Grace Notes

Flannery O'Connor's papers add richness to MARBL special collections.

By Charles McNair

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Flannery O'Connor at Andalusia, her family's dairy farm. From the Flannery O'Connor Collection, Emory Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library.

Everything converged.

In October, Emory welcomed a historic arrival more than a half century in the making. “We are pleased and proud to announce an acquisition of Flannery O’Connor’s materials that substantially deepens and expands the O’Connor archives,” said Rosemary Magee 82PhD, director of the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL), where the O’Connor collection now resides for use by faculty, students, and visiting scholars. Joining the papers of literary giants including Seamus Heaney, Natasha Trethewey, Alice Walker, Salman Rushdie, Ted Hughes, Samuel Beckett, and others, the papers and effects of O’Connor, arguably Georgia’s most acclaimed and influential writer, filled more than thirty boxes.

The trove came to Emory from a storage unit in Milledgeville, Georgia, O’Connor’s hometown. It contained writings and physical mementos from O’Connor’s early childhood in the 1930s to her untimely 1964 death, due to lupus, at thirty-nine.

The boxes held handwritten letters (more than 630 to O’Connor’s mother, Regina, alone) and personal items such as O’Connor’s trademark eyeglasses, a communion veil and a rosary, and charming handwritten, hand-illustrated books the writer created in her childhood. Along with journals filled with reflections and prayers and with manuscripts, including the meticulously hand-edited original draft of O’Connor’s first novel Wise Blood, the collection contains the writer’s Thurberesque cartoons and many one-of-a-kind photographs.

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"It is a pity I can't receive my own letters. If they produce as much wholehearted approval at their destination as they do at their source, they should indeed be able to keep my memory alive and healthy."—Flannery O'Connor journal entry, 1944

Emory procured the collection from the Mary Flannery O’Connor Charitable Trust, the literary estate of the writer. Louise Florencourt, O’Connor’s first cousin and cotrustee of the materials, explained in a New York Times interview that after a half century of family stewardship, the time had come for the archive to be made available to the wider world.

“I thought that Flannery should be seen as whole as could be made possible,” Florencourt told the Times. “She’s not here to speak for herself. So everything that I know of that she wrote has to speak for her.”

History and manners

Emory’s effort to bring the O’Connor collection—that convergence of five decades of interest, hope, and trust building—reads like a story worthy of the writer.

It began in July 1963. On a hot summer day, David Estes 46G 51G, then head of Special Collections (now MARBL) at Emory, drove the ninety minutes or so to Milledgeville. He pulled up the dirt drive of Andalusia Farm, the 554-acre dairy enterprise where Flannery O’Connor and her mother lived, and climbed out of the car to admire the flocks of high-stepping peafowl and other birds the author famously raised.

We can’t know precisely what took place during that visit, but we do know that Estes returned with no promises, only optimism. Undaunted—and mindful of his manners—Estes sent a thank-you note. “I visited you and your daughter to discuss setting up a Flannery O’Connor collection in the Emory University Library,” he wrote. “I consider my afternoon with her as one of the high spots of my literary career and shall remember it always.”

Regina O’Connor wrote back. “I will be glad for you to keep in touch with me,” her letter said. And so Emory did, year after year. Estes had planted a notion that took root and grew, slowly but surely, over decades.

The Estes visit and the university’s continued contact built on a previous connection; Flannery O’Connor had made several visits to Emory in her shortened lifetime to speak to classes. As well, O’Connor’s doctor, Albert Merrill, first diagnosed her lupus at Emory Hospital. His diagnosis, in fact, brought the writer home to Andalusia from the Connecticut farm of Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, friends and patrons who played a vital supportive role in the writer’s life.

The incurable lupus had claimed the life of O’Connor’s father in 1941, when Flannery was just fifteen—a crushing loss. O’Connor succumbed to the disease a year after Estes’s visit, in 1964.

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"Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days."—Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners.

The writer enjoyed modest success during her life, and her stature continued to rise after her death. A posthumous volume, Complete Stories, won the 1972 National Book Award for Fiction, the first time the prestigious award ever went to a deceased author. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, released in 1979, introduced O’Connor as an avid and lively correspondent through the brilliant letters she exchanged with an array of other writers and friends. These probing, witty, insightful missives revealed to the world the intense Roman Catholic faith that bedrocked O’Connor’s fictional world—a shocking, often violent place where grotesque misfits and freaks sought redemption (or ran from it), always under what O’Connor termed “the stinking mad shadow of Jesus.”

In 1980, Rosemary Magee and fellow graduate students in Emory’s Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts invited Sally Fitzgerald to a symposium, “Communities of Flannery O’Connor: Enigma of a Georgia Writer.” The event and the welcome Fitzgerald received at Emory impressed her, and she visited as a research scholar almost every year afterward until her death in 2000.

In 1987, Fitzgerald, along with William Sessions, a Georgia State University scholar and a friend of O’Connor, helped special collections director Linda Matthews 77G and curator Steve Enniss 83G acquire a very important cornerstone of its O’Connor archive, Flannery’s letters to Betty Hester (famously “A” in The Habit of Being). But there was a strict stipulation: They could not be made public for twenty years.

