Letter Writing: Another Side of Flannery O’Connor

05 Jun

“I hope,” wrote Flannery O’Connor in one of her letters, “you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.”

Letters can be delightful things. Despite the length of The Habit of Being, the collection of O’Connor’s letters (some 600 pages), it is worth the read. For one thing, it doesn’t demand to be read all at once. Try spreading out a novel of that length over a year or two, and you’ll have forgotten half the characters. But a volume of letters can be digested more slowly. It took me about that length of time to read The Habit of Being, and I don’t feel any worse for reading it slowly.

Second? Flannery O’Connor is hilarious. (Her spelling is, too.) Coping with lupus didn’t dull her sense of humor in the least, nor did it distract her from focusing on her friends. Her last letter, written a few days before her death, barely mentions her health problems–instead, she was concerned about a friend who had received a threatening phone call.

Flannery’s letters offer an example of how to handle a church hierarchy that drives you nuts. It’s popular today to be “spiritual but not religious” because “the church is full of hypocrites.” Flannery would have agreed about the church being full of hypocrites, but she understood two things: 1) the church is necessary for spiritual balance, and 2) some sincere people come across as hypocrites for reasons that are not entirely their own fault. Told by a somewhat liberal Protestant that he had met a girl who complained about how dishonest Catholic nuns were, she offered this response:

I doubt that she has seen any “lying” nuns. What she is probably talking about is “intellectual honesty” and she is forgetting that in order to be intellectually honest, you have to have an intellect in the first place.

Bluntly put. But O’Connor made an effort to understand people who were unlike her–her mother, for one. Flannery called her mother “Regina” (no offense intended–she had done so since childhood), and, despite mutual good intentions, they frequently drove one another crazy. Regina was a fairly normal Georgia lady. Flannery wasn’t. And that is why her letters are so delightful–they offer a perspective scarcely seen elsewhere.

Instead of putting in a stunning paragraph at the end of this post, I think I’ll save the space for a few more quotes of Flannery’s. They are more than worth it–for a variety of reasons.

Almost any spiritual writer ought to wear thin for you. It’s like reading criticism of poetry all the time and not reading the poetry. Spiritual writers have a limited purpose and can be very dangerous, I suppose.

When in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville.

There’s probably a little witch-doctoring left in the teaching profession, that has managed to stay out of the education textbooks. I had 3 education courses in college. Pure Wasted Time.

(Flannery had an undergraduate degree in social science, and she claimed that she had been saved from it by “total non-retention.”)

You are erecting this truth into supreme position whereas it merely has its proper place in a hierarchy of truths. If you insist upon doing this, you will become that most unfeminine of creatures—the crank. It is strictly a male prerogative to be a crank.

Whatever else she may have been–her relatives’ confusion notwithstanding–Flannery O’Connor was far from being a crank.


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Posted by on June 5, 2014 in Letters


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