Flannery O'Connor's letters draw biographers and fans to university
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
DECATUR, Ga. (AP) - They don't seem like much at first glance, the two boxes of yellowing letters sitting amid the shelves of aged leather-bound volumes.
But the 274 epistles have unlocked two decades' worth of mysteries about the years of correspondence between author Flannery O'Connor and longtime friend, Elizabeth (Betty) Hester.
A steady stream of O'Connor biographers and a few fans have wandered into Emory University's special collections library over the last few weeks to read the letters, which were unsealed in mid-May after 20 years. Hester donated them to Emory in 1987 with the stipulation that they remain closed to the public for that long.
"The idea of reading new letters of Flannery O'Connor is amazing," said Brad Gooch, who has been working on a biography about the Georgia native for four years. "It creates a timeline, a picture in your head of what it was like."
The letters begin in 1955 when Hester, a file clerk in Atlanta, wrote to O'Connor, by that time living in Milledgeville, about her stories. O'Connor immediately responded, writing that though the two were separated by 140 kilometres, "I feel the spiritual distance is shorter."
The two women wrote each other until 1964 - the last correspondence coming just a few weeks before O'Connor slipped into a coma and died from complications from lupus, a disease she inherited from her father.
Edited versions of some of the letters were published in a 1979 book but this is the first time the public has had access to the entire collection. Hester's identity as the correspondent in the letters was revealed after her death in 1998.
Many of the letters to Hester reveal O'Connor's sharp, quick wit and her passion for religion, philosophy and literature. The two talked extensively about writing and Catholicism - to which Hester converted briefly at O'Connor's prompting.
"You would probably do just as well to get that plot business out of your head and start simply with a character or anything that you can make come alive," she wrote to Hester. "Wouldn't it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write rather than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you."
The majority of the letters are typed, but some toward the end are handwritten and the writing reveals how poor her health had become near her death.
About the same time that Hester began corresponding with O'Connor, a young English professor named William Sessions started writing to the author, too, and the three began visiting each other and regularly.
He is mentioned in many letters, usually as the "absurd" or "breathless" Billy.
"I enjoyed sitting on the front porch with her," Sessions, a retired Georgia State University professor who is working on an authorized O'Connor biography, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "She could be extremely funny - everything could be seen as humour, nothing was to be denied a joke. If the situation could be turned into a joke or parody or something, her face lit up."
In the letters, O'Connor writes that she subscribes to National Geographic because she likes the way the magazine smells - an "unforgettable, transcendent . . . and very grave odour."
"If Time smelled like National Geographic, there would be some excuse for its being printed," she wrote.
She downplays her fame, saying that celebrity is "a comic distinction shared with Roy Rogers' horse and Miss Watermelon of 1955."
When she sold the rights of "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" in 1956 to CBS' General Electric Theater, she wrote that she planned to buy a refrigerator with the money.
In one letter, O'Connor acknowledges to being embarrassed by her literary influences. Her early school years were marked by the scarce humour writings of Edgar Allan Poe, and she began graduate school at the University of Iowa in 1946 not ever having heard of William Faulkner, Franz Kafka or James Joyce, she writes.
"Then I began to read everything at once, so much so that I didn't have time, I suppose, to be influenced by any one writer," O'Connor writes.
O'Connor graduated from Georgia State College for Women - now Georgia College & State University - and received a master's degree from the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. Her work includes the novels "Wise Blood" and "The Violent Bear It Away." She also produced numerous short stories, including "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."
The vast majority of her literary collection and papers are at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville.
On the Net: Emory University: www.emory.edu
Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation: www.andalusiafarm.org