The recent attention and acclaim Flannery O’Connor’s previously unpublished “Prayer Journal” has received inspired me over the holidays to pull out my well-thumbed marked up copy of her selected letters, THE HABIT OF BEING (edited by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.
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]
- Flannery O’Connor’s Portrait In ‘Prayer’ (onpoint.wbur.org)
- Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Prayer Journal’ (nytimes.com)
- Why Christians need Flannery O’Connor (religion.blogs.cnn.com)
- Inheritance and Invention: Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal (newyorker.com)
- Before Flannery O’Connor Wrote, She Talked to God (slog.thestranger.com)
- Flannery O’Connor’s Cartoons (brainpickings.org)