Friday, January 6, 2012

The Charming Cheneys

When Flannery O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood, was published in 1952, it was almost universally panned by the press. One notable exception was a favorable review written by Brainard Cheney. Nicknamed "Lon" after the actor of the same name, Cheney was a literature professor at Vanderbilt. In addition to being a novelist and playwright, he is remembered today for being one of the first interpreters of O'Connor who "got it." Flannery was so flattered by his astute reading of Wise Blood, that she decided to write him and thus began a friendship that was to last the rest of her life. Flannery was also close with Cheney's wife, Frances ("Fanny"), who taught library science at Peabody College. Because the Cheneys owned a home in St. Simons Island, they would frequently stop by Andalusia on their way to the Georgia coast. Flannery also visited the Cheneys at their home in Smyrna, Tennessee and enjoyed the time with them immensely. O' Connor's correspondence with the Cheneys (published by the University Press of Mississippi in 1986) comprises some of the most delightful letters she ever wrote. My daughter, Mary, surprised me with a first edition of this book for Christmas. And even though I am just a quarter of the way through it, I must say that these letters are as good as anything in The Habit of Being. They also provide another glimpse into what life was like for Flannery at Andalusia. The reader of these letters sees her little peacock brood growing from 9 to 16 to 20 birds. Then there is the comical account of Flannery adjusting to life on crutches: "I tell my mother she had better take out insurance on me and on all the people I trip and kill while I am on these things. There is always something crashing now in my wake." (p. 23) Everywhere in these wonderful letters, there is the dry, deadpan humor Flannery was known for, as when she describes a bull on a farm down the road from Andalusia that had a bad habit of ramming pickup trucks (hmm...). The O'Connors' bull, on the other hand, was a more "contemplative" type. "His name was Paleface and he sat all day on a hill where he could look down and see the Fords go by on the highway. He is now tinned beef. We are going artificial." (p. 40) I could go on, but in the interest of brevity let me just say that The Correspondence of Flannery O'Connor and the Brainard Cheneys is simply splendid, and I would heartily encourage you to read it. The book is still in print, and while we don't stock it in our gift shop, a paperback edition is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
- Mark

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