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The Meaning Is in You: Flannery O’Connor in Her Letters

by Jill P. Baumgaertner

Jill P. Baumgaertner, associate professor of English at Wheaton College in Wheaton , Illinois. recently edited the anthology Poetry (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich). This essay is adapted from her forthcoming book Flannery O’Connor’s Emblems: A Proper Scaring, to be published by Harold Shaw Publishers. This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 23-30, 1987, p. 1172. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Three weeks before her death at the age of 39, Flannery O’Connor copied out a prayer to St. Raphael and sent it to a woman she had never met, but who in the short year and a half of their correspondence had become a close friend. This prayer, which O’Connor said she prayed every day, ends with an image of heaven as a home "beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God." It was also to this woman, Janet McKane, that O’Connor wrote of receiving communion and the sacrament of the sick (formerly known as extreme unction). Flannery O’Connor knew she was dying. In fact, she had lived with this knowledge for 13 years, ever since she had been diagnosed as having lupus erythematosus, the disease that had killed her father.

It is tempting to speculate about what O’Connor could have accomplished had she lived longer. Fifteen months before her death she wrote: "I appreciate and need your prayers. I’ve been writing eighteen years and I’ve reached the point where I can’t do again what I know I can do well, and the larger things that I need to do now, I doubt my capacity for doing." Here O’Connor showed uncertainty about what lay ahead for her as a writer, but she also revealed a sense of artistic completion. That she would ask for prayers also indicates a certain measure of anxiety as she approached the unknown. She was, after all, besides an artist and a woman of profound faith, human in her reluctance to leave what she loved so well. In one of her final letters to Janet McKane, O’Connor quoted Gerard Manley Hopkins’s lines: "Márgarét, áre you gríeving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?" She was not complaining, but she did feel a natural human grief. As she wrote in an earlier letter, "You have to cherish the world at the same time you struggle to endure it."

For O’Connor, writing and faith were tightly bound together. She identified "conversion" -- that is, a "character’s changing" -- as the only real subject of good literature. What created story for her, what created the necessary conflict, was a character’s resistance to God’s grace, which often led violently to sudden revelation. She once wrote that loss is frequently a precondition to conversion. Perhaps the loss of her father, and her own debilitating illness, helped keep her faith strong and her writing persistent. "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, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies," she wrote in 1956.

O’Connor’s letters, collected by her friend Sally Fitzgerald in The Habit of Being (Vintage, 1979) , bring into clearer focus the human being behind the art. The collection was an invaluable contribution to scholarship, and has, since its publication, offered readers information that is indispensable in understanding the author. The O’Connors did not install a telephone at their farm until late in Flannery’s life, so to communicate with her friends she had to write to them. These letters form a diary beginning in 1948, after her graduation from the University of Iowa’s School for Writers, until her death in 1964.

They allow the occasional reader to dip in and out quickly but they reward the cover-to-cover reader with a strong sense of immediacy. The O’Connor farm, the Georgia characters O’Connor lived with every day, the animals she raised, the visitors who were often invited to stay for dinner live as vividly in her letters as they do in her fiction. One is able to see connections between inhabitants of her daily life and characters in her stories. One can also watch the genesis and development of her work as she related its progress to her friends, who included not only her literary agent and editors, but also people whom she never met face-to-face. Her humor reveals itself in her anecdotes and punch lines, and in the turns of phrase she used to berate a friend’s slip into Freudian terminology or answer a professor of English who asked what she considered unreasonable questions.

Above all, O’Connor’s letters reveal a strong, committed artist, Christian, daughter and friend. She answered the most difficult questions posed to her by friends who did not understand her Catholicism. She shared with fellow Catholics and non-Catholics alike her love for her church and her Lord. She corrected correspondents -- sometimes quite firmly -- when she felt they were wrong, and she often apologized later for her bluntness. But she also encouraged them, sustained them and nourished them with her wit and insight.

Women journal writing has become a genre of its own in the 20th century, but I cannot imagine that O’Connor speaking to herself in diary form could give a reader any more insight into her character than O’Connor in dialogue, which is, essentially, what these letters present.

