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Tuesday
May102011

« In Which We Idealize The Letters Of Flannery O'Connor »

What A Long Way A Little Goes

Everything is in the letters of Flannery O'Connor. Everything. She moved to New York when she was in her twenties, thinking she had to escape Georgia to become a writer. Driven back to her mother's home by her illness, she re-rooted herself in the place she had come from, constructing a fiction deeper and more perceptive than any of her peers. In her private writings we find a mind that nothing eludes, who takes no sacred thing for granted except the existence of the God to whom she was devoted.

4/7/49

To Paul Engle

I am in the process of moving. I left Yaddo March 1 and have since been in transit and am now getting ready to go back to New York City where I have a room and where I hope to keep on working on the novel as long as my money holds out, which is not due to be long. Therefore, being in a swivit, I am writing you in brief what I take the situation with Rinehart to be but when I get to New York in ten days I will write you further and send back the letter Rinehart sent you. Thank you for sending it to me.

When I was in New York in September, my agent and I asked Selby how much of the novel they wanted to see before we asked for a contract and an advance. The answer was - about six chapters. So in February I sent them nine chapters (108 pages and all I've done) and my agent asked for an advance and for their editorial opinion.

Their editorial opinion was a long time in coming because obviously they didn't think much of the 108 pages and didn't know what to say. When it did come, it was very vague and I thought totally missed the point of what kind of a novel I am writing. My impression was that they want a conventional novel. However, rather than trust my own judgment entirely I showed the letter to Lowell who had already read the 108 pages. He too thought that the faults Rineheart had mentioned were not the faults of the novel (some of which he had previously pointed out to me). I tell you this to let you know I am not, as Selby implied to me, working in a vacuum.

In answer to the editorial opinion, I wrote Selby that I would have to work on the novel without direction from Rinehart, that I was amenable to criticism but only within the sphere of what I was trying to do.

In New York, a few weeks later, I learned indirectly that nobody at Rinehart liked the 108 pages but Raney (and whether he likes it or not I couldn't really say), that the ladies there particularly had thought it unpleasant (which pleased me). I told Selby that I was willing enough to listen to Rinehart criticism but that if it didn't suit me, I would disregard it. That is the impasse.

Any summary I might try to write for the rest of the novel would be worthless and I don't choose to waste my time at it. I don't write that way. I can't write much more without money and they won't give me any money because they can't see what the finished book will be. That is Part Two of the impasse.

To develop at all as a writer I have to develop in my own way. The 108 pages are very angular and awkward but a great deal of that can be corrected when I have finished the rest of it - and only then. I will not be hurried or directed by Rinehart. I think they are interested in the conventional and I have had no indication that they are very bright. I feel the heart of the matter is they don't care to lose $750 (or as they put it, Seven Hundred and Fifty Dollars).

If they don't feel I am worth giving more money to and leaving alone, then they should let me go. Other publishers, who have read the two printed chapters, are interested. Selby and I came to the conclusion that I was "prematurely arrogant." I supplied him with the phrase.

Now I am sure that no one will understand my need to work this novel out in my own way better than you; although you may feel that I should work faster. No one can convince me I shouldn't rewrite as much as I do. I only hope that in a few years I won't have to so much.

I didn't get any Guggenheim.

If you see Robie tell him to write me.

Flannery

Early 1950

To Elizabeth and Robert Lowell

I won't see you again as I have to go to the hospital Friday and have a kidney hung on a rib. I will be there a month and at home a month. This was none of my plan...

Please write me a card while I am in the hospital. I won't be able to do anything but dislike the nurses.

5/23/52

To Betty Boyd

Cocktails were not served but I loved through it anyway and remember signing a book for you sometime during it. It was very funny to see relics like Miss N. toting home a copy and to imagine it going on inside particular minds, etc. I got a good review from Newsweek - May 19 - and from the NY Tribune and NY Times but I ain't seen any cash yet.

Who should appear for it - and to spend the night with my aunt Mary - but Miss B. She said she felt should be in New York and I said I felt that way too with the voice she had developed - American Stage or something. She is still violently interested in finding herself a husband and still asks personal questions without any preparation and at the most inconvenient times. I do wish somebody would marry the child and shut her up. I am touched by her but you know what a long way a little goes.

I also saw Lucynell Cunningham Smith who is my idea of a very nice person indeed.

I guess with an enfant stalking your problems you have your hands full? Do you all ever aim to visit Georgia?

Flannery

5/24/52

To Robert Giroux

I have had a request for a complimentary copy of Wise Blood from Captain W. of the Salvation Army... for their reading room and would be much obliged if you would send them a copy that I get the 40% off of. I'm always pleased to oblige the Salvation Army. According to some of the reviews you have sent me, I ought to be in it.

Thank you for sending me the clippings, and The Groves of Academe.

I am steeling myself for even more dreadful reviews.

Flannery

6/8/55

To Ben Griffith

As soon as I read your story I thought of two other stories that I felt you should read before you start rewriting this one. One of these is "The Lament" by Chekhov, the other "War" by Luigi Pirandello. Both of these stories are in a book called Understanding Fiction by Cleanth Brooks and R.P. Warren, which you may know but should if you don't. It is a book that has been of invaluable help to me and I think would be to you.

