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Two Ladies of the Southern Pantheon: Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon   

(Book cover via Amazon/Background: Pixabay)
Newly released letters between the writers chronicle marital woes, mystical insights, and excellent editing advice.

The Southern Catholic literary pantheon may have a new elder stateswoman enshrined soon, if Christine Flanagan has anything to say about it.

Associate professor of English at Philadelphia’s University of the Sciences, Flanagan is the editor of the recently released Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon, published by the University of Georgia Press. While O’Connor’s status as the preeminent author of Southern Catholic literature won’t be changing anytime soon, Flanagan has given us many reasons to believe that Gordon helped get her there. Indeed, Flanagan makes a sensible case that Gordon’s own fiction — long considered second fiddle to the works of O’Connor, Walker Percy, and other Southern Catholic mavens — deserves a fresh valuation.

Objective, detailed, and downright polite, Flanagan never comes right out and makes any of these claims explicitly. In printing the letters and providing enlightening headnotes for each, her approach is for the most part refreshingly free of ideology, especially for an academic book. It reads more like Arthur Hobson Quinn — 70 years later, still the definitive biographer of Poe — than any critical theory flavor-of-the-month selection. This method will serve Flanagan well, as O’Connor scholars tend to be the types who can quote Aquinas’s Summa at will (as O’Connor herself did) or Bakhtin’s theory of the “once-occurrent Being-as-event” — they rarely suffer philosophical dabblers.

Flanagan does, however, draw evidence-based conclusions and make appropriate judgments, just as Paul Elie did in his influential historiographical omnibus on O’Connor, Dorothy Day, et al. in The Life You Save May Be Your Own. Acknowledging Elie, Flanagan uses the method he popularized in that book: In her headnotes, she places primary and secondary source materials about both women that provide historical perspective as well as biographical and literary context. This helps readers understand the interactions between the writers and the many facets of their developing relationship.

What we have, then, is not just a collection of letters, which would be valuable in and of itself as only six of the 100-plus here have been previously published in full, but an academically rendered narrative of just how those letters unfolded in Gordon’s and O’Connor’s careers and personal lives.

And that, alas, is where things get messy for Gordon.

One reason that Gordon’s full letters to O’Connor haven’t seen the light of day until now, Flanagan delicately implies, is that they detail, from the embattled wife’s perspective, Gordon’s marital problems. Gordon’s longtime husband, Allen Tate, one of the most prominent names in early- to mid-20th-century American literature and criticism, apparently cheated on Gordon regularly; got drunk even more regularly; hid his financial expenditures and left them behind for Gordon to pay as he traipsed overseas; and in later years tended to treat his speaking and teaching obligations more as invitations to Gatsby-style soirées than as opportunities to publish (which might’ve helped him pay off some of his family’s obligations).

Reading of Gordon’s obvious grief and profound desolation over these indiscretions (and not one, but two divorces from Tate) is difficult, especially as Gordon attempts to deal with them by taking on excessive work and staying busy. O’Connor summed it up with her typical Southern politeness: “What that woman has is Vitality.”

The letters tell of no mere psychological drama, however. Having exhausted natural or reasonable means of healing, Gordon was convinced that something diabolical was afoot: “I am convinced that [Allen’s] enemy is supernatural and that only supernatural help can save [him].” O’Connor remarked to a mutual friend: “It doesn’t look like you can do anything for them but pray.”

Not surprisingly, in the particularly troubling times of Gordon’s marriage, O’Connor found Gordon’s advice on her work somewhat unreliable. When Tate and Gordon had separated in the fall of 1958, for instance, Gordon wrote an essay about O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood that “made significant errors.” O’Connor, says Flanagan, “struggled to navigate her response to Gordon’s mistakes.” More significantly, Flanagan — again with a light touch — hints that Gordon’s marital unrest might help explain one of the big mysteries facing O’Connor scholars: Whatever happened to Gordon’s letters about O’Connor’s masterpiece, The Violent Bear It Away? To date, they haven’t been located, and we have evidence that O’Connor sought others’ advice in revising that mysteriously entrancing book. As Flanagan puts it, O’Connor thought Gordon’s “support” for the novel “rang false.” Flanagan contextualizes this flagging enthusiasm by detailing another failure of Gordon’s just a month previous: She had seriously botched her introduction to the French edition of Wise Blood, to the point where O’Connor herself severely revised it. “I hope this won’t be the straw that broke the camel’s back,” wrote O’Connor to a friend, wondering whether her drastic cut of Gordon’s introduction would damage their relationship. The extreme strain Gordon was experiencing because of her marital unrest had deeply affected her literary and critical judgment.

