Good Things Out of Nazareth: The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O'conner and Friends
:A literary treasure of over one hundred unpublished letters from National Book Award-winning author Flannery O'Connor and her circle of extraordinary friends. Flannery O'Connor is a master of 20th-century American fiction, joining, since her untimely death in 1964, the...
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:A literary treasure of over one hundred unpublished letters from National Book Award-winning author Flannery O'Connor and her circle of extraordinary friends.
Flannery O'Connor is a master of 20th-century American fiction, joining, since her untimely death in 1964, the likes of Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Faulkner. Those familiar with her work know that her powerful ethical vision was rooted in a quiet, devout faith and informed all she wrote and did.
Good Things out of Nazareth, a much-anticipated collection of many of O'Connor's unpublished letters, along with those of literary luminaries such as Walker Percy (author of The Moviegoer), Robert Giroux, Caroline Gordon (author of None Should Look Back), Katherine Anne Porter (Ship of Fools), and movie critic Stanley Kauffmann, explores such themes as creativity, faith, suffering, and writing. Brought together they form a riveting literary portrait of these friends, artists, and thinkers. Here we find their joys and loves, as well as their trials and tribulations as they struggle with doubt and illness while championing their Christian beliefs and often confronting racism in American society during the Civil Rights era.
Good Things Out of Nazareth
Residing in a sparse room in New York City, Flannery O’Connor, a promising writer from Georgia, in 1949 gladly accepted Robert and Sally Fitzgerald’s invitation to live with them in rural Connecticut to finish Wise Blood. She first had written the novel at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and had hoped that it would be published while she was in residence at the Yaddo artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. Fitzgerald recalls O’Connor’s mornings dedicated to Wise Blood, after which “she would reappear about noon in her sweater, blue jeans and loafers, looking slender and most tall, and would take her daily walk, a half mile or so down the hill to the mailbox and back.”1 In the evenings, we would “put a small pitcher of martinis to soak and call the border. Our talks then and at the dinner table were long and lighthearted, and they were our movies, our concerts, and our theater.”2 In 1951 Robert Fitzgerald, a professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard, sent Caroline Gordon the manuscript of Wise Blood.
Caroline Gordon at the time was married to Allen Tate, a contributor to the 1930 Southern Agrarian manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, and the author of “Ode to the Confederate Dead” (later often anthologized). Gordon was a meticulous novelist in her own right. She for years deferred to Tate to the neglect of her own work. Ford Madox Ford and other critics believed Gordon’s Civil War novel, None Shall Look Back, published in 1937, was superior to other canonical war novels such as Gone with the Wind and The Red Badge of Courage.
When Gordon received O’Connor’s Wise Blood she was already tutoring a physician and would-­be novelist, Walker Percy. She soon concluded that both O’Connor and Percy had great promise—­and was one of a few in the early 1950s to recognize their potential. When Gordon first came to know them, the two writers were working in remote Southern settings—­Milledgeville, Georgia, and Covington, Louisiana—­far removed from publishing centers and the literary establishment. During their initial efforts at fiction writing before they achieved fame, Gordon wrote Percy in 1951, “Well this is the season when the good things come out of Nazareth.”3
The promise of both Percy and O’Connor was fragile. O’Connor was suffering with lupus, while Percy had survived tuberculosis contracted during his medical residency in New York. While recuperating, he began to retool himself as a novelist and read himself into Catholic conversion from agnosticism. Gordon undertook, for a meager $100, a tedious, sometimes line-­by-­line criticism of Percy’s first novel, The Charterhouse. In 1952 Gordon sent him O’Connor’s Wise Blood as an example of what she considered the opposite weakness of Percy’s abstract tendencies in his fiction.
