April 23, 2007
Emory to unseal Flannery O'Connor letters
by Carol clark
Shortly after “A Good Man is Hard to Find” was published, a discerning reader in Atlanta wrote to author Flannery O’Connor, telling her she realized that God was the main subject of the short story collection.
“You are very kind to write to me and the measure of my appreciation must be to ask you to write to me again. I would like to know who this is who understands my stories,” O’Connor responded in a letter dated July 10, 1955.
It was the first of 274 letters O’Connor sent to Elizabeth “Betty” Hester, sparking a friendship, and a deeply revealing correspondence, that would continue until the famed Southern writer’s death in 1964.
On May 12, Emory University unveils the complete collection of letters from O’Connor to Hester — an event that devoted fans and scholars of O’Connor have awaited for years.
“The letters were given to Emory in 1987 with the stipulation that they couldn’t be viewed until 20 years later,” explained Steve Enniss, director of Emory’s Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Library, where the letters are housed. Enniss and three library staff members have read the letters, in preparation for the public opening to researchers, but few other eyes have seen all of them in their unedited form.
William Sessions, a leading O’Connor scholar who knew both the author and Hester, has referred to the documents as “probably the most important collection of letters in American literature in the latter part of the century.”
“This re-opens a whole conversation about O’Connor as a writer and as a person,” said Rosemary Magee, Emory vice president and secretary and another longtime O’Connor scholar. “I’m anticipating that there will be many affirmations of what we already know, along with some revelations.”
Hester lived a reclusive life. She worked as a file clerk in an Atlanta credit bureau, but her real calling was esoteric reading and philosophy, as discussed in her voluminous correspondence with O’Connor.
“I think Betty Hester was the most important correspondent in Flannery O’Connor’s life,” Enniss said. “That’s borne out in the sheer number of letters, written when O’Connor was at the height of her creativity. These letters help tell with great fullness the story of O’Connor’s own life that is so intertwined with her stories.”
The two friends discussed major events of the time — such as the lunch-counter sit-ins and the larger civil rights movement — and their thoughts on leading literary figures — including Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell and Eudora Welty. They also recommended books to one another. “They each acted as a kind of intellectual guide for the other,” Enniss said.
O’Connor even occasionally enclosed typed drafts of some of her short stories to Hester, asking for feedback. “She had great concerns about her short story ‘Revelations,’” Enniss said, “but it went on to become one of her most acclaimed stories.”
Faith and theology are the dominant themes in the letters, he said. “Flannery O’Connor is clearly trying to help Betty in her understanding of the Catholic faith in hopes of being of some spiritual comfort to Betty, who was wavering in her relationship with the church.”
Intermingled with all of these intense discussions are O’Connor’s hilarious observations about her family, friends and life in Milledgeville, where the writer lived on a dairy farm with her mother, Regina. “Flannery O’Connor was funny, and her sense of humor comes out in abundance,” Enniss said. “She was a great stylist, not just as a short story writer and a novelist, but also as a letter writer.”
Hester was a lesbian and, at one point in their correspondence, she apparently comes out to O’Connor, he said. “Flannery responds to her in very human terms, in a very perceptive way. There are those who have speculated about their relationship,” he added, but there’s no evidence they were anything but friends. “I’d characterize it as a spiritual relationship,” Enniss said.
The letters ended with O’Connor’s death from lupus, at the age of 39.
In 1979, expurgated versions of 195 of the letters were published in “The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor,” edited by Sally Fitzgerald, a mutual friend of the two women. Hester insisted on remaining anonymous, and she was identified only as “A” in the book.
Fitzgerald held a research appointment at Emory and was instrumental in getting the letters donated to the University by Hester, who stipulated that they remain sealed for two decades. Despite her reclusive lifestyle and occasional bouts with depression, Hester also managed to carry on a lengthy correspondence with British author Iris Murdoch. The closely guarded secret of her identity as “A” was finally revealed in 1998, when she committed suicide. She was 76.
Fitzgerald, who labored for years on a biography of O’Connor, died before finishing the book.
At least two other scholars are currently working on O’Connor biographies: Sessions, a retired English professor from Georgia State University, and Brad Gooch, a professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey. Gooch is also the author of “Jailbait and Other Stories” and “City Poet,” a biography of Frank O’Hara.
“O’Connor is a perennial favorite of my literature students,” Gooch said. “There’s something about her work that seems so weirdly contemporary, the way she takes an almost apocalyptic vision of religious extremism, and the cinematic clarity of her writing.”
Gooch plans to come to Emory in May to study the letters. “I’m very excited,” he said. “The fact that they’ve been sealed all this time adds to the suspense and anticipation.”
As to how O’Connor herself might feel about the hubbub surrounding the unveiling of her missives, Magee said: “I think she would find it very amusing.”
To celebrate the opening of the collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters, the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library will present a dramatic reading of some of the letters by actor Brenda Bynum. The free event will be held Tuesday, May 22, at 6 p.m. in the Jones Room of Woodruff Library.