More Than Just a Habit–The Letters of Flannery O’Connor

Cover of "The Habit of Being: Letters of ...

Cover via Amazon

The recent attention and acclaim Flannery O’Connor’s previously unpublished “Prayer Journal” has received inspired me over the holidays to pull out my well-thumbed marked up copy of her selected letters, THE HABIT OF BEING (edited by Sally Fitzgerald and originally published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1979).  It had disappeared in my bulging over-stuffed bookcases because the book’s colorful jacket was long gone, having fallen apart years ago, and the book itself is bound in dull black cloth.  I had to search and re-search the shelves before I located it finally by homing in on the bristling yellow post-its, tabs and whatnot marking favorite passages. Yes, there it was, hunkered down rather like a small porcupine with colorful quills springing out in all directions, lurking in the shadows on a top shelf.

English: Portrait of American writer Flannery-...

English: Portrait of American writer Flannery-O’Connor from 1947. Picture is cropped and edited from bigger picture: Robie with Flannery 1947.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As per my usual encounter with this treasure trove of writerly wisdom informed by faith and a lively intellect, I immediately fell into it head first and there went the day.  And the next day and the next ;)

O’Connor was a tireless, thoughtful and generous spirited letter writer, had many far flung friends and literary acquaintances and I’m sure that if a mule or cow sent her a letter, it would have gotten a pleasant wickedly funny reply from her in her own hand–pronto! She claimed to have answered every letter she’d ever received, including those from nutcases and cranks, and I believe it.

This volume is of immense value to any writer with literary aspirations for every detail of the writing life, soup to nuts, agents, publishers, the rigors of writing, revising-revising-revising and so forth are examined and described as filtered through O’Connor’s character, personality and place in time.  One also gets the fullest sense of who this wonderfully talented, brave soul was, afflicted by a disease that kept her homebound on the family farm Andalusia near Milledgeville, GA for nearly all of her writing life and which tragically cut short her life.  She never complained about it, minimized her suffering to any who inquired, but was in and out of Emory Hospital with repeated crises several times each year after 1952 until the day she died.

Sally Fitzgerald, her dear long time friend and with whom she lived (along with Fitzgerald’s literary lion husband  Robert Fitzgerald, a renowned translator of the Odyssey) for a few years at the Fitzgerald country home in Connecticut, chose the title for the volume based on how well the contents reflected a key passage in one of O’Connor’s guiding light books, Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain. As Sally Fitzgerald says, “It was from this book that she first learned of the ‘habit of art,’ habit in this instance being defined in the Scholastic mode [think medieval scholasticism and St. Thomas Aquinas here], not as any mere mechanical routine, but as an attitude or quality of mind, as essential to the real artist as talent.”

Revisiting these letters was for me a bracing and once again inspiring experience and it occurred to me that I might share with you over the next several days some of the insights I gleaned from them and discuss with you some of the highlights of O’Connor’s life and work through the unique and arresting lens they offer us.

“Sally Fitzgerald: Flannery O’Connor’s Friend, Editor and Literary Steward,” from the L.A. Times  http://articles.latimes.com/2000/jul/14/local/me-52965 [Fascinating intro to the relationship between the two]

About margaretjeanlangstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic and so on for many years ....a consultant to publishers, a friend and supporter of others, admittedly a small group but my kind of people, interested in literary things and of writers who aspire to writing not just books (or poems, stories, novels, plays etc.) but literature.
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23 Responses to More Than Just a Habit–The Letters of Flannery O’Connor

  1. We were just discussing her over Christmas dinner! Time to revisit – it’s been too long.

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  2. Gene'O says:

    Reblogged this on The Writing Catalog and commented:
    - A nice post about one of my favorite authors.

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  3. I read your blog post, promptly walked over to one of my many reading tables and pulled off “The Habit of Being” to put beside me. I can see from my book mark that I stopped on page 35. This doesn’t mean lack of interest, rather lack of enough reading time directed by new books and a monthly review schedule. Nevertheless, I am determined to give myself the gift of this book in 2014. I so want to read her letters! BTW, have you read “Frances and Bernard” by Carlene Bauer, her fictional take on O’Connor and Lowell’s relationship?

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    • Wonderful. You are in for a high old time with O’Connor’s Letters, let me tell you. I have attacked this fascinating tome in many ways. Seems to me that I first time out I blew through it, skipping what I thought were strictly mundane daily things about her life, searching like the starving isolated writer I was back then for the real “meat” that would speed me on my way. Since then I have read it more slowly several times and with greater insight and understanding. I’ve decided that it is to be savored without hurry and perhaps in increments or one’s mental palette loses the ability to process all it offers. At this point in time, I am convinced that as a whole it reads like a fine epistolary novel almost, its sweep, scope and plot nothing less than a kind of War and Peace of a soul’s progress. I think she would appreciate the metaphor. To really get what she was up to in the stories and novels, the book is essential. No, sorry to say, I haven’t read the Bauer book, must look into it. O’Connor met Lowell at Yaddo and, as very different as they were, they became fast friends and corresponded for many years. In letters to others about him, she was frequently concerned about his mental health, as were most of his friends. Thanks so much for your remarks and let me know your reactions to the Letters, what you make of them. I am very interested.