Your story, like these other two, is essentially the presenting of a pathetic situation, and when you present a pathetic situation, you have to let it speak entirely for itself. I mean you have to present it and leave it alone. You have to let the things in the story do the talking. I mean that, as author, you can't force it and I think you tend to force it in your story, every now and then.

The first thing is to see the people at every minute. You get into the old man's mind before you let us know exactly what he looks like. You have got to learn to paint with words. Have the old man the first so that the reader can't escape him. This is something that it has taken me a long time to learn. Ford Madox Ford said you couldn't have somebody sell a newspaper in a story unless you said what he looked like. You have to learn to do this unobtrusively of course. The old man thinks of the daughter-in-law and son talking and recalls their conversation - well he should see them, the reader should see them, should feel from seeing them what their conversation is going to be about almost before he hears it.

Let the old man go through his motions without any comment from you as author and let the things he sees make the pathetic effects. Do you know Joyce's story "The Dead"? See how he makes snow work in that story. Chekhov makes everything work - the air, the light, the cold, the dirt, etc. Show these things and you don't have to say them. I think what the colored man says in your story is very good. But you don't have to say the colored man is about 45 - instead paint him there so the reader will know he's a fat middle-aged Negro and as hurt by the old man as the old man will shortly be by him.

The deaf and dumb child should be seen better - it does no good just to tell us she is seraphically beautiful. She has to move around and make some kind of show of herself so we'll know she's there all the time.

Also in a story like this you don't want to rely on local effects, such as calling the paper he picks up the Macon Telegraph. This is not the kind of story that gets its effects from local things, but from universal feeling of grief that old age and unwantedness call up. I think it could be made into a very fine story if you have the time to work on it. I am a great hand at rewriting myself. It takes a long time to make a thing like this work. Looks simple but is not.

If you do rewrite it, I hope you will let me see it again. This is just the repressed schoolteacher in me cropping out.

Please do bring your wife and children over any time you get ready. Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Bean [ducks] are slated for the deep freeze in August but Clair Booth Loose Goose is going to live a natural life until she dies a natural death. My mother is head of the horse department, so I will have to ask her about an Oveta. I hope you enjoy North Carolina.

Flannery

P.S. The television was mildly ghastly and I am very glad to be back with the chickens who don't know I have just published a book.

7/20/55

To Betty Hester

I am very pleased to have your letter. Perhaps it is even more startling to me to find someone who recognizes my work for what I try to make it than it is for your to find a God-conscious writer near at hand. The distance is 87 miles but I feel the spiritual distance is shorter.

I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement. However, I am Catholic peculiarly possessed of a modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty. To possess this within the Church is to bear a burden, the necessary burden for the conscious Catholic. It's to feel the contemporary situation at the ultimate level. 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. This may explain the lack of bitterness in the stories.

The notice in The New Yorker was not only moronic, it was unsigned. It was a case in which it is easy to see that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.

I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man 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.

You were very kind to write me and the measure of my appreciation must be to ask you to write me again. I would like to know who this is who understands my stories.

Flannery

2/11/56

To Betty Hester

What you say about there being two sexes now brings it home to me. I've always believed there were two but generally acted as if there were only one. I guess meditation and contemplation and all the ways of prayer boil down to keeping it firmly in sight that there are two. I've never spent much time over the bride-bridegroom analogy. For me, perhaps it began for me in the beginning, it's been more father and child. The things you have said about my being surprised to be over twelve, etc., have struck me as being quite comically accurate. When I was twelve I made up my mind absolutely that I would not get any older. I don't remember how I meant to stop it. There was something about "teen" attached to anything that was repulsive to me. I certainly didn't approve of what I saw of people that age. I was a very ancient twelve; my views at that age would have done credit to a Civil War veteran. I am much younger now than I was at twelve, or anyway, less burdened. The weight of centuries lies on children, I'm sure of it.

Flannery

4/17/57

To Maryat Lee

I daresay that being alone in Yokohama for you is equivalent to negotiating passage through the Chicago airport for me. There they also speak a foreign tongue. You have, I trust, arrived in Yokohama? I mean in one piece? Of steady mind and nerve I mean? I hope you have some kind of firearm. A sawed-off shotgun or a Kentucky rifle or something. All I know about the Orient is Terry and the Pirates which I don't read anymore, being too old and advanced in wisdom and knowledge.

I found on arriving at Notre Dame that I wasn't to talk just to the students but was to give a Public Lecture at Night. This added an element of formality but I ignored it. The audience of about 250 or 300 consisted of 25% Bumbling Boys, 25% skirted and beretta-ed simmernarians, 25% higher clergy, 25% faculty and wives, 25% graduate students, 25% ... I am overextending the audience. Anyway, the operation was successful and I have a hundred bucks to compensate for any damage that may have been done to my nervous system.

My parent took advantage of my absence to clean up my room and install revolting ruffled curtains. I can't put the dust back but I have ultimated that the curtains have go to go, lest they ruin my prose. She looks forward to any departure of mine as an opportunity to ravage my room and it always looks shaken when I return to it.

