My Flannery wanderings began here, and I’ve been amazed by both how many readers have never heard of her and also how many books about her life and writing are in the public library.
If I wanted to spend the year in her company, on the page, I could. (But I have other writing lives I would also like to explore!)
When Flannery O’Connor began studying short fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, stories like William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”, and Caroline Gordon’s “Old Red” stood out for her.
For Flannery, Faulkner’s characters were “drawn as perverse outsiders with highly complex interiority”, his “misfits compensating for profoundly frustrating missed opportunities – spiritual, social, economic – in their pasts”. They were particularly influential for Flannery’s writing, according to David O. Dowling, in his A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (2019).
I’m struck by the fact that two of these writers and stories appeared in my high school English text as well, along with Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”. Popular choices for anthologies!
But we were not assigned O’Connor’s story, and Caroline Gordon is a writer whose acquaintance I hadn’t made until beginning this project (more about her in the second of these Flannery posts). That year of English studies was formative for me, but not Flannery-wise.
Readers with a greater interest in how Flannery is published and taught, in how her works have endured in and out of classrooms, will be especially interested in Daniel Moran’s Creating Flannery O’Connor (2016).
It’s interesting to know that of all her short stories, the most frequently anthologized (and by a landslide) is “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”, with the Misfit having a bizarre appeal for teachers to use in a classroom setting (perhaps I’m being cynical, but I suspect it’s because they don’t want to have to deal with the inequities of some of her other stories). Moran also presents and contemplates an assortment of readers’ responses online (from GoodReads and other sites), some who see and others who question her work’s endurance.
But back to Dowling and Iowa: Flannery, the young writer. Her roommate, Martha Bell, described her as having been “a quiet unassuming girl, totally introverted, with a deep religious conviction and a delightful sense of humor.”
Her focus seemed remarkable: writing “totally consumed her attention; nothing could distract her”. (Can’t you just imagine a young Martha begging Flannery to do something, anything interesting, maybe on a Friday night or a weekend afternoon, and Flannery determinedly pecking at the keys of her typewriter, leaving Martha to feel guilty about closing her books and the door behind her on her way out.)
Apparently she even “insisted on having the shades pulled, even in day-time, no doubt to prevent distractions”. The room was dim, with “artificial light from one unshaded bulb hanging by a long cord from the center of the ceiling”. Her close friend, Jean Wylder, does admit to one indulgence, however, “her only indulgence”: “a box of vanilla wafers beside the typewriter”.
There was a “monastic simplicity” to her, what Wylder calls “something of the convent about Flannery”. In class, she usually sat “alone in the front row, over against the wall”. She often wore a “plain gray skirt and neatly-ironed silkish blouse, nylon stockings and penny brown loafers” with a “trace of lipstick”.
She drew inspiration for one of her famous stories from a “news report about an outlaw”. Dowling notes that she “needed very little data to enter imaginatively into this world to chart the emotional terrain of her spiritually frustrated protagonist”. One of her instructors, Andrew Lytle, recalls: “Why, she could just walk by a poolroom and know exactly what was happening just by the smell.”
In the spring of 1951, Caroline Gordon agreed to do a favour for Robert Fitzgerald, agreeing to reading Flannery O’Connor’s novel in draft, Wise Blood. The letters about her response to the work are the first in Christine Flanagan’s edited volume: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon (2018). Only six of these letters have been previously published.
Unfortunately, these letters were not included in The Habit of Being, for Sally Fitzgerald first saw them fifteen years after O’Connor’s death, after the editing process for that volume was complete. But Sally Fitzgerald had been close friends with both of the women (and her family is mentioned in these letters too).
In 1951, Flannery was twenty-six years old; Caroline was fifty-five and had just published her seventh novel. Ultimately, Caroline’s career peaked in the mid-1950s, and she would publish eight novels and a short story collection; she was nominated for the National Book Award (alongside William Faulkner, Truman Capote, and J. D. Salinger in 1952), had won a Guggenheim in 1932, and had received second prize in the O. Henry Awards in 1934. (And, yet, she was not included in that high school English text.)
The letters are not so remarkable from the perspective of Gordon’s epistolary record (her tone was typical of her response: “length, tone, and density of content” much the same as with many others, and also with O’Connor. But, from O’Connor’s perspective, Gordon’s letters were remarkable: they were “unlike any others O’Connor herself received”.
There are several more Flannery books in my stacks, including The Habit of Being, which launched my Flannery inquiry. I wasn’t expecting to spend so long in her company, but I’m still curious.