Scholars who encountered the archive at its opening in 2007 found further revelations in O’Connor’s letters about the brave, uncompromising moral underpinnings of her fiction:

“[T]he moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population,” one letter reads, “like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. . . .This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.”

The pace of convergence quickened the next year, 2008. The Sally Fitzgerald collection arrived from the Fitzgerald estate thanks to the support of local foundations. (Emory announced concurrently with the 2014 acquisition of the O’Connor collection that the Fitzgerald family had further enhanced its previous contributions with additional letters and research materials.)

Friendship also played a role. Magee regularly stopped in Milledgeville to visit Florencourt while on the way to Savannah. The trustee of the O’Connor estate found a connection and sense of trust with Magee and her husband, Ron Grapevine. The final convergence would be completed through Florencourt and cotrustee Father Michael Garanzini, president of Loyola University, Chicago.

In 2014, Emory added O’Connor’s remaining archive and uncollected writings to MARBL.

“Some say we reside in an essentially digital age; yet this collection speaks to our primal needs of correspondence and convergence,” Magee said at the collection’s opening. “We see the interior voice merge into the spiritual terrain and outward into the literary landscape.”

A view of the works

Every special collection exists for the expansion of learning. With astonishing speed, the new O’Connor materials at Emory sent ripples of creative inspiration and new insight across the university and beyond. Students and scholars pursued ideas they discovered in the papers of the muse of Milledgeville.

Consider Sarah Freeman 15C, a senior majoring in English with a second major in dance and movement studies. For her honors program senior thesis, Freeman is working with eight current Emory students from the Dance and Movement Studies Program, two alumni from the Department of Theater Studies, and one student assistant to create dance pieces based on the O’Connor short story “The Displaced Person.”

“I thought that story would translate well to dance because it’s so character-driven,” Freeman says. “I’m interested in distortion and eccentricity, and her stories reflect those qualities.”

Freeman has worked with Magee and MARBL staff to explore the new collection and gather inspiration for two ensemble dance treatments.

“My solo piece will relate to religion, illness, and personal relationships,” Freeman says. “I hope to be able to delve more deeply into Flannery O’Connor’s psyche and create the solo piece on site if possible.”

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"I don't deserve any credit for turning the other cheeck as my tongue is always in it."—The Habit of Being

Sarah Harsh 18PhD, who as a MARBL research assistant and doctoral student had the good fortune of arriving at Emory at the same time as the O’Connor archive, has probably touched more of the items than anyone at Emory. As a budding scholar, she understands the promise and possibilities that radiate out of every box.

“Here’s a hoard of raw material, with every correction Flannery O’Connor made to many of her drafts and with every letter to her mother,” Harsh says. “It’s a great thing to see firsthand this primary evidence and to be part of the archival process as it unfolds.

“Flannery O’Connor is not the most approachable of authors,” Harsh adds. “This work has made me feel a connection to her.”

Berit Reisenauer 15C, double majoring in religion (with a concentration in Catholic studies) and political science, delved into the collection as she wrote her honors thesis.

“This has been such a gift,” she says. “It’s phenomenal how much of Flannery O’Connor’s personality comes through in these letters and papers. She has this little devious spark in her. It helps me understand who she is and more about her writing to see both aspects of her, in her fiction and in her nonfiction.”

One doesn’t have to be a scholar or student to benefit from the O’Connor acquisition, according to Bill Newton 75C 76G.

Newton, who is active on the Emory Alumni Board, earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in librarianship while working forty years ago as the first graduate assistant to Linda Matthews, who later became special collections director and director of Emory Libraries. Newton feels his own four-decade-old degree benefits from the O’Connor acquisition.

“This collection,” he says, “enhances the value of an Emory degree and the Emory name.”

A late encounter

The complex themes of O’Connor’s fiction can lead scholars to unexpected places.

Nagueyalti Warren, a professor of pedagogy, director of undergraduate studies, and senior lecturer in African American studies, discovered something important in Emory’s collection of Alice Walker’s papers—an unpublished short story, “Convergence.”

The racially themed story pays homage to the title story of O’Connor’s short story collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, published in 1965, one year after the writer died. With author and Emory permissions, Warren arranged for publication of the Walker story in the Flannery O’Connor Review, edited and printed at Georgia College and State University. She also authored an introduction.

“It’s amazing how much influence O’Connor had on Alice Walker’s writing,” Warren says. “Alice had gone north to Sarah Lawrence to study. She said when she read Flannery O’Connor, it was like coming home.”

Walker grew up in Eatonton, only twenty-six miles from Milledgeville. The process of bringing the undiscovered short story to light involved Warren more fully in the letters and papers of O’Connor. The collection confirmed something in her mind.

“Once I looked at the letters and saw she [O’Connor] used derogatory racial terms, it colored the reading of her fiction for me,” Warren says. “The more you know, the more what you know colors what you read.”

Pamela Hall, associate professor of religion, agrees that O’Connor presents more of a challenge in classrooms today, especially when it comes to race.

