In case of psychological stress, some people keep therapy dogs around for a comforting nuzzle, but I prefer a strong dose of Flannery O’Connor. I keep The Habit of Being, the 1979 collection of her letters edited by Sally Fitzgerald, on a shelf just above my desk, easily reached in an emergency. A couple of pages of O’Connor and I am chastened, enlightened, cracked up, or all three, able to carry on with a newly installed ramrod for a spine.
Long before the substantial biographies and studies began to appear, O’Connor’s letters revealed her to be ferocious in her Catholic faith and her many literary friendships, but also withering and funny in her judgments and her gossip. While the rest of her prose contains equal measures of wit and dead seriousness, the letters often reveal qualms and doubts. O’Connor seeks counsel of both the spiritual and the writing variety. Often—and more often, as she grows sicker—she asks for prayers.
Now we have this new volume of O’Connor’s “uncollected” letters (those who have read the earlier volume will recognize several reprinted here) alongside a trove of her correspondents’ letters to her and to each other. Since her circle included Caroline Gordon, William Sessions, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, and the writer identified in The Habit of Being as “A” (later revealed to be Betty Hester), this is an enticing volume for anyone anxious to hear O’Connor’s voice again or eager to experience her friends’ idiosyncratic voices. The juxtaposition can be exhilarating (though Caroline Gordon, who provides the volume’s title and lavished attention on O’Connor’s work, can also be mean-spirited and exhausting. As O’Connor confides to Hester, “[Gordon] will sacrifice life to dead form, or anything to grammar.”) O’Connor’s advice to Hester is more concise: “If you were stupider you would write much better fiction because you wouldn’t conceptualize things so much.”
For O’Connor devotees, the new collection is essential—but not without its frustrations. The order is sometimes chronological, sometimes thematic, which can result in introductory notes explaining what a letter a few pages ahead will soon make clear. The annotations, frequently illuminating and helpful, often blandly summarize what the letter below will say better (and more wittily). The new collection’s editor, Benjamin B. Alexander, is currently professor of English and political science at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He pulls a vast array of references, allusions, and personalities into conversation, and his ability to keep them all talking to each other is impressive. But he sometimes drifts into anachronistic asides when discussing Southern historical contexts. Mel Gibson, for example, makes an appearance in a note explaining the Revolutionary War’s Francis Marion. Ronald Reagan frequently enters the notes, as does a rant on the state of today’s Democratic Party. Much as any discussion of O’Connor requires interdisciplinary approaches, surely the politics of the post-O’Connor era are far afield.