The novelist who mentored a young Flannery O’Connor

Caroline Gordon and Flannery O’Connor (photo: Wikipedia/AP)Caroline Gordon and Flannery O’Connor (photo: Wikipedia/AP)

Many Catholics interested in literature have had their preconceptions quashed and expectations refined (as if by fire) by the art of Flannery O’Connor. Her stories are often brutal, with unlikeable characters, harrowing plots and haunting conclusions. Yet she offers her readers an education not only in the purposes of fiction but in the way the Catholic faith can enrich and deepen both the writing and the reading of it. Like many others, I revere O’Connor for how she shattered my preconceptions of what Catholic art can be and how she taught me to read literature and the world through a sacramental, prophetic lens.

We sometimes think of our literary heroes as springing fully formed onto the landscape, miraculously endowed with talent and genius and grace. But they, like us, were on a journey and often relied on the help of others in the unfolding of their vocations. It was a surprise to me to discover that much of O’Connor’s thought on the nature of fiction and how to write it was in turn shaped by another, rather more obscure literary figure: Caroline Gordon.

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The Letters of Flannery O'Connor and Caroline Gordonby Edited by Christine Flanagan

University of Georgia Press

272p, $32.95 

In The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon, the editor Christine Flanagan gathers an admirable collection that traces the fascinating relationship between two women committed to both their Catholic faith and the craft of fiction. Yet unlike much of O’Connor’s correspondence with others, this one stands out as a kind of student-teacher relationship in which O’Connor, at least in the beginning, is the gifted student and Gordon the seasoned, exacting teacher.

Gordon, though not well known today, was an accomplished writer and recent Catholic convert. Nominated for a National Book Award along with William Faulkner and Truman Capote in 1952, she had already won a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and the O. Henry Prize in her 30s and was lauded for her novels, including Penhally and None Shall Look Back. She was introduced to O’Connor by a mutual friend and famous translator, Robert Fitzgerald. In fact, she helped provide the encouragement and feedback necessary to get O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, published in the first place. “This girl is a real novelist,” she observed of the then 24-year-old O’Connor.

At the start of their correspondence, Flannery O’Connor was the gifted student and Caroline Gordon was the seasoned, exacting teacher.

Gordon drew upon her own experience of the Catholic faith in her often highly technical and precise feedback on O’Connor’s stories. In a letter in which she responded to a draft of the now (in)famous story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Gordon draws upon the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: “The story, on the whole, does not have enough ‘composition of scene’ to borrow a phrase from St. Ignatius of Loyola. It is not well enough located in time and place.”

From lengthy and thorough explanations of managing tone to the intricacies of narration and point of view, Gordon provided O’Connor with pages of insightful and sometimes severe feedback that engaged not only the vast scope of O’Connor’s vision but even the more minute shape of her sentences:

A sentence is a miniature story, just as a paragraph is a story in miniature. A story must have a climax. A sentence must have its small climax. A sentence is more telling if it ends on the word that is most important. I’d rewrite ‘like the servant of some great man who had just flown the garment on him’ as ‘like the garment that some great man had just flung to his servant.’

And later in the same letter, she writes that “[t]he least flavour of colloquial speech lets the tone down. You ought to learn to write a whole paragraph that is as free from colloquial flavour as one of Dr. Johnson’s. You need such paragraphs for the elevated effects you aspire to.”

Gordon provided O’Connor with pages of insightful and sometimes severe feedback. 

It must have required a great deal of humility on O’Connor’s part to digest the sheer amount of criticism that Gordon gave to her—especially regarding something so vulnerable as a rough draft. But these letters reveal O’Connor’s determination to hone her abilities in order to render her vision more justly. She responds to a particularly extensive critique of Gordon’s with the following: “I thank you the Lord knows for haranguing me twice on the same counts and at the expense of boring yourself stiff. This is Charity and as the good sisters say Gawd will reward you for your generosity.”

As a teacher myself, I can feel in the many pages of advice the deep respect Gordon felt for the young writer. In fact, giving someone else such intense and thoughtful feedback is a mark of love. Gordon herself repeatedly acknowledged her younger friend’s talent and capacity to accept criticism: “To begin with, I feel like a fool when I criticize your stories. I think you are a genius.... I might as well come out with it. I also think you are one of the most original writers now practicing,” Gordon wrote.

In her essay “The Teaching of Literature” in Mystery and Manners, O’Connor later observed that “[t]he teacher’s first obligation is to the truth of the subject he is teaching, and that for the reading of literature ever to become a habit and a pleasure, it must first be a discipline. The student has to have tools to understand a story or a novel, and these are tools proper to the structure of the work, tools proper to the craft.” Such tools, she wrote, “operate inside the work and not outside it; they are concerned with how this story is made and with what makes it work as a story.”

I suspect she may have had Gordon in the back of her mind when she wrote those words. Gordon was just the sort of teacher who acknowledged her “obligation to the truth” and insisted upon “the tools proper to the craft.” O’Connor later acknowledged: “Whenever I finish a story I send it to Caroline before I consider myself really through with it. She’s taught me more than anybody.”

What strikes me in their correspondence is a subtle sense of distance, of reserve, that is never really lessened between the two women.

