In 1950, while typing the first draft of “Wise Blood,” O’Connor began to experience a heaviness in her arms. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. But later that year she became seriously ill. She was suffering from lupus, the disease that had killed her father. Lupus put her in and out of hospitals for the rest of her life. It caused her face to swell and her hair to fall out; it required her to give herself injections of cortisone, and, eventually, to walk with aluminum crutches because “the misery,” as she termed it, affected her hips.
Except for a few speaking engagements and a visit to Europe with her mother, which included a pilgrimage to Lourdes (“I am going as a pilgrim, not a patient,” she wrote. “I will not be taking any bath. I am one of those people who could die for his religion easier than take a bath for it”), O’Connor lived, from 1952 until her death, in 1964—at age thirty-nine—near Milledgeville, on Andalusia, a dairy farm that her mother had inherited. There she raised peacocks and ran a theology-and-literature reading group. She also wrote “The Violent Bear It Away,” and the stories that appeared in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” These stories glisten with intelligence and with startling anti-solipsism: she describes, never preaches.
O’Connor may have found comfort in her religion, which allowed her to enter into a dialogue with God about suffering. But she was surprisingly intolerant of the religious struggle of others, particularly that of women intellectuals. “The life of this remarkable woman . . . intrigues me while much of what she writes, naturally, is ridiculous to me,” O’Connor wrote of Simone Weil, a Jew who immersed herself in Catholicism. “Weil’s life is the most comical life I have ever read about. . . . If I were to live long enough and develop as an artist to the proper extent, I would like to write a comic novel about a woman—and what is more comic and terrible than the angular intellectual proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth?” Was O’Connor instinctively recoiling from her own reflection in the mirror?
O’Connor, in return, was viewed as “homely” by most women of her time. Feminists have long looked up to her for her lack of compromise and her relative isolation, but they rarely factor in the emotional toll both took on her and her work—or the painful rewriting O’Connor has had to endure at the hands of memoirists such as Katherine Anne Porter, who emphasize how attractive she was, as if a woman must balance intelligence with prettiness to be legitimate. What was lacking in O’Connor’s life—and in her art—was the spontaneous experience of intimate love, with its attendant joys and tedium and security. In O’Connor’s fictional world, carnality, when it comes up at all, is brutal and hilariously symbolic. Mr. Shortley, in “The Displaced Person,” for instance, “makes love” to his wife by placing a lit cigarette inside his mouth like the tip of the Devil’s tail:
When he had done his courting, he had not brought a guitar to strum or anything pretty for her to keep, but had sat on her porch steps, not saying a word, imitating a paralyzed man propped up to enjoy a cigarette. When the cigarette got the proper size, he would turn his eyes to her and open his mouth and draw in the butt and then sit there as if he had swallowed it, looking at her with the most loving look anybody could imagine. It nearly drove her wild and every time he did it, she wanted to pull his hat down over his eyes and hug him to death.
Sally Fitzgerald noted in a chronology that accompanies O’Connor’s “Collected Works” (1988) that in the early fifties O’Connor had been in love with a visiting Danish textbook editor, but there is scant reference to him in the selected letters, “The Habit of Being” (1979), which was overseen by O’Connor’s protective mother. Regina O’Connor’s deep-seated respect for the social hierarchy created a gap between her and her daughter, and Flannery wrote amusingly in letters to friends about Regina’s efforts to bridge it. In a 1953 letter to the Fitzgeralds:
My mamma and I have interesting literary discussions like the following which took place over some Modern Library books that I had just ordered:
SHE: “Mobby Dick. I’ve always heard about that.”
ME: “Mow-by Dick.”
SHE: “Mow-by Dick. The Idiot. You would get something called Idiot. What’s it about?”
ME: “An idiot.”
Much is left out or elided in the selected correspondence, the rights to which Regina controlled until her death, in 1995. But on the matter of faith the letters are often fierce and beautiful. The most conclusive statement appears in a letter written in the summer of 1955, to Hester:
If you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it’s the gas you breathe. If I hadn’t had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now. With such a current to write against, the result almost has to be negative. It does well just to be. Then another thing, what one has as a born Catholic is something given and accepted before it is experienced. I am only slowly coming to experience things that I have all along accepted. I suppose the fullest writing comes from what has been accepted and experienced both and that I have just not got that far yet all the time. Conviction without experience makes for harshness.
And yet she would have little by way of experience for the next nine years. Visitors came through Milledgeville. Admirers wrote letters. But, as the years went on, O’Connor’s view of what Marianne Moore called “the strange experience of beauty” became the subject of her jokes, not of serious examination. Like many people crippled by illness, O’Connor cleaved to the world as she knew it. In her early work, she had taken an intense interest in hustlers and freaks and “niggers.” “Whenever I am asked why Southern writers particularly have this penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one,” she said once. But as her lupus progressed she spent less and less time discussing identity and its political implications, and, when she did, it often felt cavalier. “No I can’t see James Baldwin in Georgia,” she wrote in 1959 to a friend who had tried to arrange the introduction. “It would cause the greatest trouble and disturbance and disunion. In New York it would be nice to meet him; here it would not. I observe the traditions of the society I feed on—it’s only fair. Might as well expect a mule to fly as me to see James Baldwin in Georgia.” One feels a sense of loss on reading this, not only because of what such a union might have produced but also because of the limitations of O’Connor’s time and place and the inevitable restrictions they placed on her art. Her regionalism was both a strength and a weakness; the emotional distance caused by her physical suffering was the axis on which both her comedy and her cruelty turned.
Had O’Connor and Baldwin met, they could have laughed together about their particular “Christ hauntings”: Baldwin was the son of a minister and had preached himself; his experience was not so different from that of the mad, naïve evangelists who populate O’Connor’s fiction. And what a discussion they could have had about whiteness! In 1955, after a stay at an all-white Swiss village, Baldwin wrote, “This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again”—meaning that blacks, as artists and men, could no longer be confined to the self-contained enclaves that had produced them. O’Connor’s later fiction was, in large part, an acknowledgment of this, and of the fear and fury it produced in her world. That conversation is lost to history. But O’Connor’s work is not. One can hear her syntax and thoughts in the stories of Raymond Carver, in Robert Duvall’s brilliant movie “The Apostle,” in the Samuel L. Jackson character’s final monologue in “Pulp Fiction.” Her work has moved away from the South as she defined and knew it, all the way to Hollywood, where Americans have embraced it, hearing in O’Connor’s voice the uneasy and unavoidable union between black and white, the sacred and the profane, the shit and the stars. ♦