Good Things Out of Nazareth:
The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Friends
by flannery o’connor
edited by benjamin b. alexander
convergent, 416 pages, $26
In graduate school, I was a teaching assistant for a course on postwar novels, and I observed over the course of two semesters that no one ever wrote a truly good paper on Ian McEwan’s Atonement or a truly bad paper on Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Something about Spark’s precise language and carefully constructed plot got into students’ minds and forced them to be clear and bright. Something about McEwan’s muddled metafiction led only to further muddling. Time with a book is time inside the author’s mind, and there is something to be said for choosing authors who can sharpen one, as iron sharpens iron.
Which brings us to Good Things Out of Nazareth: The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Friends, edited by Benjamin B. Alexander. Insofar as books are windows to the soul, this one is quite a conundrum. O’Connor possesses one of the sharpest minds readers will ever encounter, and her dry humor and understated brilliance are at their best in her correspondence. The Habit of Being, an earlier and more substantial collection of O’Connor’s letters, edited by Sally Fitzgerald and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1979, is a treasure. But here her words have been arranged and edited so bizarrely and so sloppily that the overall effect of the book is to drive a careful reader mad.
From the preface it becomes clear that something is amiss. Alexander offers a strange mix of personal revelation and off-topic invective. Some revelations are deliberate and baffling: Alexander’s mother read The Habit of Being; he once went to a conference in Rome, near the Vatican—fine things as far as they go, but surely not worth mentioning in this context. Other revelations seem to be unintentional. Alexander recounts a conversation with a priest about “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” perhaps O’Connor’s most taught and anthologized story, in which an escaped criminal called the Misfit shoots a family, one by one, by the side of the road. The priest, Alexander relates, “stared at me in disbelief when I told him the story is not really about a serial killer murdering a family.” As well he should have.
Before one is through with Good Things Out of Nazareth, one will have learned Alexander’s views on a dizzying variety of subjects. He disapproves of communism and grossly misunderstands one of O’Connor’s letters in order to recruit her to his theory that Marxism has “demonic origins” and a “familial nature.” He also disapproves of Bernie Sanders and the contemporary Democratic party, Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day, and the liturgical reforms of the Episcopal Church in the 1970s. He approves of capitalism, corporations, Thomas Jefferson, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Ronald Reagan but not George W. Bush. He endorses a reference to Teilhard de Chardin by Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry during the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. He knows which American presidents of the last seventy years have golfed, and which have not golfed. These thoughts are scattered like buckshot throughout the book.
The arrangement of letters, too, is puzzling. If you buy this book expecting that it will consist entirely or mostly of O’Connor’s words—which is what the dust jacket would plainly have you do—be ready for her to disappear for stretches, especially in the first quarter. At one point, she is gone for a full thirty pages. Letters are grouped into thematic chapters, only semi-coherently. “Her Kind of Literature: Places and Folks” is a kitchen-sink catch-all, just like it sounds. “Removing Choice Souls So Soon” covers O’Connor’s death from lupus at the age of thirty-nine—but it departs from its elegiac tone to jump back in time to two letters about translating O’Connor’s stories for Czech and Polish readers in order to score a point against communism.
Within the chapters, chronological chaos and perplexing annotations likewise reign. In one instance, Flannery O’Connor thanks Caroline Gordon—a novelist and literary critic thirty years her senior, who had converted to Catholicism in 1947 and thereafter took it upon herself to mentor younger Catholic writers—for her advice on the manuscript of what would become O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood. But we cannot fully understand O’Connor’s response until twenty pages later, which is where Caroline Gordon’s initial letter to O’Connor about Wise Blood appears, with its effusive praise and extensive suggestions for revision. The decision to include letters by O’Connor’s interlocutors could have been a good one. There is potentially much to be gained from seeing both sides of what is clearly a conversational form. But not like this.
