Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Flannery O’Connor, one of the most important and influential writers in the American tradition. I’m not necessarily one to keep track of such things as the birth and death dates of writers long since gone, no matter how much I admire their work, but O’Connor’s passing somehow feels personal to me this summer.
I recently worked my way through The Habit of Being, a 600-plus-page collection of O’Connor’s letters. I’m not often interested in reading collected letters, but this body of correspondence with other writers, fans, critics, spiritual seekers, and nonplussed students looking for help with their academic work on O’Connor’s writing was a fascinating read. The letters sing with the same ironic, smart, controlled voice that O’Connor used in her fiction, and, to me, there’s far too little of her fiction left to us.
O’Connor’s a writer whose work readers seem to either love or hate. I fall squarely on the side of enthusiastic love. Hazel Motes, The Misfit, and Joy-Hulga are characters that haunt me in the best of ways, and O’Connor’s over-the-top dramatic style, refusal to moderate the intensity in her work to suit her critics, and dogged adherence to the themes that obsessed her are all traits I admire and hope to emulate. I don’t share her religious beliefs (while reading her letters, I often though, Purgatory? Really?), but I admired the courage she had to maintain a life of faith without ever turning a blind eye to the abuses of and inconsistencies within the Catholic church.
But O’Connor’s also a problematic figure. Too little, I think, has been made of her troubling racial politics. It’s easy to look at a story like “Everything that Rises Must Converge” and see what looks like a scathing rebuke of segregation, but to read the story alongside O’Connor’s letters is to see that O’Connor thought integration to be an unnecessary hoopla, a rousing of rabbles that were unjustified in their grievances. At times, O’Connor’s letters made me want to shake her, and to ask how on earth her faith could correspond with such a lackadaisical attitude toward the sufferings of other human beings.
Something else about O’Connor bothers me deeply, too. In terms of this second fault, I’m probably exercised about it because I see the same tendencies in myself: O’Connor assumed she had time. A lot of time. She wasn’t too worried about getting written everything that she wanted to write, or about the timeframe in which she’d complete any particular piece of work. Even in the last year of her short life, she maintained that she had plenty of years in which to perfect her stories. She didn’t.
O’Connor didn’t know that the lupus she’d had since she was young would kill her at age 39. I didn’t know that, while I was reading her letters, a medical crisis would land me in the ICU. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d get out of there. We don’t ever know how much time we have, or what will stop us from working.
After finishing The Habit of Being and having made my own way back to some kind of normalcy this summer, I find a question echoing in the back of my head: am I being ambitious enough? Am I working hard enough, fast enough? Am I writing as well as I can right now? I don’t plan on keeling over any time soon, but there are some experiences that jar one into realizing that none of us is given any guarantee of time.
I’d be happy to leave behind any single piece of writing as good as O’Connor’s, that’s for sure. I don’t want to drag my feet in getting there.