Still, O’Connor stood by Gordon, through letters and prayer, despite O’Connor’s own deteriorating health. One of O’Connor’s most literary and engaging correspondents, Elizabeth Hester (known to many of O’Connor’s readers by the pseudonym “A.”) at one point got frustrated with Gordon. Flanagan writes:

When Hester continued to criticize Gordon in her letters, O’Connor agreed — “Caroline is wildly mixed up” — but she defended Gordon once again: “The harshness with which you speak of Caroline is not justified.”

Flanagan is exactly right to quote these lines, but I wish she had gone just a bit further, as the subsequent lines in O’Connor’s original letter are some of the most spiritually and relationally enlightening in all of O’Connor’s corpus:

. . . is not justified. She may be basically irreligious but we are not judged by what we are basically. We are judged by how hard we use what we have been given. Success means nothing to the Lord, nor gracefulness. She tries and tries violently and has a great deal to struggle against and to overcome. The violent bear it away.

Especially in light of this new volume of letters — in which we read page after page of Gordon’s admiration for Catholic churches in Rome; her dating of letters with the Catholic saint or feast of the day; her constant requests for intercessory prayer and promises of prayers for others — O’Connor’s assessment of her friend as “basically irreligious” strikes the reader with nothing less than mystical force. How in the world did O’Connor see that Gordon — who clearly admired the Church, thought of herself as an orthodox believer, and often attended daily Masses, among other things — was in fact what we might call a practical spiritualist? In other words, was Gordon someone who intellectually admired the rituals and culture of the Church without actually integrating them into her whole existence, body and soul?

This ratification of O’Connor’s unusual spiritual vision is part of the great value of this volume for O’Connor scholars and enthusiasts. About a decade ago, Lorraine Murray’s Abbess of Andalusia posited that O’Connor had embraced an ordinary vocation with extraordinary holiness. Free of pietism and deftly argued, the book made some surprising moves — arguing, for instance, that O’Connor gradually, not immediately, grew to embrace the full implications of black civil rights. Not the least of Murray’s eye-opening insights was that O’Connor may have had a gift for reading souls. Intriguing then, Murray’s proposition seems downright convincing now, especially in light of O’Connor’s high praise of an “irreligious” Gordon.

I don’t mean to imply that this book is all Southern drama, or now irrefutable proof of O’Connor’s cause for canonization. While it may be those things, it is also flat-out funny in parts, as one has every right to expect of two learned Southern ladies who understand each other and their culture, and who craft stories to shake up their indolent readers. Advising O’Connor to move the most important element of a sentence to the end, where it will remain in a reader’s memory, Gordon reminds her that the reader is “the laziest and stupidest of God’s creatures.” In another place, Gordon recounts a harrowing car ride when a priest was driving. O’Connor’s response is one of her typically cheeky, drawling maxims: “Never ride with the clergy if you are not immediately ready to meet your maker.”

With all that Flanagan’s volume has to offer, one can be only more excited about the upcoming Good Things out of Nazareth: The Uncollected Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Friends, edited by Southern-literature expert Benjamin Alexander. Expected late next year, the book promises an intimate view of those O’Connor brought even more closely into her confidences.

In the meantime, Flanagan’s extensive research and graceful, detailed notes will give O’Connor fans of all stripes new material on which to ruminate — and it may just inspire a few professors to add Gordon’s Malefactors to their American literature syllabi.

Stephen Mirarchi — Stephen Mirarchi is an assistant professor of English at Benedictine College. He is the author of three annotated editions of Myles Connolly’s works, including Mr. Blue.

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