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      • My initial response to the book was annoyance at the mundane daily things about her life, even in those few first pages. But having read many books of letters, I knew this was my own impatience getting in the way and may have contributed to why I put the book down — I needed to wait ’til I was ready to read it. I appreciate what you’ve said here and plan to savor the book in increments. I know when we do that, with many things in life, we are rewarded greatly.

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        • I understand completely. The first section of the Letters can be slow going and in places seems to give over-much attention to the trivial details in her life, but as she develops as a writer, gets her feet underneath her and gains confidence in her talent and craft, the texture and thoughts really take off, become more assured and worthy of close reading. Thanks for your insightful comment, it will be valuable to other readers, I’m sure :)

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  4. 1WriteWay says:

    Many years ago,I spent more time reading the letters and diaries of authors (e.g., Virginia Woolf, Anais Nin) than their works. I haven’t done that with O’Connor although I was spell-bound by her fiction. Guess I need to get me a copy of the letters. Thank you for this post :)

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    • I’ve always felt that it is an author’s work, NOT his/her life that should receive our attention. Seems prurient waste of time (“Split the Lark” to find the music sort of effort) to pour over the gritty details and dirty laundry of an artist’s life. In O’Connor’s case, though, I feel otherwise. People are unfamiliar these days with the basic tenets of Christianity, let alone Catholicism (!), have only a glancing exposure, nevertheless making sweeping generalizations and judgments (uninformed and wrong-headed) about her stories and novels. The letters are fun all by themselves and very illuminating for any writer about the real trials and difficult process involved in achieving great things, but her work is inscrutable to those who don’t have an understanding of Christianity and Catholicism, and the letters help enormously for such readers, and perhaps even more so for a Catholic such as myself. Moving and intellectually challenging and ultimately– inspiring.

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      • 1WriteWay says:

        I understand that it may seem a waste of time, even “prurient” to read an author’s letters and diaries, and I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t read any of Woolf’s or Nin’s works first. It’s their writing that inspired me to seek out more of their writing, even in the form of letters and diaries. I was a writer too, not just a reader, and so I was/am hungry for anything where an author would describe their writing life. Nin was a bit of an exhibitionist: she wrote her diaries with the full intention that they would be read by people other than herself. I realize that may not be true with Woolf. My interest in Woolf’s personal writing was two-fold: I wanted to understand her writing process and I wanted to understand her mental illness. [The latter probably had more weight with me when I was younger since my family has a closet full of mental illnesses and suicides.] Ironically, in grad school I had the ridiculous notion to write a master’s thesis on biography and Virginia Woolf. [I say "ridiculous" because I didn't finish the thesis ... I tripped up on literary theory and besides there was a slew of books being published about Woolf at the time.] And I say “Ironically” because I had planned to argue against conflating an author’s letters and journals with their published fiction and essays.
        Well, this exchange has caused me to look and see that, in fact, I still have what would have been the first chapter of my thesis, from 1992. And my eyes rest on a quote from Woolf’s essay “How Should One Read a Book?”: “How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer’s life–how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer?”

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        • What a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, reply. I hope you did not misunderstand my remarks, because I was not being critical of anyone but myself as I too have read scores and scores of bios and letters, including Virginia Woolf’s journal and diaries (whom I hugely admire). But at a certain point I started questioning my motives, especially when I ran into sham “literary bios” that were billed that way, but which were in actuality nothing more than gossip, hearsay and conjecture. I eventually came to the conclusion that if a writer’s work can’t stand on it’s own minus all of that, then it’s failed as a work of art and I have no business bothering about it. BUT, as you say, a writer reads these things for different reasons, I agree, for wisdom, insight, points of comparison with oneself and working habits and “habits” of mind. So there is in a sense a journeyman impulse behind it, a pure desire to master a craft and discover where one’s own work might fit into the larger picture.
          If you want to write good and perhaps great books, I would add, with regard to your unfinished thesis, I wouldn’t worry about getting the darn thing done, but go full steam ahead with your writing. Write every day at a certain time for at least 3 hrs, and if you can’t, just force yourself to sit there at your desk and make yourself available to the impulse, imagination and the words–which will come (if you do this) eventually and more frequently as time goes on. Too much scholarship kills the creative impulse, suffocates it. It took me years to get over graduate school and get on with the business of writing books. For several years the hot breath of my advisors and professors was breathing down my neck and stifled, criticized, thwarted creativity. If you need the degree for a job, I guess you should go forward with it,but don’t take it too seriously, and bear in mind that academia is not a healthy nourishing environment for a creative writer (they don’t know what to do with originality, and the setting is rife with politics, jealously and “defending one’s turf”). It’s a rare bird, like George Saunders at Syracuse, who can maintain his own sanity and originality under those circumstances. Maybe that’s because he wasn’t an English major and came to the study of literature late in the game. He tends to find it all amusing and somehow gets away with it.