Yet what strikes me in their correspondence, beyond Caroline’s warm discourses on the finer points of writing and O’Connor’s wry self-deprecation, is a subtle sense of distance, of reserve, that is never really lessened between the two women. Gordon’s letters are always much longer than O’Connor’s, packed with literary allusions, reworkings of sentences and paragraphs, and long explanations; and although O’Connor regularly submits her manuscripts to Gordon and adopts most of the suggestions, she rarely asks direct questions of her mentor.

There are several obvious reasons for this lack of closeness: O’Connor was the age of Gordon’s daughter when they began corresponding, the relationship was from the start professional and the exchanges were always somewhat one-sided: Gordon submitted only one essay to O’Connor for feedback in 1952 and never again after that. Gordon concealed, for the most part, her marital and financial troubles from her young friend until her second divorce began to unfold in 1958, and O’Connor seldom alluded to her own battle with lupus, the illness that had taken her father when she was 16 years old.

It is clear that Gordon’s rather larger-than-life personality seemed overbearing at times to the younger writer; yet O’Connor also often defended her mentor to others. As she said to her friend Betty Hester, “Caroline is wildly mixed up” but “[t]he harshness with which you speak of [her] is not justified.”

They met in person a few times. Upon Gordon’s first visit to the O’Connor family farm, Andalusia, in Georgia, eight years after the beginning of their correspondence, O’Connor admitted, “It was somewhat nerve-racking keeping her and my mother’s personalities from meeting headlong with a crash.”

Even if they were not, properly speaking, close friends, they were nevertheless artistically and spiritually akin.

One can see, however, another kind of trust and understanding emerging in the letters. Even if they were not, properly speaking, close friends, they were nevertheless artistically and spiritually akin. Gordon, perhaps better than anyone else, understood O’Connor’s work and its theological underpinnings. With characteristic pronouncements and declarations, Gordon plumbed the depths of what O’Connor was trying to do in language that recalls Dante’s ambitions. “There is only one plot, The Scheme of Redemption. All other plots, if they are any good, are splinters off this basic plot. There is only one author: The HG [Holy Ghost],” Gordon wrote to O’Connor.

She goes on to unpack O’Connor’s work at length. “Your chief weakness as a writer seems to be a failure to admit the august nature of your inspiration,” Gordon writes. “You have the best ear of anybody in the trade for the rhythms of colloquial speech.... You have this enormous advantage: what Yeats called the primitive ear. He had it, too and got a lot out of it.”

But O’Connor, Gordon continued, had “another kind of ear, one that is attuned to—shall we say the music of the spheres? It is attuned to that music or you would not choose the subjects you choose. The nature of your subject—its immensity, its infinity—ought to be reflected in your style—antiphonally.”

Further, she added, “if you were less stout-hearted and less talented I wouldn’t dare to say the things I am saying to you but I expect you to do not only better than any of your compeers but better than has been done heretofore.”

“You have the best ear of anybody in the trade for the rhythms of colloquial speech.... You have this enormous advantage: what Yeats called the primitive ear.”

But O’Connor’s literary career did not last long. In July 1964, her illness had reached a critical point. She sent her last draft (of the story “Parker’s Back”) to Gordon. A few days later, Gordon sent her response; a long letter of detailed criticism that would prove to be their last exchange. O’Connor responded with a short note thanking her and said that she was returning to the hospital the next day for a blood transfusion: “The blood count just won’t hold. Anyway maybe I’ll learn something for the next set of stories. You were good to take the time.... Cheers to you and pray for me.”

Two weeks later, O’Connor died, aged 39.

In an unpublished letter from 1974, 10 years after O’Connor’s death, a graduate student at Emory named James MacLeod asked Gordon for advice about his writing. He had been a pallbearer at O’Connor’s funeral and had evidently heard about the support and advice Gordon had given his friend. We learn from MacLeod’s letter that O’Connor herself had become a kind of teacher, too: “Flannery has for years tried to teach me prose. In the typical O’Connor manner (dear Flannery) she challenged me to test the theological implications of my theology in short stories.”

If my stories failed, he wrote, “don’t blame Flannery. Flannery never helped me a bit with originality. She used technique (Now this sentence), psychology (Calvin drew conclusions. You try it.) and the grand slam (Many a pot can brew tea. Can you pour it without slopping?).” He added that through O’Connor he “found the only narrator I could use was the omniscient. I don’t know whether this is good or bad.”

What is so interesting to me about this passage is to hear, even in MacLeod’s brief paraphrasing, echoes of Gordon’s own advice to Flannery on sentences and narration. O’Connor had clearly absorbed her mentor’s lessons and was passing them on.

As teachers, so often we do not know the kind of impact we might have on students, nor how they might become teachers themselves in unexpected or hidden ways. So much of what we give is not measurable by grades or fame or worldly success. Rather, the relationship between student and teacher occupies a different sphere, which one of my own teachers called “the economy of grace.”

Caroline Gordon had no way of knowing, back when she agreed to send her advice to an unknown aspiring writer, the impact she would have on Flannery O’Connor and through her upon many other Catholic writers and the thousands of people of myriad faiths (or none) who have been moved and challenged by those stories.

But Gordon was willing to share her own wisdom and deep love of writing with expansive generosity and attention, and her gift to O’Connor has been multiplied like the loaves and fishes to nourish the imaginations of a very great multitude.

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