The next Occasion for me will be at the local college on something they call Honors Day and at which me and another worthy are to be "honored." I can do without all honors that do not carry stipends with them but if you convey this crude sentiment to your brother, I shall consider you a Skunk of the Third Water and will declare in public that you are a lier.

Don't forgit my saber-toothed tiger.

Flannery

5/19/57

To Cecil Dawkins

Thank you for writing me - and for mailing the letter. It is fine to know that freshmen are being introduced to contemporary literature somewhere. I had never heard of K.A. Porter or Faulkner or Eudora Welty until I got to graduate school, but so many do not; they leave college thinking that literature is anything written before 1900 and that contemporary literature is anything found on the best-seller list...

Of course I hear the complaint over and over that there is no sense in writing about people who disgust you. I think there is; but the fact is that the people I write about certainly don't disgust me entirely though I see them from a standard of judgment from which they fall short. Your freshman who said there was something religious here was correct. I take the Dogmas of the Church literally and this, I think, is what creates what you call the "missing link." The only concern, so far as I see it, is what Tillich calls "the ultimate concern." It is what makes the stories spare and what gives them any permanent quality they may have.

There is really only one answer to the people who complain about one's writing about unpleasant people - and that is that one writes what one can. Vocation implies limitation but few people realize it who don't actually practice an art. Your freshman might be improved by a look at Maritain's Art and Scholasticism. He dwells on St. Thomas' definition of art as a virtue of the practical intellect, etc.

Flannery

6/29/58

To Father J.H. McCown

Your mother sounds just like my mother. You should bring her down some time as I feel sure there is nothing they wouldn't agree about...

If you ever get to read a book these days, read one called The Magic Barrel by a Bernard Malamud. The stories deal with Jews and they are the real thing. Really spiritual and really funny. Somebody was telling me yesterday that the reason Jews are ahead of Catholics in every intellectual pursuit is very simple: they have more brains. I believe it.

Flannery

photo by joseph de cassares

The following letter is abridged.

5/24/60 & 5/31/60

To Maryat Lee

I'll be pleased to meet your friend. Is she passing through here or what; or do you mean meet through the mail?? My "helping" your writing was largely a matter of your pulling what you wanted out of my head while I sat there. Also a matter of there is a kinship between us, in spite of all the difference there are. But it is unlikely I would be any help to someone else - but anyway I would be glad to converse with her or whatever. I would rather not read the novel of anyone I don't know though because there is too much danger of hurting the person. I don't mean hurting his feelings, I mean hurting his writing. I never keep my mouth shut enough about things that temperamentally aren't to my taste.

I beat my brains out every morning on a story I am hacking at and in the afternoon I am exhausted is why I haven't got down to the type writer. It takes great energy to typewrite something. When I typewrite something the critical instinct operates automatically and slows me down. When I write it by hand, I don't pay too much attention to it.

What do you mean - you were IN Camino Real? You acted in it? You watched it or what?

I don't know how you would tell anybody his writing was mannered, except you say, "Brother this is mannered." I once had the sentence: "He ran through the field of dead cotton" and Allen Tate told me it was mannered; should have been "dead cotton field." I don't hold that against Allen. Give him something good to criticize and he would do better.

I hope you don't have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re: fiction. 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.

Flannery

You can find more of the letters of Flannery O'Connor here. You can purchase her selected letters, edited by Sally Fitzgerald, here.

This Recording Presents How and Why to Write

Part One (Joyce Carol Oates, Gene Wolfe, Philip Levine, Thomas Pynchon, Gertrude Stein, Eudora Welty, Don DeLillo, Anton Chekhov, Mavis Gallant, Stanley Elkin)

Part Two (James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Margaret Atwood, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov)

Part Three (W. Somerset Maugham, Langston Hughes, Marguerite Duras, George Orwell, John Ashbery, Susan Sontag, Robert Creeley, John Steinbeck)

Part Four (Flannery O'Connor, Charles Baxter, Joan Didion, William Butler Yeats, Lyn Hejinian, Jean Cocteau, Francine du Plessix Gray, Roberto Bolano)

Our Novels, Ourselves

Part One (Tess Lynch, Karina Wolf, Elizabeth Gumport, Sarah LaBrie, Isaac Scarborough, Daniel D'Addario, Elisabeth Donnelly, Lydia Brotherton, Brian DeLeeuw)

Part Two (Alice Gregory, Jason Zuzga, Andrew Zornoza, Morgan Clendaniel, Jane Hu, Ben Yaster, Barbara Galletly, Elena Schilder, Almie Rose)

Part Three (Alexis Okeowo, Benjamin Hale, Robert Rutherford, Kara VanderBijl, Damian Weber, Jessica Ferri, Britt Julious, Letizia Rossi, Will Hubbard, Durga Chew-Bose, Rachel Syme, Amanda McCleod, Yvonne Georgina Puig)

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Reader Comments (2)

"nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism."

May 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDerrick

My favorite extract from her letters: “I’m a full-time believer in writing habits...You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.”

May 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPierre

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