Like so many writers early in their careers, O’Connor felt she had to leave home to gain a broader perspective than the one afforded her by rural Georgia life. What she was to discover was that for the artist, the entire universe exists in the gesture of the individual, and the individual she knew best was southern. When she finished her studies in Iowa, she moved to Yaddo, a retreat for writers in New York, spent a few months in New York City and then, after returning home for awhile, moved into the Connecticut home of Robert and Sally Fitzgerald. When she became ill late in 1950 she returned to Milledgeville and gradually began to realize that Georgia was where she belonged. For the rest of her life she remained close to home with only occasional forays north for speaking engagements and visits. Due to a deteriorating hip joint, she was on crutches for many of these years, and travel was an excruciating ordeal for her.

She and her mother did, however, manage a pilgrimage to Rome and Lourdes, where, as Flannery reported, Sally Fitzgerald made her take the healing baths. She wrote in her only letter from Rome: "Lourdes was not as bad as I expected. I took the bath. For a selection of bad motives, such as to prevent any bad conscience for not having done it, and because it seemed at the time that it must be what was wanted of me. I went early in the morning. Only about 40 ahead of me so the water looked pretty clean. They pass around the water for ‘les malades’ to drink & everybody drinks out of the same cup. As somebody said, the miracle is that the place don’t bring on epidemics. Well, I did it all and with very bad grace" (p. 280) Much to her chagrin and the delight of her elderly cousin who had financed the trip, O’Connor’s hip improved a few months later. But she was determined not to undertake such a trip again. For most of the trip’s 17 days she suffered from a violent cold and later wrote, "We went to Europe and I lived through it but my capacity for staying at home has now been perfected & is going to last me the rest of my life" (p. 285)

The chief animal-keeper at the farm, however, was Regina, her mother. Her influence on her daughter is inestimable, but it is certain that both the colloquial and the Christian in Flannery’s character were gifts from Regina O’Connor. The letters are filled with anecdotes about Regina, whom Flannery affectionately calls "my parent." To Cecil Dawkins, a gifted young writer and regular correspondent, O’Connor wrote in 1959: "The current ordeal is that my mother is now in the process of reading [The Violent Bear It Away]. She reads about two pages, gets up and goes to the back door for a conference with Shot, comes back, reads two more pages, gets up and goes to the barn. Yesterday she read a whole chapter. There are twelve chapters. All the time she is reading, I know she would like to be in the yard digging. I think the reason I am a short-story writer is so my mother can read my work in one sitting" (p. 340).

In O’Connor’s characters, and running throughout her letters, is a streak of humor which is indigenous to the southern cracker. A combination of mild self-deprecation, irony, vivid phrasing and flawless timing, this is the humor that initially turns a reader’s head. She says to one of her correspondents, "I certainly am glad you like the stories because now I feel it’s not bad that I like them so much. The truth is I like them better than anybody and I read them over and laugh and laugh, then get embarrassed when I remember I was the one wrote them" (pp. 80-81).

Toward the end of her life, O’Connor asked a friend to try to find a picture of a statue she had seen of the Madonna and child laughing -- not merely smiling, but laughing heartily. Humor was, for O’Connor, a necessity, so her attraction to the laughing babe who was also to be the suffering Christ is appropriate. For her and for all Christians, sorrow and triumph can be contained in the same image.

It was not her propensity to laughter, however, that provoked so many young writers to ask O’Connor for advice -- both specific advice about individual stories and more general recommendations about the writing process itself. She wrote to these literary newcomers with great seriousness. To Dawkins, who was experiencing a dry spell, she wrote: "You ought to set aside three hours every morning in which you write or do nothing else; no reading, no talking, no cooking, no nothing, but you sit there. If you write all right and if you don’t all right, but you do not read; whether you start something different every day and finish nothing makes no difference; you sit there. It’s the only way, I’m telling you. If inspiration comes you are there to receive it, you are not reading" (p. 417). O’Connor’s regimen was to sit at her manual typewriter for two or three hours and follow her characters around. She did not write from an outline, insisting that her characters could carry the stories by themselves. "Remember," she wrote to her friend, "that you don’t write a story because you hive an idea but because you have a believable character (p. 219). She also advised writers to forget about plot when beginning a novel or story. "When you have a character he will create his own situation and his situation will suggest some kind of resolution as you get into it. Wouldn’t it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you" (p. 188). (In one of the books in her personal library [Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism: With Other Essays], O’Connor underlined the following passage: "Do not make the absurd attempt to sever in yourself the artist and the Christian. They are one, if you really are a Christian, and if your art is not isolated from your soul by some aesthetic system. But apply only the artist in you to the work in hand; precisely because they are one, the work will be as wholly of the one as of the other". [Arthur Kinney, Flannery O’Connor’s Library: Resources of Being (University of Georgia Press, 1985) , p. 94].)

