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The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor Paperback – August 1, 1988
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover," illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Learn more
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“To compare her with the great letter writers in our language may seem presumptuous and would have elicited from her one of her famous steely glances, but Byron, Keats, Lawrence, Wilde and Joyce come irresistibly to mind: correspondence that gleams with consciousness.” ―The New York Times
“These hundreds of letters give O'Connor's tough, funny, careful personality to us more distinctly and movingly than any biography probably would... Remarkable and inspiring.” ―Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Flannery O'Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925. When she died at the age of thirty-nine, America lost one of its most gifted writers at the height of her powers. O'Connor wrote two novels, Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960), and two story collections, A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge (1964). Her Complete Stories, published posthumously in 1972, won the National Book Award that year, and in a 2009 online poll it was voted as the best book to have won the award in the contest's 60-year history. Her essays were published in Mystery and Manners (1969). In 1988 the Library of America published her Collected Works; she was the first postwar writer to be so honored. O'Connor was educated at the Georgia State College for Women, studied writing at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and wrote much of Wise Blood at the Yaddo artists' colony in upstate New York. She lived most of her adult life on her family's ancestral farm, Andalusia, outside Milledgeville, Georgia.
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"I must say that the thought of everyone lolling about in an emotionally satisfying faith is repugnant to me. The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally…there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive." – 9/6/55
"I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it." – 7/20/55
"I hate to say most of those prayers written by saints-in-an-emotional-state. You feel you are wearing somebody else’s finery and I can never describe my heart as “burning” to the Lord (who knows better) without snickering." – 3/10/56
Or, if you're more interested in O'Connor as a writer:
"I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call <em>A Good Man</em> brutal and sarcastic. The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and that I have reported the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror." – 7/20/55
"The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction." – 3/28/61
"In any fiction where the omniscient narrator uses the same language as the characters, there is a loss of tension and a lowering of tone." – 8/21/55
In short, there are many riches here. I've left out excerpts from the letters where she writes about her impossibly colorful rural farm, her peacocks, the characters in her town. That's entertaining, but it's not important. It serves to leaven the book, and fill out O'Connor as a real person in a real place. Flannery O'Connor died of lupus at the age of 39, and had she lived, she would still be short of ninety. It's sad to think of what she might have produced had she been given more years, but in this book of letters she wrote to friends and colleagues, she's left a full lifetime's food for thought.
First, O'Connor was truly a child of her time and her place. Most of her life was spent in Georgia, with only a few small stints in Iowa, Connecticut, and shorter stays in a couple of other places. So her language and recorded experiences show the era in which she grew up and lived. This means she used contemporaneous characterizations of the Black folks who worked around her. But, to the discerning reader, it will become subtly clear that she didn't completely agree with the discriminatory mindset of her compeers.
Further, O'Connor new what she was about with the characters in her writings. Several letters express why her characters acted this way or that, the rationale behind their decisions, and the reasons for her writings. "The writer has to make the corruption believable before he can make the grace meaningful" (516). The grotesque in her stories was intentional but not gratuitous. If one has read her works and puzzled over what is happening, they will find "The Habit of Being" helpful.
Then, O'Connor was unashamedly a pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic. Her faith is a struggle for her at times, but it is real with her. And she was certain that her faith was not a hindrance to her writings; "I write with a solid belief in all the Christian dogmas. I find that this in no way limits my freedom as a writer and that it increases rather than decreases my vision" (147). As a Protestant reader, I found myself pleasantly surprised. She was truly Roman Catholic, and yet many of her observations roused the pleasure in my heart as she beautifully diagnosed the age in which she lived; held up the importance and centrality of Scripture; and declared her utter confidence in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. And her clear-eyed recognition of the importance of God's truth is refreshing: "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally" (100).
Last - out of all the other things I could say -O'Connor was civility in the flesh. She obviously didn't agree with several of her interlocutors. She would unashamedly state where she disagreed, and what was the correct side of the subject. But then she would continue to write and show genuine care for those to whom she was writing. Whether it was Dr. Spivey, the anonymous friend "A," or Maryat Lee, to name a few. Her approach was immovable, but compassionate. She would hold her own without demonizing the other.
My trip through "The Habit of Being" was a pleasure. If you're a Flannery O'Connor fan, or maybe have just been introduced to her in your Literature class and are intrigued with her style, this is a book to take hold of, and read with underlining pen in hand. I happily and heartily recommend the book.
Anyway, I'm looking forward to finishing the letters and getting an insight to Flannery O'Connor's life as a writer.