I bought The Habit of Being, the collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters edited by Sally Fitzgerald, when it was published in 1979 – hardcover, first edition. I found myself reading the letters more often than her stories and novels. My practice with Keats is similar, reading his correspondence more than his poetry. Partly that’s because I read prose the way a prose writer does – with attentiveness, eyes open for tricks of the trade. Poetry gives pleasure, and it can suggest ways to handle words in prose, but I’m not a member of that guild. Like most people, including most poets, I will never be able to write even mediocre poetry. Prose feels like home. I accept that I am, after all these years of denial, prosaic.
About five years later I was working in Indiana and had a friend whose wife had been diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, the disease that killed O’Connor in 1964 at age thirty-nine. She was about thirty years old, strong and confident, with a young daughter, but finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with mundane demands. She was always in pain but seldom complained, though you could see it in her face. Her husband had epilepsy, resulting in a medical discharge from the Army. These people were proud and tried to be self-reliant but needed a lot of help. The wife was not a bookish person but I thought O’Connor’s story might interest her so I loaned her my copy of The Habit of Being and never saw it again. I moved to upstate New York in 1985 and lost touch with them. Thinking of O’Connor always carries with it a conjoined memory of Kathy and Jim. I replaced the hardback with a paperback edition a long time ago.
Among O’Connor’s correspondents was Elizabeth Fenwick Way, a mystery writer she met at Yaddo in 1948. Fenwick was also diagnosed with lupus, a milder form of the disease. Though nine years older than O’Connor, Fenwick outlived her by thirty-two years. In a letter written to Fenwick on this date, May 17, in 1961, O’Connor suggests she ask her doctor to prescribe chloroquine – a drug recently in the news. The most refreshing thing about O’Connor is her brusque common sense. She is funny about things other people treat solemnly, and vice versa. To Fenwick she writes:
“Doctors always think anybody doing something they aren’t is a quack; also they think all patients are idiots.”