O’Connor spoke of "self-abandonment" in writing, a lack of self-consciousness, and compared this experience with "Christian self-abandonment" (p. 458) , suggesting that in both her faith life and her artistic life, the self could become a vehicle for the Other. When this occurred, she was so entirely caught up in the creative process that she forgot completely about her physical situation. Only then could she become a channel for God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s breath.

As a Catholic, O’Connor possessed a sacramental understanding that gave her art its solid base. She wrote to a professor, "You said something about my stories dipping into life -- as if this were commendable but a trifle unusual; from which I get the notion that you may dip largely into your head. This would be in line with the Protestant temper -- approaching the spiritual directly instead of through matter" (p. 304). Because O’Connor accepted sacrament as truth, she found it easy to view the natural things of this world as vehicles or instruments for God’s grace. The concrete, the hearable, sayable, seeable object or event always possessed the potential to be used sacramentally. In her stories the world of matter is always a handle for one of God’s mysteries, making it accessible, if not completely understandable.

By today’s standards O’Connor was a conservative Catholic. She accepted without question, for example, the pope’s dictum on birth control, writing, rather tersely, "Either practice restraint or be prepared for crowding" (p. 338). She requested official permission to read books on the Catholic Index, but probably would not have read them if she had been denied that permission. She was not comfortable with the spoken English mass, and she was, as might be expected, a lover of the liturgy. "many prayer books are awful," she wrote in 1956, if you stick with the liturgy, you are safe" (p. 160). Liturgy was for O’Connor the careful arrangement of worship so that human weariness or inattentiveness or laziness did not intrude upon the worship of an entire congregation. A priest’s feelings on a particular day did not change the liturgy, which was consistent, operative and effective in spite of human weakness.

Living in the South, a region fraught with tritely emotional religious expression, O’Connor distrusted feelings as an indicator of faith. She wrote at length about this and other Christian issues to a woman identified in Fitzgerald’s collection only as "A." "There is a question whether faith can or is supposed to be emotionally satisfying. I must say that the thought of everyone lolling about in an emotionally satisfying faith is repugnant to me. I believe that we are ultimately directed Godward but that this journey is often impeded by emotion" (p. 100). As she wrote later, "We [Catholics] don’t believe grace is something you have to feel. The Catholic always distrusts his emotional reaction to the sacraments" (pp. 346-47).

O’Connor was often critical of what she considered Protestant shortcomings. "A Protestant habit is to condemn the Church for being authoritarian and then blame her for not being authoritarian enough" (p. 347). She had a healthy respect for fundamentalist Protestants, and she was alarmed at the liberal theology she heard coming from some Protestant camps. "One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so and that religion is our own sweet invention" (p. 479). She understood the difference between cheap grace and costly grace. "What people don’t realize," she wrote to Louise Abbot, "is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross" (p. 354).

O’Connor felt that fundamentalist Protestant churches were closer to Rome than they realized, even though many still considered the Roman Catholic Church the archenemy. The grand equalizer was the universal experience of unbelief, which O’Connor considered the necessary starting point of faith. Though she misidentified the biblical figures, she reminded one correspondent of the plea issued by the father of an epileptic boy whom Jesus heals (in Mark 9:24) : "1 believe. Help my unbelief" (p. 476). She pointed out that Peter, the founder of the church, was the same man "who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on the water by himself" (p. 307).

O’Connor was realistic about human nature and its ability to resist grace (p. 307), and she understood the ebbs and flows of faith. Perhaps because she felt that conversion was a continual process, she was troubled but not burdened when her friends experienced momentary setbacks in their faith lives. She wrote to "A," who had converted to Catholicism and was now filled with doubts:

Some people when they lose their faith in Christ, substitute a swollen faith in themselves. I think you are too honest for that, that you never had much faith in yourself in the first place and that now that you don’t believe in Christ, you will believe even less in yourself which itself is regrettable, but let me tell you this: faith comes and goes (p. 452).

