Excerpt from a short story, “I Would Like to Know Who This Is Who Understands My Stories,” previously presented at the Georgia College Flannery O’Connor Conference “Startling Figures” in 2011.
Hester Journal: September 27, 1955
Third letter and counting. I keep thinking of how she said she would like to know who this is who understands her stories—Finding myself deeply gratified that even in this mess of modernity smart women can sometimes find one another and survive the recognition.
Now says that if she were to “live long enough and develop as an artist to the proper extent [she] would like to write a comic novel about a woman.” What is more comic, she says, and terrible than “the angular intellectual proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth?” Well that reference was not so thinly veiled. I imagine, of course, that it is a heap easier to find the comic in it when you are on the other side of the teeth-grinding. Steeped in her own faith, her certainty about the great and terrible structure of it all, she’s like an old tree that bends in the wind but accepts without question the shape of the sky under which it rises or falls. And then has a good laugh about it. She sees me, on the other hand, as a great example of the religious consciousness without a religion. I do regard the heavens, but they move by the mighty jet stream. If God lives at all it is in the indifferent global wind. That is as close as I can get. Anything else feels like shading your eyes in the face of what’s horrible and real, and I learned early that I am not one to look away.
All this, and yet—I can’t deny that the hope of faith remains within me. And now it even comes to me disguised in envelopes from Milledgeville—home, fittingly enough, of our most famous insane asylum.
Though I do not fear proselytizing from her. Her spiritual influence on me is at once more subtle and more insidious. I worry instead that in the course of winning my heart as a friend she will convince my brain of the virtue of faith. She must suspect by now that this is where I live.
Hester Journal: June 25, 1956
Andalusia visit complete. Whole time I was there could barely sit. The drive down was fine, but once I arrived and saw the first sharp little peacock head jutting around the yard, its startling tail blazing and bumping behind, then saw the first glint of sunlight off her glasses as she stood crooked on the front porch, and then the same light off her teeth smiling at me. A nervous energy pulsed through me all day. Something she radiated that reached out and affected me, leaving this unrelenting ripple on water inside. Something that told me she is one of our very best, and that that this new friendship, struck a year ago this summer, will continue to reverberate through me and will not leave me unchanged. So the whole time there my nerves jangled a little and my teeth rattled a little and I had a hard time staying in one spot for too long, let alone sitting down to eat like a normal human being. She, of course, was perfectly calm and composed. I could see that she was quite happy to have me, she and Regina both.
The both of us spinster co-habitants of widows, nonetheless hard to believe that we are near the same age—she seems older, somehow, and yet younger too. Some combination of a perpetual 12-year-old about to make a terrible remark and an 80 year old sitting with the ever-shocking knowledge that life must end for all of us, but quick. Gives the impression that nothing whatsoever can be worked out on the surface of things. Like she bears the weight of more wisdom than she ought to have, but retains a perfectly easy capacity for happiness. The peacocks please her no end. At one point, watching her face soften as they ate the feed she scattered for my benefit, I couldn’t help but feel gratitude for the New Yorker writer who said her stories were full of groundless cruelty and depraved half-wits. Bless his idiotic heart for starting this friendship. And now, one year later, I am inching closer to the Christ-centered world like a nearly good woman fearing that someone may arrive to shoot me every minute of my life.
She did seem fragile though. Why was she standing so crooked on the porch, and making her way so crooked down the stairs, when her writing is ramrod straight, even the letters. Why is she here in Georgia and not out, up and out, in the northeast where all the real writers are? Everyone knows that Mississippi keeping Faulkner must be thanks to some Mrs. Faulkner who will tolerate his foolishness and edit his garbled drafts on the condition that she get to remain in Oxford. Besides, Faulkner needs the South more than Flannery does, despite what she thinks. All she seems to need is the Trinity, a few likable people, and an unending supply of regular, profoundly unlikeable, people—and that particular constellation can be rendered just about anywhere. I want her here, but I also can’t help but wonder what might happen should she get out of the “region” and into the “world.” She would of course say that there is no difference between the two.
In sum, post-Andalusia: she is everything I expected. And she is more. And she is perhaps a little less. But mostly she is more. And she is certainly among our best, our very very best.
TO: Betty Hester
FROM: Flannery O'Connor
28 June 1956
28 June 1956
[Y]ou don't look anything like I expected you to as I always take people at their word and I was prepared for white hair, horn-rimmed spectacles, nose of eagle and shape of ginger-beer bottle. Seek the truth and pursue it: you ain't even passably ugly. […]
You are wrong that it was long ago I gave up thinking anything could be worked out on the surface. I have found it out, like everybody else, the hard way and only in the last years as a result of I think two things, sickness and success. One of them alone wouldn't have done it for me but the combination was guaranteed. I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it's always a place where there's no company, where nobody can follow.
Hester Journal: June 30, 1956
Letter arrived today from F. Says next time I visit I must eat, if for no other reason than to "attain reality" for Regina. And that I gave the impression of being "poised for flight.” That if she had turned her back, I might have been gone. She’s certainly wrong about that, but the “lark with a jet engine” feels true enough. She also says that sickness is a place, one where there's no company, where nobody can follow. I think that must also be true of grief.
-- Rachel Watson has a PhD in English from the University of Chicago. She has published criticism on Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and William Faulkner, and her fiction has appeared in the Sonora Review and in a collection edited by Paul Auster, I Thought My Father Was God
Our guest blogger was among 24 scholars attending "Reconsidering Flannery O'Connor" a Summer Institute funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and held at Georgia College in July 2014. For more information about the institute, please visit http://www.gcsu.edu/nehoconnor/index.htm