Wide-ranging letters reveal deep bonds between a literary titan and her friends.
“Most letters between writers are largely given over to envy, spite, wisecracks, discussions of money, the short-sightedness of award committees, soured love affairs and the innumerable horrors of the literary life,” Michael Dirda once wrote. These letters by the National Book Award–winning short story writer and her friends alternately fit and break the mold. Anyone looking for Southern literary gossip will find plenty of barbs—e.g., novelist and critic Caroline Gordon’s jab at William Faulkner, “I wonder if he wrote those paragraphs when drunk”; or O’Connor’s complaint about the press: “I think photographers are the lowest breed of men and just being in the presence of one brings out my worst face.” But there’s also higher-toned talk on topics such as the symbolism in O’Connor’s work and the nature of free will. The subtitle notwithstanding, this book has many letters previously published in full or in part in the 1988 collection of O’Connor’s letters, The Habit of Being, or The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon (2018). The most revealing new material appears in letters O’Connor exchanged with the Jesuit priests James McCown and Scott Watson. These show how ardently she tried to live by the Catholic faith that informs her work. In a disarmingly earnest letter to McCown, O’Connor asks whether she must go to confession after eating butterbeans cooked in ham stock on a Friday: “There is something about you can use drippings but you can’t use stock.” Abundant headnotes by Alexander supply context as they follow O’Connor from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to her death at the age of 39 from complications of lupus in her native Georgia. O’Connor’s correspondents range from an Atlanta file clerk to celebrated writers such as Robert Lowell, Walker Percy, and Katherine Anne Porter; taken together, the letters affirm Gordon’s comment about her friend: “She is certainly a remarkable person and a remarkable writer.”
An epistolary group portrait that will appeal to readers interested in the Catholic underpinnings of O’Connor’s life and work.