“Good Things Out of Nazareth: The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Friends” is the epistolary record of Flannery O’Connor’s other life, the life lived behind the printed page in small-town Georgia. This life is not nearly as “large and startling” as her fiction, but it is unforgettable all the same.
Good Things Out of Nazareth: The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Friends, edited by Benjamin B. Alexander (416 pages, Convergent Books, 2019)
FLANNERY O’CONNOR PASSED AWAY EARLY THIS AM.
THANKS FOR ALL YOUR KINDNESS.
Thus closed one of the most remarkable American lives of the twentieth century. By the time of her death, Flannery O’Connor, the author of such towering works as Wise Blood and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” was being hailed as a fiction writer of genius. As the import of her work became clearer following the close of her short life, hers began to be recognized as a talent such as comes perhaps once in a hundred years. By now, many of us can sketch in the broad strokes of O’Connor’s life and work: a Georgian homebody content to raise peafowl on a farm in Milledgeville who spun out some of the most “large and startling” scenes in American literary history. As a person she was reticent, but her stories blare like sirens, blind like flares. A quiet, enigmatic woman, Flannery O’Connor was the owner of a wild and fecund imagination, the wellspring of her unforgettable writing and the part of her that her readers know best.
Good Things Out of Nazareth: The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Friends is the epistolary record of a goodly portion of O’Connor’s other life, the life lived behind the printed page. This life is not nearly as “large and startling” as O’Connor’s fiction, but it is unforgettable all the same.
The title of this new collection of letters to, from, and about O’Connor comes from one which Caroline Gordon, O’Connor’s novelist friend and dedicated draft-critic (and onetime wife of another Southern literary giant, Allen Tate), wrote in 1951 to yet another fiction-writing Southerner, Walker Percy, about the emerging contours of a literary movement from Dixie: “Well,” writes Gordon, seemingly a little nonplussed that the pine forests and red clay have coughed up so many geniuses, “this is the season when the good things come out of Nazareth.” The editor of the volume, literary scholar and educator Benjamin B. Alexander, explains that “Nazareth” is “an allusion to the tiny (some considered backwater) town where Jesus lived with his parents. In other words, something important was rising from a place many ignored.” (xvi) Flannery O’Connor had attended the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and like Walker Percy had spent time among the movers and shakers in New York, but also like Percy she had chosen to live in relative seclusion in a small Southern town. She went on excursions giving lectures and going on pilgrimages—to Texas, Notre Dame, Lourdes, and more—and she kept up correspondence with people in South America and Paris and beyond, but for all that world-traveling and global letter-writing she always preferred, she confesses, to be home. To fellow writer Ward Allison Dorrance O’Connor wrote:
I don’t go along with you on liking their [i.e., writers’] company as a general rule or because they’re writers. They’ve got to come from somewhere. Too many of them don’t come from anywhere, don’t belong anywhere, and couldn’t if they tried. (286)
She then goes on to tell Dorrance about her “ma in action” and the hands and boarders who work on the farm. Good times or bad, “Nazareth” was always where O’Connor wanted to be.
Flannery O’Connor lived a life largely hidden from the world, it is true, and on top of that she had the very Southern gift for self-deprecation. The letters in Good Things Out of Nazareth are filled with funny asides and wry observations at her own expense, and so it would be easy to assume that Nazareth was all that was on O’Connor’s mental horizon as she faced her typewriter and wrote out the stories and books that would win her lasting renown. But her letters tell a different story. O’Connor knew very much what was going on in the world outside of Nazareth and in her fiction—although it is universalized and beyond any given moment, as art ought to be—one can discern the hidden shapes of events and ideas stretching far outside the small dairy farm on which O’Connor lived most of her earthly days. From Nazareth, as her letters reveal, she took in a great deal of information and thought through it in her own singular way. In Good Things Out of Nazareth O’Connor writes letters, for instance, about Communism—she was very much against it, it turns out, and even joined Robert Lowell in standing up to the director of the Saratoga Springs, New York Yaddo artists’ colony, Elizabeth Ames, when O’Connor learned that the FBI was investigating Ames for possible Soviet subversion. (5-6) O’Connor also discusses the Cold War, race relations (she supported the civil rights movement and encouraged others to fight the good fight, too), literature from around the world, in particular French, and, more than anything else, religion. O’Connor may have been a homebody, but she was no hermit. The abstracted world of her fiction is the sibling to O’Connor’s deep engagement with the things going on in the world around her.
