Flannery O'Connor's best fiction seemed almost pre-grooved, as though she merely poured ink—and vividness—into grooves of mysterious life that were already whitely there. Being Southern, being Catholic, and being ill had a lot to do with that, and these hundreds of letters give O'Connor's tough, funny, careful personality to us more distinctly and movingly than any biography probably would. The idea of the spinster lady with lupus living cut off from the world in Milledgeville, Georgia, a primitive who raised peahens and a queer kind of ruckus—religious and weird—in her fiction, is dispelled. She was at home with the foremost literary figures of the day: Lowell, the Tates, Elizabeth Bishop, J. F. Powers, John Hawkes. She took no guff about finances connected with her work. She asked for criticism and accepted or discarded it according to its merits. She was conservative and anti-integrationist. Besieged by collegiate requests for clarifications of her work, she became weary, testy, revealing: "I have to sit down and write a graduate student in Cleveland who wants to know why my stories are grotesque; are they grotesque because I am showing the frustration of grace? It's very hard to tell these innocents that they are grotesque because that's the nature of my talent." Another side to her talent is an almost astonishing directness. In the letters, this is often found in humor, but the point is never lost. In a series of letters over ten years time to a woman identified as only "A.," O'Connor writes a kind of spiritual biography of a Catholic writer. "I am only interested in a fiction of miracles." She recalls a dinner where Mary McCarthy blathered on about the Host being a marvelous symbol, and prompted O'Connor's: "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." When A. leaves the Church, O'Connor mourns in her fashion, trying to convince her friend that if Jesus weren't God, she—O'Connor—would want to have nothing to do with him. Throughout, there are only the lightest, self-deprecating remarks about her debilitating, finally fatal illness: a refusal to let it slow her, and for every physical blow, her mind and outlook and literary assurance getting reactively tougher. Remarkable and inspiring.
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