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          • 1WriteWay says:

            That’s part of the problem with this form of communication: it’s very easy to imagine slights where none exists (and my imagination runs rampant in imagining slights). I love this phrase from your response: “a journeyman impulse.” That’s exactly how I feel when I study writers and their writing. And you mention sham literary biographies. My thesis idea was a reaction to what I thought were liberties that some were taking with Woolf’s published diaries as well as the drafts of her novels, and these liberties were being taken by those in academia, which somehow made the trespass harder for me to bear. I thoroughly agree with you about grad school. Although at times it could be fun (oh, boy, my homework assignment is [fill in title of novel]!), it can be stifling. Since my last comment, I scanned more pages of my Chapter 1 and was impressed by how well I danced theories around knowing damn well that had no clue what I was saying ;)
            Thanks for the conversation. I’ve enjoyed having a reason to dig up my old stuff on Woolf :)

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            • Hahaha I DEPLORE, DETEST and am embarrassed by my own thesis for my M.A. today, and am not so proud of other things I wrote during that time which my good professors swallowed wholesale as worthy in my further studies And damn it’s out there for the ages. The plain fact is that literary scholars make their living feeding off the corpus delecti of great writers and some of the nonsense they come up with has little to do with anything remotely important or of lasting value. (I will have to delete this comment later ;) to protect myself).

              I so appreciate your remarks and want you to know I am simpatico with your travails. Woolf is terrific (I’m looking at my Woolf shelf across the room as I write this) and you have put the itch in me to revisit her work.

              Please let me know your reactions/thoughts about O’Connor’s letters. Her excoriating letter to “A Professor of English” in response to his bone-headed inquiries on behalf of himself and 3 other faculty members and their “93 students” is a gem. It’s a gas. I laugh every time I think about it.

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  5. 1WriteWay says:

    Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    For fans of Flannery O’Connor, or simply fans of writing itself, read on …

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    • Thank you for the “re-blog,” amazing how many people are interested in her today; that is, of course, discerning thoughtful folks, wink-wink ;). She was starched and uncompromising when it came to faith and the necessity of recognizing and accepting the grace God gives us at critical times. If it weren’t for her humor, I think most would choke on the message Hahaha

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      • 1WriteWay says:

        And yet that is what makes her work so interesting and memorable. I still clearly remember (and this is important because there are few things that I clearly remember) reading Wise Blood for one of my grad courses, some 20 years ago. It was a cold, rainy November afternoon. My husband was working. I was reclined on our L-shaped couch, a light blanket thrown over my legs, reading Wise Blood. Our cat, who we had adopted just a few months before and who, up until that afternoon, treated us with suspicion, was stretched out between my out-stretched legs. Neither of us moved for the few hours that it took me to read Wise Blood. I’ll admit that I didn’t quite understand Wise Blood, but Hazel Motes is someone I’ll never forget.

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        • Well, let me ask you this: how could you fully appreciate Milton’s Paradise Lost or Shakespeare’s plays without some understanding of their cosmology and historical setting? The same holds true for O’Connor, but because she is so close to us in time (historically) we assume we should “get” her with ease. However, she wrote her work with a headful of religious conviction, a knowledge of the Bible and a vast reading in the Christian mystics and very few people in the world today plug into that or have the background to grasp her at face value. That’s what makes her letters a delight and a wonderful key to the “mysteries” of her novels and stories. She talks about all of them at length in her letters, the onerous difficult writing, forever explaining to poorly educated academics the context in which she wrote the books. Some of those letters were hysterical. Once a group of students from Vanderbilt called her up one day to ask her questions and they were really trying to get her to write the paper on one of her novels that they had been assigned! That’s a humdinger, believe me, her letters about that;)

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          • A distinctive thing about O’Connor, and which saves her work as far as I can tell, is that although it puzzles a great majority of readers, all serious readers respond to them, respond to the story, as if it were of major significance somehow. In other words, she gets them off the dime and thinking about the things that were important to her purpose in writing at all. That’s art.

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  6. Pingback: Fear and the Will to Write | 1WriteWay

  7. Pingback: Flannery O’Connor on Writing | Margaret Langstaff

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