“Also, it’s harder to teach anything regional as we get more homogenized culturally,” Hall says. “It’s hard to get across her humor and the pure precision and accuracy of her language.”

Hall sees a more accessible O’Connor in letters and journals like the ones in the new MARBL collection.

“That’s where she’s more direct,” Hall says. “What is human ignorance? What is human freedom? How do people become good? She asks questions that never get drained of their spiritual charge because we continue to wrestle with them.”

Hall, raised a Southern Catholic and with a possible distant family connection to O’Connor, says she has “always felt I understood her at a blood level.” O’Connor, Hall says, “has a prophetic rage in her fiction. Her anger is a hard place to be.

“Then she transposes to another key in nonfiction. I love O’Connor’s nonfiction. I love her reflections on the craft of writing. I adore her religious observations. O’Connor’s nonfiction remains under-studied.”

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The life you save in letters

The bare, unembellished facts of O’Connor’s life belie her restless, roaming mind.

She grew up in a little Georgia town distinguished by a former state capitol building, some nice antebellum houses inexplicably spared by General Sherman, two colleges, a gaggle of churches, a boys’ reformatory, and a state asylum.

At age six, she taught a chicken to walk backward, a sort of quaint Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not moment that attracted a Yankee film crew to make a movie reel short that showed all over the nation in the 1930s. She drew cartoons for her high school and later for her college in Milledgeville, and wrote, ambitiously, in her journals and letters, proud of her skill.

After college, she was accepted to the University of Iowa, where she planned to study journalism as a cartoonist, but she soon switched over to fiction to take advantage of the famous writer’s workshop. Along the way, she met writers like John Crowe Ransom and Andrew Lytle, published her first story, got others rejected, and earned the respect of peers and professionals.

In 1949, the Fitzgeralds invited her to Connecticut, and she worked steadily on Wise Blood, her first novel. In 1950, at twenty-five, she got a high fever on the train ride from New England home to Georgia, and the doctors in Atlanta concluded she had lupus, a likely death sentence. She came home to Milledgeville and outlived the doctors’ five-year prognosis by ten years.

She lived a disciplined routine, rising for breakfast, attending mass in Milledgeville, then writing until noon every day. In the afternoons, she wrote letters, her lifelines to the world, not even dating them, simply writing at the top “Monday” or “Thursday.”

In 1952, she published Wise Blood to mixed reviews, but nonetheless found herself on the literary map. Despite frailty, she visited friends, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell among them. She made a trip to Lourdes, at the insistence of a cousin, for healing purposes. She made a surprising number of lecture trips. She raised peacocks, and also ducks, emus, ostriches, guinea fowl, and other avian misfits, at least in central Georgia.

She wrote thirty-plus stories and a second novel. She reviewed books for a little Catholic journal. She never married. She had an operation for a fibroid tumor in 1964, after which her steroid-managed lupus returned with a vengeance. She died of kidney failure on a hot August morning.

These facts can be accessed with a few clicks. But in her letters, as her cousin Louise Florencourt noted, O’Connor speaks for herself still. A single hour among O’Connor’s papers tells a story beyond the history, revealing a rich life through nuanced details of her personality and philosophy.

She possessed a wicked humor. She wrote this to her mother in 1942: Much obliged for the soap. Am I supposed to use it or something? Here’s another: Sister sent the dress to the cleaners, but she is having it altered according to her own conceptions . . . it is going to look like a meal bag.

And another in 1960 to friends:


I can’t stand my own voice on the tape recorder. I prefer to go with it where it goes.

Flannery O’Connor would not have been happy at the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech on a fall Saturday. She wrote this from college at Iowa City in October 1946: I will be glad when all this football mess is done with. It is a lot of crooked rot. I have never seen so many drunk people as after it yesterday afternoon.

O’Connor would not bend the rules of her faith, even for a friend: You are good to want me in your wedding. The reason I cannot be is bluntly that cannon [sic] law forbids Catholics to serve in an attendant capacity in religious services outside the Catholic church. Of course, not all Catholics know this and consequently it is often done in ignorance which is supposed to be bliss.

She follows this point-blank no with a peacock-feather tickle in the next paragraph: I think however that you can really thank the Church for sparing my services. I cannot imagine lending myself gracefully to the tempo of the procession or of holding my flowers in anything but the grip of death; or even of not falling through my skirt, and not looking, to quote my good mother, as if I smelled something bad. Blessed are those at a distance, for they shall not be seen.

Emory’s Kevin Young, Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing and curator of literary collections and the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at MARBL, finds his own perceptions heightened.

“What a gift we have here, fifty years after her death, to see the full range of O’Connor’s writing, cartooning, religious life, and prodigious correspondence,” he says. “The archive helps us see O’Connor, even from an early age, as literary and faithful, creative and contentious, fierce and full of praise.”

Magee sums up the potential value of the collection and, really, all collections—those at MARBL and wherever else archives hold documents of the past that serve as lodestones for the future.

“Thanks to these materials,” Magee says, “further profound encounters with mysteries and revelations will be forthcoming.”

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