More often than not, Alexander’s notes are confusing, and in several instances his transcriptions appear faulty. The book ignores established conventions for the selection, ordering, and dating of letters in scholarly editions, and its annotations provide the exact opposite of what a good edition should do. Readers need context to understand a text and its circumstances of composition; they do not need someone else’s preformed interpretation.
So that’s the bad news. The good news is that if you’re willing to do a lot of sifting, there are gems to be found in the letters themselves. These gems include, as one would expect, funny snapshots of life in Milledgeville, Georgia, the small town where O’Connor was raised and where she returned to live with her mother after her lupus first emerged. Inquiring about Sally Fitzgerald and her family’s new address in late fall, she explains, “My mother wants to know where to send their fruit cake. She has her fruit cake seizure about this time of year and there’s nothing to be done about it but get out of the way.” For readers who want comedy and local color, though, The Habit of Being is still your best bet; there’s just much more of it there.
The richest vein in Good Things Out of Nazareth instead has to do with the glimpses it offers of Catholic writers talking shop in the middle of the twentieth century, a moment that Dana Gioia described in these pages as “the first full flowering of the American Catholic imagination.” Caroline Gordon barely appears in The Habit of Being, but here she emerges as an unsung hero. It’s Gordon who does the most to edge out O’Connor in the beginning of the book, and Gordon who supplies the title. Just after Christmas 1951, she writes excitedly to a librarian friend that in “this season of the year when good things come out of Nazareth,” the “two best first novels I have ever read have come to me,” one from O’Connor and the other from Walker Percy, both then unknown. They have written, she declares, “the novel of the future—the novel they will all be trying to write.”
Gordon, it turns out, does a lot of declaring. Some of it is pedantic, as for instance her formula for a good paragraph: “Short declarative sentence. Declarative sentence a little longer than the first. Short declarative sentence. Sentence beginning with a subordinate clause. . . .” But some of her declarations are brilliant, and worth thinking over by Catholic writers and scholars. Several aspects of O’Connor’s work that I have long admired—most notably, her use of beauty in descriptions of the created world, to set the sordid doings of man as fallen creature in high relief—are revealed to have been devices initially suggested by Gordon. Gordon also presages by a decade and a half John Barth’s argument about the “literature of exhaustion,” when she says that “the Protestant mystique (which is what everybody who isn’t a Catholic, even Communists, are writing out of, whether they know it or not) is out-worn, sucked-dry, beginning to rot, to stink.” She concludes, “There’s no juice left in that orange.”
The way forward, Gordon says, rests with Catholic writers, who do “not have to create a new heaven and a new earth, as some secular writers seem to feel called on to do.” They can take as their foundation narratives, symbols, truths, and powers larger than themselves—though they must not lean on these structures of faith so heavily that they shirk their duty as artists. “A Catholic novelist who relies more on his technique than his piety is what is badly needed right now,” Gordon tells Walker Percy in 1951, openly hoping he’ll get the job done. Elsewhere, O’Connor agrees that piety is not enough:
Your Catholicism affects your art, no doubt about it, but an intense application to the discipline of an art or even some craft should intensify your Catholicism. I have about decided that form is one’s moral backbone transposed to the subject at hand.
And hence the great irony and missed opportunity of this book: It contains the raw material for a very different collection of letters, one with more discipline and vision, or perhaps for a narrative that could spell out the connections more clearly. That book would have used the figures collected here, and others, to understand why Catholic writers flourished seventy years ago—in what were heady days for Episcopalian and Jewish writers, too.
Several times the question has been asked in print whether Catholic fiction is now dead. A good baseline might be to understand how it saw itself functioning when it was most alive. In 1958, Gordon presents O’Connor with a set of “first principles” for Catholic fiction writers,
principles which I can name outright to you but which I have to approach cautiously with my secular pupils. There is only one plot. The Scheme of Redemption. All other plots, if they are any good, are splinters off this basic plot. There is only one author: The HG [Holy Ghost]. If He condescends to speak at times through a well-constructed detective story, which I think he does, he certainly will condescend to speak often through FO’C.
