By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published February 20, 2014
Flannery O’Connor seems to be everywhere these days.
Real progress is being made on a major film adaptation of her novel “The Violent Bear it Away.”
Her definitive and authorized biography is nearing completion.
And her “A Prayer Journal,” a slim volume of deeply personal and often profound pleas to God, was recently published to both astonishment and acclaim, aided in part by editor W.A. Sessions’ insightful introduction and his effort of love to get the book published.
Everywhere I go people want to know my thoughts on “A Prayer Journal.” I find it moving, powerful, and striking. I think it is beautiful. I am pleased that at last we have indisputable proof to silence the cynics who downplay the influence O’Connor’s Catholicism had upon her work. For all of these reasons, “A Prayer Journal” is a gift. Yet in reading it, I feel slightly uncomfortable, as though I am intruding on the deepest and most private thoughts of a gifted developing artist at her most sensitive and vulnerable.
So I have been reading again the public works of O’Connor, which serve as introduction, explication, and elaboration of her fiction. I’ve been startled by how many people have not read the wonderful letters collected in “The Habit of Being,” and though I’m not as surprised to find that many O’Connor readers have not read the essays and talks included in the revealing collection “Mystery and Manners,” I’ve been recommending that book as well for people obsessed with getting inside O’Connor’s literary mind. In addition to these two crucial books edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, “The Spiritual Writings of Flannery O’Connor,” edited by Robert Ellsberg, is also a helpful compendium.
But there is another book that is also valuable, one that reveals a side of O’Connor many people do not know. Leo J. Zuber’s and Carter W. Martin’s “The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews” by Flannery O’Connor is essential reading for people who want to get a fuller sense of O’Connor’s daily life, her wit and her expansive intellect.
A reading of the book is especially timely now, as we are in the midst of Catholic Press Month.
O’Connor was a keen reader of the Catholic press, and eagerly followed the progress of publications such as Jubilee and CrossCurrents. She read as well her diocesan paper, The Bulletin, which of course is the prototype for the publication you are reading now, The Georgia Bulletin.
Consider the prolific contribution O’Connor made to both The Bulletin and the paper that grew from it when Georgia was divided into the dioceses of Savannah and Atlanta, The Southern Cross.
Between 1956, when she wrote her first review, and 1964, when she wrote her last, O’Connor published 120 reviews which covered 143 different titles. Carter Martin’s introduction explicitly categorizes the reviews as such: “50 religious and homiletic, 21 biographies and saints’ lives, 19 sermons and theology, 17 fiction, 8 literary criticism, 6 psychology, 6 philosophy and science, 4 history, 4 letters, 4 periodicals, 3 intellectual history and criticism, and 1 art criticism.”
For me those numbers represent and reveal a writer’s wonderful self-education. O’Connor was reading, and writing reflections about her reading, to educate herself. As any book reviewer will tell you, one great reward of reviewing—besides the free books—is that the publication deadlines force you to read; you read books you might otherwise never pick up, and you constantly make new discoveries that lead you to other related interests. The committed book reviewer is actually assembling an education while also keeping his mind lively and sharpening his writing skills. I am sure that O’Connor reviewed books for these reasons.
Yet I am also sure that the reasons for O’Connor’s reviews were deeply charitable. O’Connor could have written book reviews for any publication in the country. Certainly, she could have written reviews for the burgeoning national Catholic press. She chose, purposely, to write for her diocesan paper because she saw it as her mission to speak to her own people, the other Catholic inhabitants of a shared “true country.” I think she did this out of a sense of duty to use her talents in service to others, a literal Catholic obligation to perform works of charity. O’Connor knew that her reviews were an invitation to The Bulletin audience to develop not only their faith, but also their reason, their aesthetics, and their apologetics—all of which were necessary to Roman Catholics in mid-20th century Georgia.