Gordon was dogmatic, opinionated, and undaunted by popular reputation. She took on anybody, including such luminaries as Faulkner and Hemingway. She wrote to another aspiring novelist, Brainard Cheney. She observed that William Faulkner was not the writer that Dostoevsky was. The Russian “rests squarely on the Christian myth, the responsibility for which rests on God. He did not have to create a new heaven and earth, as some secular writers seem to feel called on to do.”4 Gordon also applied this theological insight to both O’Connor and Percy, who followed, she noted, in the tradition of Dostoevsky.5
The first letter introduces Flannery O’Connor when she first appeared at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the fall of 1945. Shortly she would begin crafting Wise Blood, published in 1952.
Paul Engle to Robert Giroux
Paul Engle writes to Robert Giroux, Flannery O’Connor’s friend and editor, his recollections of her when she was a student at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1945 to 1947. Engle was the director of the Workshop and was crucial in establishing the curriculum upon which other institutions would draw for their own programs. Engle’s recollections of O’Connor made their way into Giroux’s Introduction to Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories, which would win the National Book Award in 1971.6
The University of iowa
iowa city, iowa 52240
International Writing Program
School of Letters
July 13, 1971
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
19 Union Square West
New York, NY 10003
Dear Mr. Giroux:
Please forgive my long delay in answering your letter of April 26. After it arrived, I have written hundreds of letters in reply to the immense correspondence which this Program demands. However, I did not want to send you merely a quick note. As so often, the really important subject, which is of course Flannery, was put off for the magical moment when an answer in any way worthy of her (and probably there is no way worthy) could be written.
Too many years ago, when I was Director of The Program in Creative Writing in the first years of its growth, Flannery came to the University of Iowa, although I did not know her. She was, I think, a graduate student in journalism. One day I was in my office when a shy knock on the door preceded a shy person, who stood at my desk in silence. By her eyes, I could not tell whether she was looking at me or out the window at the Iowa River below. I asked her to sit down. Fine dignity in the withdrawn way she shared that place with me.
Finally she spoke, uttered sounds which were surely in a secret language. I asked her to repeat. No comprehension again. A third time. No communication. Embarrassed, suspicious, I asked her to write down what she had just said on a pad. She wrote: “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writer’s Workshop?”
She had been speaking her native Georgia tongue (most of which disappeared later). Of the world’s many difficult languages, this must be one of the most impenetrable. I told her to bring examples of her writing and we would consider her, late as it was. Next day, stories arrived. I read them with disbelief. Like Keats, who spoke Cockney, but wrote the purest sounds in English, Flannery spoke a dialect beyond instant comprehension, but on the page her prose was imaginative, tough, alive: just like Flannery herself.
For a few weeks we had this strange and yet trusting relationship. Soon I understood those Georgia pronunciations. The stories were quietly filled with insight, shrewd about human weakness, hard and compassionate. They were the original basis for her book WISE BLOOD. She was shy about having them read, and when it was her turn to have a story presented in the “Workshop,” I would read it aloud anonymously. Robert Penn Warren was teaching a semester while Flannery was at the University of Iowa; there was a scene about a black and a white man, and Warren criticized it as “unreal.” It was changed. Flannery always had a flexible and objective view of her own writing, constantly revising, and in every case, improving. The will to be a writer was adamant; nothing could resist it, not even her own sensibility about her own work. Cut, alter, try it again.
One day Flannery brought a story involving a scene between a young man and young woman about to make love. I began to give my opinion, especially about what seemed to me a lack of intensity, of conviction. She stopped me and said, “Not here.” Looking around at the corridor she added, “People. Can we go to a safer place?” With the manuscript, we went out of the building and across the street to a parking lot and there, sitting in my car with the windows rolled up, we discussed the appropriate phrases for the love situation. She was uncomfortable, but the wish to have it right dominated. It was obvious that she was improvising from innocence.