My own experiences with literary editing tell me that Gordon is onto something about the Holy Ghost lurking in every piece of good fiction, whether sacred or profane, because the right words in the right combination are inexhaustible in a way that points to the eternal. In the midst of collating editions—drudgery of all drudgeries!—I have more than once marveled to find myself laughing out loud, or with tears springing to my eyes, at words that should have lost their effect on me long before.
For Gordon and O’Connor, the work of reading, too, requires moral firmness and technical skill. Several times in Good Things Out of Nazareth, O’Connor rails at professional critics who miss her point and invent their own. It makes “my hair stand on end,” she confesses to a Jesuit friend.
Any analysis seems to be acceptable so long as it is not obvious, and when you stop to think that students are trained to read this way, the prospect of submitting your writing to continual misunderstanding becomes right cheerless.
In one instance, we are privileged to be flies on the wall as O’Connor pushes back against such excesses:
I read at Wesleyan last week—“A Good Man is Hard to Find.” After the reading, I went to one of their classes to answer questions. There were several young teachers in there and one began by saying, “Miss O’Connor, why is the Misfit’s hat black?” I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats. He looked quite disappointed. Then he said, “Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?” “He does not,” says I. He really looked hurt at that. Finally he said, “Well, Miss O’Connor, what IS the significance of the Misfit’s hat?” “To cover his head,” I say. He looked crushed then and left me alone.
O’Connor’s frustration here is two-fold. It is directed first at a phenomenon O’Connor elsewhere calls “modern-day Manichaeism”—the desire to bypass the physical world and go straight for transcendental meaning—and second at a desperate grasping after symbols where none are intended, because O’Connor’s intended symbols have lost their relevance to secular readers. To Fr. Scott Watson, a philosophy professor at Loyola University, New Orleans, she laments, “Most people find baptism just another idiocy, prophecy an anachronism; the Eucharist nothing but a symbol, or rather just a sign.”
The final revelation that emerges from these unguarded letters to old friends and fellow Catholics is a surprising tenderness, or vulnerability, in O’Connor. She knows her limits, as a believer and a writer. Twice she admires J. F. Powers—a Catholic novelist and short-story writer whose frequently satirical fiction centers on the clergy—but admits that she hasn’t the stomach to do what he does: “When it gets around to Catholic vulgarity, that is too Business-Pious and being too close to home; hurts too much; hurts too much to write about.” O’Connor often described herself as a native of two countries, the South and the Church; these letters confirm that she felt qualified to sit in judgment on only one.
And for all her frustrations with secular readers and critics, she can’t shake a kind of evangelical impulse to reach them. “When one writes, or anyway when I do, I have constantly in my mind the kind of person I am trying to get my vision across to,” O’Connor explains, again to Fr. Watson.
For me, this person is always an unbeliever and the strain of making him see is considerable. Perhaps it is too much to ask to make him see. All I really hope to do is disturb him, lose him a night’s sleep maybe.
The same week, she wonders to Andrew Lytle, who had been her instructor at the Iowa Writers Workshop decades earlier, whether her famous formulation—“for the hard of hearing you shout, for the blind, you draw large and startling figures”—needed to be reworked:
I keep seeing Elias in that cave, waiting to hear the voice of the Lord in the thunder and lightning and wind, and only hearing it finally in the gentle breeze, and I feel I’ll have to be able to do that sooner or later, or anyway keep trying.
This is an astonishing statement from a writer known for depicting grace as a violent blow—a shot to the chest, a book thrown at the head, a current in a river strong enough to drown. Her talent for razing contemporary idols in shocking ways is precisely what makes O’Connor’s fiction so compelling. Who would have guessed that, as she saw the ground begin to clear, she felt compelled to speak of God in a whisper?
Cassandra Nelson is an associate fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.