Autumn 2007: Feature
Emory unseals letters from O’Connor to longtime correspondent Betty Hester
By Alec T. Young 03Ox 05C
In the mid-1950s, Elizabeth “Betty” Hester was an unassuming young woman who worked in Atlanta as a file clerk, taking the bus to work each day. The rest of her time she spent alone in a tiny Midtown apartment, reading and writing. With no bedroom, Hester fell asleep each night on a couch that didn’t fold out, surrounded by her impressive collection of four thousand books. Throughout her life, Hester produced numerous short stories, poems, diaries, and philosophical treatises—none of which was published.
At the same time, in Milledgeville, Georgia, the prolific Southern writer Flannery O’Connor was working on her second novel and entering the apex of her literary career.
After reading O’Connor’s short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, Hester wrote a letter of admiration to the author. The onionskin paper and the words she typed have not been found to this day, but O’Connor’s response shows how thoughtful and understanding Hester’s words must have been.
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“I am very pleased to have your letter,” O’Connor wrote to Hester on July 20, 1955. “Perhaps it is even more startling to me to find some one who recognizes my work for what I try to make it than it is for you to find a God-conscious writer near at hand. . . . I want to know who this is who understands my stories.” Over the remaining nine years of her life, O’Connor wrote to Hester nearly every week.
Most of the letters Hester sent O’Connor are missing or have been destroyed, but the collection of 274 letters sent by O’Connor to Hester were saved. In May, Emory unveiled the correspondence that devoted fans and scholars of O’Connor have awaited for two decades.
Their correspondence reveals that a spark of friendship was quick to ignite between the two. “O’Connor recognized in Betty’s unsolicited letter some degree of what her fiction was about,” says Steve Enniss, director of Emory’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Library. “People didn’t always know how to read O’Connor.” And, Enniss adds, the frustration was often mutual.
In her first letter to Hester, O’Connor wrote, “I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call ‘A Good Man’ brutal and sarcastic. The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism.”
“Betty was somebody who cut through all that and immediately realized that O’Connor’s stories were about God,” says Emily Cantrell 05C, who developed a strong interest in O’Connor as an undergraduate in English Professor Barbara Ladd’s Southern literature class. From the few letters by Hester that have survived, Cantrell has gleaned as much from her words as possible, but her primary view of Hester is as a reflection in O’Connor’s responses.
In 1987 Hester gave the collection of letters to Emory University with the stipulation that they be kept sealed for twenty years. She granted Sally Fitzgerald, editor of The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor and mutual friend of Hester and O’Connor, permission to publish a number of edited letters from the collection, but only under the condition that her identity be kept hidden; Hester’s name was replaced with an “A” for anonymous. Her identity was not revealed publicly in these letters until the night of December 26, 1998, when she took her own life after battling chronic illness.
“Betty was reluctant to expose herself personally to the public scrutiny that the letters might entail,” Enniss says. “She lived with a great sensitivity to being an outcast.”
At Ladd’s suggestion, Cantrell returned this spring to curate the first exhibition of the correspondence at Emory. The letters also were brought to life in two dramatic readings on campus by Atlanta actor Brenda Bynum.
O’Connor’s letters to Hester “themselves are a work of art,” Enniss says. “Her storytelling skills are fully deployed, and she will create scenes within the letters that could drop right down into her fiction. All of her skill, timing, and humor come through very strongly.”
O’Connor studied the people in her community and wrote about them to Hester. “She did gossip quite a bit,” Cantrell says, explaining how O’Connor would often slip into their dialect and sometimes would misspell words for comic effect.
Both writers shared their fiction with one another, and based on O’Connor’s candid criticism and advice, it is clear that O’Connor also took Hester seriously as a writer.
Since most of O’Connor’s letters were typed, a handwritten note usually signaled that she was bedridden at the time. O’Connor suffered from lupus and the cortisone treatments she underwent affected her joints, at times so much that she couldn’t type anymore. Lying on her back in a hospital bed, O’Connor’s handwriting became hard to decipher. In her last correspondence with Hester, Ennis says, her handwriting became so messy it seems to have come from a distorted hand.
Although Hester visited O’Connor a number of times later in their relationship, they built a strong connection through letters without knowing what one another looked like. Hester apparently guessed, to which O’Connor replied, “I go from bad to worse in your imagination—first a fascist and now Cupid. I can defend myself on the first score but the Lord only knows what line I’m to take against the other.” O’Connor enclosed a photograph of a self-portrait she painted, featuring two very stoic faces: O’Connor and one of her pet birds.
Hester sent O’Connor one of the few known photographs of herself during this period. The image captures Hester sitting in her living room reading a book. “I have adjusted my image of you to five-three, one-thirty,” O’Connor writes. “This is less trouble than I thought as I also am five-three and in the neighborhood of one-thirty. It is a neighborhood I would like to get out of as I have to pick it up on my two wrists now. Anyway, I now distinguish you with thick horn-rimmed spectacles, a Roman nose, and ash blonde hair.”
The letters seemingly disprove speculation about the nature of the relationship. Because Hester was a lesbian, many speculated that the correspondence might be romantic, but, Enniss says, that has not turned out to be the case. What is revealing in the letters is O’Connor’s deep respect, affection, and acceptance of her friend’s sexual orientation.
Hester struggled with undiagnosed ailments and battled demons throughout her life. At thirteen, she witnessed her mother’s suicide. Later she was dishonorably discharged from the U.S. Air Force, presumably because of a relationship with another woman. Hester eventually described these hardships in a letter O’Connor refers to as a “history of horror.”
Hester sent the letter in October 1956, and by the thirty-first of the month O’Connor had hurried to respond. “I can’t write you fast enough and tell you that it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference in my opinion of you,” she wrote, “which is the same as it was, and that is: based solidly on complete respect.”