Flannery O’Connor’s letters offer sharp insights into her writing

“Good Things Out of Nazareth” collects the thoughts of the Georgia-born author as she confided in mentors, colleagues, and friends.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Good Things Out of Nazareth: The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Friends” edited by Benjamin B. Alexander, Convergent, 400 pp.

In the world of book publishing, the temptation to extend an author’s literary life often proves irresistible. Perhaps most famously, the 1961 death of Ernest Hemingway did not serve as an impediment to the release of numerous volumes of until-then unseen writings – some worthwhile, others interminable, but none on a par with, say, “A Farewell to Arms.”

Georgia native Flannery O’Connor (1925-64), author of the classic novel “Wise Blood” and countless short stories, including “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” was hardly in need of additional publications to bolster her reputation. Yet that has not dissuaded publishers from releasing work that O’Connor had opted not to make public during her lifetime, including a journal of her prayers and a coffee-table book of inventive cartoons she churned out in young adulthood.

The latest posthumous O’Connor publication, “Good Things Out of Nazareth,” turns out to be no less than the third assembly of the author’s correspondence to appear since her death – and, in fact, the second to see publication in the last 12 months. It was preceded by “The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon,” a 2018 gathering of exchanges between the writer and one of her mentors, and “The Habit of Being,” which has acquired classic status since its first appearance in 1979.

Cynics may charge that this book is a sign of diminishing returns in the O’Connor cottage industry, but readers who prize the author for her acerbic intelligence and deep commitment to her Roman Catholic faith will have no reason to complain. 

Editor Benjamin Alexander, who teaches at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, hatched the idea for the current collection upon learning about O’Connor letters that had not made the cut for inclusion in “The Habit of Being,” despite her closeness to several correspondents. For example, “She often wrote to a Jesuit priest, the Rev. James H. McCown, who appears sparingly in ‘The Habit of Being,’” Alexander writes. “He visited her many times at the Georgia farm.”

Colleagues, mentors, and peers are all represented here. The back-and-forth between O’Connor and McCown dates to 1956, when he introduced himself to her as an admirer of her writing. Intriguingly, their exchanges feature the author providing instruction to the priest – not about spiritual matters, but about the surprising ways that seemingly irreligious fiction can nonetheless reflect religious ideas. 

Expressing impatience with works of overtly Catholic writers, such as Georges Bernanos, O’Connor writes, “You get more benefit reading someone like Hemingway where there is apparently a hunger for a Catholic completeness in life, or Joyce who can’t get rid of it no matter what he does.” She springs to the defense of Lutheran (and later Episcopalian) writer John Updike, whose novel “Rabbit, Run” featured too many sex scenes for her taste, but still possessed a spiritual dimension to be admired. 

Throughout her correspondence, O’Connor is revealed to be confident enough in her own religious convictions that she has precious little patience for piousness – a genuinely refreshing attitude.

The book is valuable for providing a peek into the birth pangs of some of her work. Caroline Gordon offers O’Connor appreciative but not uncritical opinions. Sometimes her judgments were on big-picture matters, such as the lack of background detail in “Wise Blood.” “The whole book would gain by not being so stripped, so bare, by surrounding the core of action with some contrasting material,” writes Gordon, who could also be the most scrupulous of copy editors. Writing to O’Connor about her short story “The Displaced Person,” Gordon objects that “there is no such word as ‘squinch.’” 

Other highlights include O’Connor’s thoughtful answers to one attentive reader’s apparently extensive array of questions about “Wise Blood”; and her comments, in a letter to Ward Allison Dorrance, about the inspiration it takes to write – an experience she refers to as a kind of grace: “Its [sic] just like you said: you have to be chosen. And in between times of being chosen, you have to keep on writing.” A continual delight is O’Connor’s Southern-inflected, occasionally down-home phrasing, as in this passage: “In one of my affluent years I bought me a Smith Corona compact 250 electric typewriter.”

As hinted at in the subtitle “and Friends,” the book includes many letters that do not feature O’Connor on either the receiving or sending end. Although the editor’s attempt to sketch the circle in which O’Connor traveled is admirable, some readers may lose interest when encountering letters that do not concern O’Connor.

Perhaps this book, then, may represent the final major contribution to the posthumous career of Flannery O’Connor – but it’s a fine note to end on. 

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