Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

O’Connor and Merton: Two companion books you should know

By DAVID A. KING, P.h.D., Commentary | Published November 14, 2019

The deluge of scholarship related to Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton continues.

Not long ago, Daniel Moran’s fine book “Creating Flannery O’Connor” provided excellent context and insight into the ever-growing cult of all things O’Connor, and Daniel Alexander’s “Good Things Out of Nazareth,” just published, collects more than a hundred previously unpublished letters by and about O’Connor.

Bishop Robert Barron has made a Pivotal Players film on O’Connor, and Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco’s “Flannery” becomes the second feature documentary on O’Connor after Bridget Kurt’s “Uncommon Grace.”

Just last month, after they read my column on Thomas Merton and Corpus Christi Church, a book arrived by Hugh Turley and David Martin, “The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation,” which deeply explores the mysterious circumstances surrounding Merton’s death.

And each week a friend sends links—to films, articles, books and essays swirling in the digital ether.

I have finally run out of room for Merton and O’Connor books!

So before they are lost in the swamp of secondary material related to these two outstanding writers, I want to share with you two out-of-print books—companion pieces—that are indispensable to anyone passionate about Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton.

The first book is Rosemary Magee’s “Conversations with Flannery O’Connor,” and the second is Ed Rice’s “The Man in the Sycamore Tree: The Good Times and Hard Life of Thomas Merton.”

An O’Connor collection

Magee’s splendid collection is the very first secondary book I ever purchased related to Flannery O’Connor.  I still remember buying it in a B. Dalton Books in a mall, and reading nearly half of it in the store until a clerk told me to get up off the floor.

Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor is seen in a Sept. 22, 1959, photo, sitting on the steps of her home in Milledgeville. CNS photo/Floyd Jillson/Atlanta Journal-Constition, via AP, courtesy “Flannery.”

Magee’s book appeared in 1987, and collects more than twenty articles, interviews and panel presentations. It also includes an excellent introduction by Magee, an essay as revealing and perceptive as Robert Giroux’s introduction to O’Connor’s “Complete Stories.” As Magee writes, the “interviews add a new dimension to an appreciation of O’Connor and, as a result, to an understanding of her fiction … they place O’Connor within a literary and historical and social framework … throughout, an unchanging yet dynamic vision of life emerges.”

Among all the pieces collected in the book, there are a few that are particularly striking. For me, the articles and interviews in the Atlanta press are especially interesting because they present an old, self-conscious, Southern Atlanta aware of its emergence into a regional center, yet still tentative about its growth. The Atlanta pieces reveal a sincere interest in O’Connor, but also a quaint and appreciative pride.

The panel presentations, in which she shares the stage with important writers such as Katherine Anne Porter and Robert Penn Warren, are as interesting for what O’Connor doesn’t say as they are for what she does. In these public events, O’Connor seems like Paul Engle once described her as a student: “Sitting at the back of the room, silent, Flannery was more of a presence than the exuberant talkers. … The dreary chair she sat in glowed.”

Of all the interviews, however, the one that will be of most interest to O’Connor fans is the transcript of a 1955 episode of “Galley Proof” in which O’Connor is interviewed by host Harvey Breit and her story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is dramatized. “Galley Proof” marks O’Connor’s only personal appearance on television, though the same story dramatized for Breit’s program was later badly adapted for the Schlitz Playhouse television anthology. The premise of the show was simple: Breit, an editor at the New York Times Book Review, promised viewers that television was the friend and not the enemy of books; he then interviewed the episode’s guest as the conversation interspersed with a short dramatization.

O’Connor’s appearance on the show is awkward; neither she nor Breit quite know what to make of each other. But O’Connor does reveal her conviction about her art. Asked to summarize or paraphrase the story, O’Connor flatly and sternly refuses.

I have seen the episode only once, at the O’Connor archives at Georgia College, and to my knowledge that is the only place it can be seen; thankfully, some mystery endures in spite of YouTube. Yet the transcript is sufficient, and provides a fascinating look at a mature writer in a slowly maturing medium.

Magee’s book has only one illustration, but it’s a great one. The cover photograph is a wonderful image of Flannery seated underneath her famous self-portrait that she painted.  Ed Rice’s 1970 book on Merton, an “entertainment” he calls it, is on the other hand packed with photographs. I first encountered this book at the downtown branch of the Atlanta public library, right about the time I discovered Merton, and I remember sitting for more than an hour on the floor, enthralled.  No one asked me to get up.

Chronicling Merton

Ed Rice knew Merton at Columbia and remained friends with him for the rest of his life.  His book collects rare and important images: Merton at Columbia, Merton on holiday with Rice and their mutual close friend Bob Lax, and Merton’s Greenwich Village apartment. There are even bawdy illustrations, drawings Merton made when he was art editor of the Columbia student humor magazine.

The photographs of Gethsemani Abbey are essential. There are pictures of Merton during and after his priestly ordination. There are archival photographs of Gethsemani as it looked when Merton first visited, years before Vatican II, when Trappist life was silent and severe.  There are even pictures of Merton with his friend Seymour Freedgood, taken during the famous conversation when Merton compared the Mass to a ballet; the photographs reveal the gestures of the dance that Merton makes to illustrate his point.

The book also beautifully chronicles the hermitage years, and the photographs in this section are striking. We are allowed to see inside the small hermitage, to linger outside of it, to wander in the woods and hills—the knobs, Merton called them—surrounding it. We feel as if we are actually living and working with Merton. Finally, Rice includes several of Merton’s Zen paintings, accompanied by some of the last photographs ever taken of Merton in America before he left on his Asian pilgrimage, before he died. The book is more than a scrapbook, or a loving tribute by an old friend. It is a gift.

We rely far too much upon the internet now; it is the way of the world. For those who still take refuge in books, however, these compilations assembled by Rosemary Magee and Ed Rice are not only a pleasure, they are also essential to a fuller appreciation of two of our greatest Catholic writers. Happily, both books—though out of print—are easy to find in good used condition.