Earlier this month the United States Postal Service honored Flannery O’Connor by placing her image, garlanded by peacock feathers, on a 93-cent postage stamp, the 30th stamp in their “literary arts” series.
New York Times columnist Lawrence Downes has already chided the USPS for choosing an early, obviously touched-up image of the famously dour-faced writer. The odd selection touched a nerve for readers of O’Connor’s fiction, who rightly note the author’s penchant for depicting humanity darkly.
Downes light-heartedly suggested that the USPS should have used O’Connor’s own self portrait, in which she depicted herself with her hair falling out and her face swollen from the cortisone she was taking to combat her progressively worsening lupus. “I looked pretty much like the portrait,” O’Connor wrote to longtime correspondent Betty Hester.
My own first reaction when I heard about the USPS honor was to recall a January 1954 letter to Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, with whom the young author had lived for a brief period. In this letter O’Connor laments that a cake she and her mother Regina had sent the Fitzgeralds before Thanksgiving had never arrived. “Doubtless some official along the way ate it,” she wrote snarkily.
In all seriousness, the honor couldn’t have come to a writer more grateful to the USPS. Although O’Connor felt early in her career that she needed to live away from the south in order to write about it, lupus confined her to Andalusia, the small farm her mother operated outside of Milledgeville, in rural Georgia. For all her social awkwardness, O’Connor thrived on the literary relationships she forged mainly through letters with luminaries like Caroline Gordon, Cecil Dawkins, and the Fitzgeralds as well as admirers like Hester.
Downes is right to lament the Betty Crocker-ization of dour-faced Flannery O’Connor, whose beauty was seeing man’s state clearly and writing unvarnished truth. She would have winced at the falsity of the touched-up, photo-shopped version of herself.
But O’Connor wouldn’t have given up on the USPS any more than she gave up on anybody else whose view of the world was too rosy to be true. Case-in-point: a December 1957 letter to the Fitzgeralds, who were then living in Italy, records that O’Connor would be sending them yet another cake and that she was more worried about the ravenous appetites of the Italian customs employees than the USPS. “The gent at the P.O. said it would take about 20 days to get there so you can be watchful on the 18th or thereabouts,” she warned. “I would hate for some Eye-talian to getaholt to it before you.”
Did the Fitzgeralds ever receive the second cake? Alas, the letters Sally Fitzgerald later collected in The Habit of Being as a tribute to this master of good, old fashioned snail-mail correspondence are silent on the matter.
Franz Klein is a PhD candidate in literature at the University of Dallas. He teaches humanities at St. Thomas More Academy in Raleigh, North Carolina.