good Country People”, for instance, and the outbuildings on the rural properties described in the other stories. Even the roaming peacocks and peahens – it all seems so ordinary. The combination of archival photographs with contemporary video makes it all seem more real and enduring. And the interviews with scholars and clergy who recognize the truths in her stories underscore the fact that her work has touched a variety of readers.
Also useful for its imagery is A Literary Guide to Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia (2008) by Sarah Gordon (Ed. Craig Amason and Photographs by Marcelina Martin). It’s probably my favourite in this stack: I love looking at colour photographs of the places where writers grew up and inhabited throughout their lives. Included here are Savannah, Milledgeville and Andalusia as well as sites connected to O’Connor’s religiosity and literary studies and ventures before she returned to the farm where she wrote and lived with her mother (that’s Andalusia). And one of her typewriters, too!
David O. Dowling’s A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (2019) is a world away from this, but it brought out a delightful layer of Flannery Mary O’Connor as a young and hopeful writer. She originally went to Iowa to study journalism and anticipated putting her drawing skills (satirical cartoons, actually) to the test. Quickly, however, she recognized that she didn’t fit with that group.
There’s an oft-told tale about how she went to request that her enrollment be switched to the Writers’ Workshop, but her Southern – Georgia – accent was so thick that the Director asked her to write down her request so he could understand. Her time there also solidified her commitment to being known as Flannery rather than Mary. “Who was likely to buy the stories of an Irish washerwoman?” she joked.
More about this Irish washerwoman writer soon. Have you and she met previously?