O’Connor was an especially astute and exceptionally well-informed student of the Catholic Church, and this comes through in so many of the letters collected in Good Things Out of Nazareth. She was a cradle Catholic, after all, and she knew the Church from the inside out, all of its foibles and shortcomings. The current events of the Church—the huge changes stirring in the Catholic world and heralded by radicals like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (whom O’Connor admired) and the first whispers of a second Vatican council—lace O’Connor’s letters with her friends and those who wrote to her out of the blue seeking spiritual insight. O’Connor had read widely in St. Thomas Aquinas and other saints and Doctors of the Church, and to nearly everyone who asked her she offered her frank, profound views on the religion that formed her in every way. In the heart of the Protestant South, O’Connor nurtured a quiet, dauntless devotion to the Faith.
O’Connor was a Catholic, then. A serious one. But more than religion, Flannery O’Connor knew grace. She thought religious literature was usually badly done—she strains in many letters to be polite about novels written by nuns—and she eschews overt Catholicism in nearly every page of her own fiction, but grace suffuses the air in which her unsettling stories unfold. Much more than Catholicism, grace is the motif of everything Flannery O’Connor wrote. There is a moment in every O’Connor story I can think of when grace flashes through the muck and soil and sin of the world, when the Holy Ghost breaks free and we are given a vision of another world. A peacock fans his Byzantine-jeweled feathers, and Heaven spreads out before us. A hardened sinner mumbles, “Hep me Jesus,” as he lies dying in the road. A closed-off woman gets gored by a bull out of nowhere and whispers in his ear as he pins her run-through body. O’Connor’s God is not aloof and hidden away in theology books. For her, the Living God is real, present in the Eucharist (to which she once compared the sun), and ready at any moment to conquer the world with the utterly astonishing workings of a terrible love that goes beyond all human reckoning. In her letters, O’Connor emerges as a woman for whom Nazareth was equal to anywhere else because God is sovereign and goes wherever and does whatever He pleases. The characters in O’Connor’s fiction are similarly defenseless before the in-breaking of grace into the world. In one word, life or art, it was grace that made Flannery O’Connor who she was in her heart of hearts.
In another book of O’Connor’s letters, The Habit of Being, we learn some of the biographical details of O’Connor’s life, her existence as a writer set on a trajectory for greatness from the beginning. “O’Connor,” the literary phenomenon, looms large in The Habit of Being. But in Good Things Out of Nazareth we see the artist much more as a single human being, the thundering prowess of the fiction writer giving way to the woman who, we learned later from her prayer journal, was often wracked by a pain she revealed in her lifetime to no one, it seems, but God. We get to know more about the depths of her suffering, the humiliation she endured from a disease which took from her her mobility and eventually her life. The person in Good Things Out of Nazareth is less O’Connor and more Miss Flannery, as we might have known her had we stopped by the dairy farm for an afternoon to sit with her and Miss Regina. Good Things Out of Nazareth largely presumes that readers will be familiar with Flannery O’Connor the artist and the public figure, and if one is going to read O’Connor’s letters one should start with The Habit of Being before taking up this latest collection of her communications. But once one has read The Habit of Being one should not stop there. Good Things Out of Nazareth is the essential companion to the big-picture life we thought we knew. Flannery O’Connor has riches to offer us yet, here fifty-six years to the day after she went to meet the God she spent her life obliquely but insistently praising.
Like O’Connor herself, Good Things Out of Nazareth is not perfect. There are some occasional asides by the editor which go beyond the duties of contextualization and shade over into political sermonizing. But these scattered grumblings are buried in the endnotes, and anyway the notes are otherwise so nicely done and filled with truly useful information—if you don’t know what a Yellow Dog Democrat is, then you don’t know the first thing about being Southern—that one can easily forgive a smattering of innuendo against certain public figures the editor doesn’t like. O’Connor did the same in her letters, and it is this texture, caused by the seams showing now and again, which reveals so much about the interworkings of the lives O’Connor’s touched, a web of relationships and prayers which formed the backdrop to some of the greatest literary art that America has ever produced.
Benjamin B. Alexander has crafted a book which is worthy of its subject, one of the finest Americans and an unassuming literary figure whose body of work ranks with those of Melville, Faulkner, and Pound. None of those great writers came from anywhere famous, either. Melville and Pound wandered, but Faulkner stayed. Maybe that’s what made him a Southern writer. Attachment to Nazareth is what made Flannery O’Connor Flannery O’Connor, and in this new book we can see the beautiful soul glimmering through the trammels the world throws up, grace breaking free and converting everything to “something good.”
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