O’Connor got along well with Eileen Hall, the first editor for whom she worked from 1956-1960. She treated Hall as a professional, and even read some of her efforts at fiction writing, which she praised. In June of 1960, when changes at The Bulletin seemed to mean the cancellation of the book section, O’Connor wrote to Hall, “I’m real sorry the book section of The Bulletin will be discontinued, as it was certainly the most intelligent thing they had in the paper. … Somebody owes you a big vote of thanks but I doubt if you’ll get it. … Is there any chance of somebody else taking over the book column?”
By August 1960, it was apparent that the book section would continue, and O’Connor wrote immediately to Hall’s successor Leo J. Zuber, “A card from Mrs. Hall says you are going to take over editing the book section in The Bulletin. I am mighty glad you are and I hope it won’t prove a nuisance. … If I can be of any help, please call on me.”
Before writing to Zuber, O’Connor had privately confided to her close friend Betty Hester that “a man probably won’t have the time or patience to fool with it long, but we shall see.”
O’Connor and Zuber actually had a very good working relationship, and they developed a friendship as well. The Zuber family visited at Andalusia, and the letters O’Connor wrote to him are not only professional, but also cordial and friendly. They also evidence O’Connor’s famous sense of humor. In November of 1961, she wrote to Zuber requesting that he “send (her) any scourgy book you like for my advent penance.”
Still, even when they swapped stories of illness or other more personal details, O’Connor never let Zuber forget his and the paper’s commitment to quality. Complaining once about some sloppy proofreading, O’Connor remarked, “I once wrote ‘gnostic’ and they made it ‘agnostic’!”
In reading the numerous letters that O’Connor wrote to Zuber and Hester about The Bulletin, it is apparent that O’Connor valued her work at the paper and that she took seriously what by the 1960s had become for her both a professional and a religious obligation.
As for the book reviews themselves, they are fascinating, because they reveal a different side of O’Connor than one encounters in the letters and occasional prose. They are also brief. In fact, O’Connor once wrote to Hester, “So (Mrs. Hall) wants 200 words only? Well, the difference between 200 words and one page (the original stipulation) is 50 words so all you have to do is leave out the conjunctions.”
Yet the brevity of the reviews reveals O’Connor’s often brilliant insights. In 200-300 words, O’Connor captures the essence of what are often difficult texts, including works by Romano Guardini, Jacques Maritain and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Further, the reviews provide a sense of Catholic life in rural Georgia, a sense of place that is important for us to remember. In a review of Caroline Gordon’s book “How to Read a Novel,” O’Connor alludes to a frequent Bulletin advertiser, writing that “By now all are familiar with the famous ad found in a diocesan paper: ‘Let a Catholic do your termite work.’ In connection with literature, which is almost as dangerous as termites, this fraternal attitude abounds.” The review goes on to gently chide modern Catholic readers for their tastes, but then also does these readers a great service by recommending to them Maritain’s “Art and Scholasticism.” O’Connor saw her reviewing as teaching, too, even if out of sensitivity to the termite man this particular review was not published.
In back-to-back reviews in the summer of 1959, for example, O’Connor negatively reviews Charles B. Flood’s novel “Tell Me, Stranger,” which according to her “introduces a depressing new category: light Catholic summer reading.” Yet a few weeks later, she writes a good review of Claude Koch’s novel “Light in Silence.” In about 300 combined words, O’Connor reveals the subtleties of what makes fiction either good or bad, and one feels that she is writing to bolster her own convictions as well as educate her readers.
This combination of writing to develop her own art and intellect as well as educate and nurture Georgia Catholics represents the essence of O’Connor’s collected book reviews. Taken as a whole, the collection offers a unique glimpse into the mind, career, and spirit of a very special writer and woman. Further, the book introduces contemporary readers to numerous Catholic texts that remain essential reading for today.
Read and cherish your “Prayer Journal,” then see how O’Connor’s book reviews represent some of the ways those prayers were answered.
David A. King, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, Atlanta. He is also the director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.