Sitting at the back of a room, silent, Flannery was more of a presence than the exuberant talkers who serenade every writing class with their loudness. The only communicating gesture she would make was an occasional amused and shy smile at something absurd. The dreary chair she sat in glowed. I have a large photograph of a writing Workshop having a party at a house in the country where I once lived. People are drinking, laughing, making faces, holding up children. It was wholly typical of Flannery that the part of her visible is her right knee, covered by a black-­and-­white checked heavy skirt which she commonly wore. There is spirit about that knee . . .
I am writing this in a little cottage on the beach in California, without carbon paper. Would you be so kind as to send back to Iowa City a xerox copy? I’d be grateful.
Flannery O’Connor to Betty Boyd
A steadfast yet quiet anti-­Communist, O’Connor had left abruptly in 1949 the Yaddo artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. O’Connor’s friend Robert Lowell, the Pulitzer Prize–­winning poet, had exposed an FBI investigation of Yaddo’s director, Elizabeth Ames, for colluding with a Soviet agent, Agnes Smedley. Lowell’s revelation is historically important because both he and O’Connor knew the crucial difference between “Soviet Communists” and “Russians” who appear in the fiction of the country’s great writers. Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for example, is a Russian writer who writes about his countrymen suffering the cruelties and predations of the Communist government. Lowell’s exposure of an American colluding with a Soviet Communist is politically accurate. He was not stoking paranoia about someone colluding with generic “Russians,” a politically inaccurate and dangerously glib formulation. Lowell and O’Connor objected to the Yaddo director actually colluding with a known Communist committed to Marxist ideology. O’Connor and two others supported Lowell’s demand that Ames be dismissed because her association with Agnes Smedley compromised the artistic integrity of Yaddo. O’Connor and Lowell eventually left the community; O’Connor ending up in New York City.
Unlike most American writers, even the theologically astute Martin Luther King, Jr., O’Connor, as a Thomist, consistently understood the heretical nature of Marxism in theological terms. In the last paragraph of the letter O’Connor writes of the ideology’s demonic origins and its familial nature. Similar to C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, she sets forth the idea from the master of demonic, familial conspiracies, Dante, in his presentation of a vast, escalating kingdom of evil in the Inferno, which he describes in the present tense—­[hell] is an eternal state of being. O’Connor also provides another Dantesque formulation that also appears in A Prayer Journal: “No one believes more strongly in God than the devil.”
255 W 108
Your letter was most interesting to me re questions the FBI asked people about your mentioning Yaddo + Mrs. Elizabeth Ames. As Dr. B. probably told you I + 3 other guests, the total there at the time, left Yaddo after asking the Board of Directors to fire Mrs. Ames. We felt, although, we couldn’t prove anything, that there had been at sometime some measure of collusion between her and Communist guests who had spent time there—­notably one named Agnes Smedley who stayed there five years + whose actions there were notably suspicious and who is to common knowledge an active Communist. Our action gained a good deal of publicity—­not through us—­and we have been assailed as people who want to destroy civil liberties etc. etc. Mrs. Ames continues in her post.
We found that the FBI had been watching Yaddo for years. The explanation to the questions asked about your mentioning the place can be one of two: either all the mail that left Yaddo was noted (I don’t mean opened, but looked at in regard to the distribution +the same recorded) and since I wrote you two or three times from Yaddo, they knew your knowledge of the place; or, Yaddo has played a prominent enough part in espionage activity for it to be more or less a routine question. After what I have experienced lately, neither seems too fantastic although I incline to the former explanation.
If you know of anything else being asked about Yaddo or Mrs. Ames, it would be interesting to know what it is. After my experience there, my admiration for the FBI has greatly increased and my opinion of sociologists, never high since I got out of the shadow of GSCW, has got lower + lower unto death.
As to the devil, I not only believe he is but believe he has a family which in the extent + scope of its activities is a power to be reckoned with as stronger than all the dead and unborn put together. Also I believe no one believes more strongly in God than the devil, he having so much cause, and that in the end, we being what we are, its his testimony we will take. Yaddo has confirmed this in me.
I would be pleased if your literate friend would call me, although I don’t feel literate. Let me hear from you.