My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I didn't know how well I'd do plodding through seventeen years of letters. But the compilation of Flannery O'Connor's correspondence in "The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor" ended up being an enjoyable read, and a voyage of discovery. This volume, compiled, selected and edited by her long time friend, Sally Fitzgerald, brought out aspects of O'Connor that are not easily divined from her novellas and short stories. If a reader wants to know the details of the content of "The Habit of Being," I'll refer them to the other reviews. I will simply point out four items that stand out to me above the numerous other characteristics I sighted.
First, O'Connor was truly a child of her time and her place. Most of her life was spent in Georgia, with only a few small stints in Iowa, Connecticut, and shorter stays in a couple of other places. So her language and recorded experiences show the era in which she grew up and lived. This means she used contemporaneous characterizations of the Black folks who worked around her. But, to the discerning reader, it will become subtly clear that she didn't completely agree with the discriminatory mindset of her compeers.
Further, O'Connor new what she was about with the characters in her writings. Several letters express why her characters acted this way or that, the rationale behind their decisions, and the reasons for her writings. "The writer has to make the corruption believable before he can make the grace meaningful" (516). The grotesque in her stories was intentional but not gratuitous. If one has read her works and puzzled over what is happening, they will find "The Habit of Being" helpful.
Then, O'Connor was unashamedly a pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic. Her faith is a struggle for her at times, but it is real with her. And she was certain that her faith was not a hindrance to her writings; "I write with a solid belief in all the Christian dogmas. I find that this in no way limits my freedom as a writer and that it increases rather than decreases my vision" (147). As a Protestant reader, I found myself pleasantly surprised. She was truly Roman Catholic, and yet many of her observations roused the pleasure in my heart as she beautifully diagnosed the age in which she lived; held up the importance and centrality of Scripture; and declared her utter confidence in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. And her clear-eyed recognition of the importance of God's truth is refreshing: "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally" (100).
Last - out of all the other things I could say -O'Connor was civility in the flesh. She obviously didn't agree with several of her interlocutors. She would unashamedly state where she disagreed, and what was the correct side of the subject. But then she would continue to write and show genuine care for those to whom she was writing. Whether it was Dr. Spivey, the anonymous friend "A," or Maryat Lee, to name a few. Her approach was immovable, but compassionate. She would hold her own without demonizing the other.
My trip through "The Habit of Being" was a pleasure. If you're a Flannery O'Connor fan, or maybe have just been introduced to her in your Literature class and are intrigued with her style, this is a book to take hold of, and read with underlining pen in hand. I happily and heartily recommend the book.
(Follow these links if you are interested in two more quotes from "The Habit of Being. This on is on criticism. And this one is about the law of nature and the Christian faith)
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