O’Connor’s conviction that our age is deaf and blind to truth appears in all her writings. How to reach a handicapped generation is her constant concern. She does it by shouting or drawing very large pictures, and recommends pushing "as hard as the age that pushes against you" (p. 229).

The violence that shocks so many first-time readers of her fiction initially seems so unpalatable because it is so personal. We usually encounter violence at a distance, but O’Connor forces it upon us in a form we cannot escape. Whether it is the drowning of a child in a river or the murder of an old man in the stairwell of his apartment building or the massacre of an entire family on a deserted Georgia road, O’Connor pushes readers to the brink over and over again. "The kingdom of heaven," she writes, "has to be taken by violence or not at all" (p. 229). Her stories are particularly difficult for the secular "good man," who will not find in them many examples of the godly life, but who will be continually challenged to define and redefine his conception of goodness. "It’s not a matter in these stories of Do Unto Others. That can be found in any ethical culture series. It is the fact of the Word made flesh" (p. 227). She goes on to identify this as both a Roman Catholic and an orthodox Protestant belief.

In O’Connor’s works one is always pushed back to the agonizing scandal of the cross. That scandal has at its heart the recognition that humanity is fallen and needs redemption. Perhaps because the South still smarts from its own fall in the War Between the States, redemption has a special meaning there. With defeat comes the realization that humanity cannot save itself or perfect itself alone, that humanity is vulnerable and weak. In 1958 O’Connor wrote that "the Liberal approach is that man has never fallen, never incurred guilt. and is ultimately perfectable by his own efforts. Therefore, evil in this light is a problem of better housing, sanitation, health, etc. and all the mysteries will eventually be cleared up" (p. 302).

Of course, for the Christian the mysteries, finally remain mysterious. Perhaps this recognition that not all human motivation and behavior can be completely explained accounts for O’Connor’s strong feelings against the social sciences (ironic because she was a social-science major in college) Freudians particularly irritated her. She wrote William Sessions: "I do hope . . that you will get over the kind of thinking that sees in every door handle a phallic symbol. . . . The Freudian technique can be applied to anything at all with equally ridiculous results. My Lord, Billy, recover your simplicity. You ain’t in Manhattan. Don’t inflict that stuff on the poor students there: they deserve better" (p. 407).

In many letters O’Connor referred in a deprecating tone to academics in general and English teachers in particular. She answered one professor’s questions about her story, "Greenleaf": "Thank you for your note. I’m sorry I can’t answer it more fully but I am in the hospital and not up to literary questions. . . . As for Mrs. May, I must have named her that because I knew some English teacher would write and ask me why. I think you folks sometime strain the soup too thin" (p. 582). She threw up her hands at one well-known literary critic, wondering, "Can it be possible that a man with this much learning knows so little about Christianity?" (p. 411). That was the problem she faced every time she published. She was writing for an audience to whom the incarnation had little meaning, and yet her fiction repeatedly showed common people encountering the terror, mystery and beauty of the Word made flesh. She might have predicted that many of her readers would be mildly puzzled, if not completely confounded.

That fiction contained truth was the conviction she lived with every day. The fact that this truth was sometimes odd or uncomfortable or violent, that it led often to the grotesque, O’ Connor faced unflinchingly. Quoting Robert Fitzgerald, she wrote, "It is the business of the artist to uncover the strangeness of truth" (p. 343). What could be stranger than a God who decides to suffer with us? What could be more uncomfortable or more violent than the cross? What could be more comically grotesque than an individual trying to escape his own identity as God’s child and in his rush out the temple door smacking straight into the incarnation?

One experiences a depressing sense of inevitability as one nears the end of the letters. The temptation is simply to stop reading -- as if that would somehow prevent the end from coming. Her final letter, written on July 29, 1964, was found on her nightstand after her death. In referring to an anonymous phone call her friend had received, she was playful but serious. "Be properly scared," O’Connor advised, "and go on doing what you have to do, but take the necessary precautions . . . Cheers, Tarfunk" (p. 596).

Such proper scaring is what many of O’Connor’s characters and readers required and experience. We must go on doing what we have to do, but with better eyes and more sensitive ears, having run into truth along the way.


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