“Cast your mind now to a South steeped in Christian fundamentalism,” begins the NPR report. Really, you have to listen to it just to capture the reporter’s “I’m discussing a strange tribe of primitives” tone. New O’Connor letters were just released yesterday, but the ones that are already published tell us that Flannery O’Connor would have had a blast skewering this reporter.
In a 1960 letter to Betty Hester, O’Connor responds to a review of The Violent Bear It Away by “a lady in the Concord P.L. [Public Library],” who says that novel’s main character “is the latest edition [sic—O’Connor’s spelling was genuinely dreadful] to my ‘band of poor God-driven Southern whites.’” O’Connor continues, “I am getting the connection between the God-driven and the underprivileged—God-drivenness being a form of Southern degeneracy . . .”
Ah, some things haven’t changed.
Betty Hester, by the way, is the recipient of all the letters released Saturday, May 12. Readers and scholars alike have been familiar with at least portions of O’Connor’s letters to Elizabeth “Betty” Hester since their 1979 publication in The Habit of Being, a collection of O’Connor’s letters edited by her friend Sally Fitzgerald. Hester is not referred to by name in The Habit of Being; she was known simply as “A.” until 1998, when she died and her identity was made public.
Between 1955 and 1964, when O’Connor died of lupus, she and Hester exchanged hundreds of letters. They shared their insights about what they were reading, and Hester often sent O’Connor books from libraries in Atlanta. They exchanged drafts of their writing, and O’Connor’s letters indicate that she respected Hester as a fellow writer, though the latter never achieved any fame. They also exchanged a good deal of theological dialogue; when Hester was confirmed in the Catholic Church in 1956, she asked O’Connor to be her sponsor. However, some of the best bits of O’Connor’s letters to Hester are her hilarious depictions of reviewers’ comments and of daily life at her mother’s farm.
Seventy-nine of the letters released yesterday are completely unpublished. Others contain excerpts previously excised by Fitzgerald.
The letters had been sealed for twenty years at Hester’s request. Why all the secrecy? According to Steve Ennis, director of Emory University’s Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Book Library, “Betty was a lesbian, and probably for that reason was worried about public scrutiny of herself. She didn’t want any attention. She did not want scholars knocking at her door and did not want to answer meddlesome questions. That’s why she said the letters should be closed for 20 years.” Ennis doesn’t offer further explanation of his statement about Hester’s sexuality.
Indeed, in an interview with NPR, Ennis seems to indicate that what Hester referred to as her “history of horror” is a little more mysterious. The facts he mentioned are that she witnessed her own mother’s suicide at a young age (and surely that’s horrible enough; no doubt it contributed to Hester’s own suicide at the age of 75, though I can’t really find any information about that) and that she was dishonorably discharged from the army. The discharge hints at some sort of sexual misbehavior. At this point, the NPR interviewer interjects, “Presumably with another woman?” “Presumably,” Ennis answers, again without explaining why they’ve made this supposition. They may have substantial reason for it, but if at one point you call the reason for the discharge “precisely unclear,” you should then be prepared to provide some sort of proof for your theory about it.
Anyway, speculation about Hester’s sexuality matters little; she clearly went through a lot of suffering, whatever the cause, and her friend Flannery O’Connor responded with grace. Apparently, in October of 1956, Hester had written to O’Connor revealing some of the details of her “history of horror.” Because O’Connor never kept letters she received, we don’t know exactly what Hester wrote, but O’Connor’s response is amazing. Truly amazing. I highly recommend listening to the NPR clip, but if you can’t, here’s my transcript of O’Connor’s Oct. 31 response:
“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, which is the same as it was, and that is based solidly on complete respect. . . . Compared to what you have experienced in the way of radical misery, I have never had anything to bear in my life but minor irritations. But there are times when the sharpest suffering is not to suffer and the worst affliction not to be afflicted. Job’s comforters were worse off than he was, though they didn’t know it. If in any sense my knowing your burden can make your burden lighter, then I am doubly glad I know it. You are right to tell me. But I’m glad you didn’t tell me until I knew you well. Where you are wrong is in saying that you are a history of horror. The meaning of the Redemption is precisely that we do not have to be our history, and nothing is plainer to me than that you are not your history.”
If this is what all the excised bits of the letters are like, I had better bring a box of Kleenex with me on that distant day when I finally make it down to Emory to read them. Just this little excerpt turned me into a sniffling wreck.
If O’Connor, who at age 31 already knew she would likely die of the same disease that had killed her father when she was a teenager, believed that her suffering was “minor irritations” compared to Hester’s . . . wow.
From the published letters, we already know that in 1961, Hester wrote O’Connor to tell her that, less than five years after her conversion, she was leaving the Church. O’Connor’s response was again full of grace, though also truthful–in the way that O’Connor’s grace tends to be. She wrote,
“I don’t know anything that could grieve us here like this news. I know that you do what you do because you think it is right, and I don’t think any the less of you outside the Church than in it, but what is painful is the realization that this means a narrowing of life for you and a lessening of the desire for life.”
I don’t know whether Hester ever returned to the Church or not, but at least she had a Christian friend who, without pretense or false piety, and with occasional crankiness (”I also wish I were up there so that in the spirit of Christian charity I could knock you in the head with the nearest stick of wood,” O’Connor wrote in an earlier letter, in response to Hester’s despair over a critic’s comments on her writing), was there to support her through her wanderings.
If only more of today’s pilgrims of faith could say the same.
1 comment May 13th, 2007