On Wise Blood
As Flannery’s friend, as well as her editor and publisher from the start, I marveled at her excellence as a writer and regretted her early death. I first met her in 1949, when Robert Lowell brought her to Harcourt, Brace and I sensed a tremendous moral and intellectual strength behind her soft-spoken Georgia speech, her clear-eyed gaze and quiet manner. After concluding that she knew exactly what she wanted to do as a writer, I was disappointed to learn that she had signed a contract with another publisher for Wise Blood, which she was awarded because she won first prize in a contest. Fortunately for me, when her would-be editor read her novel’s later chapters, he was so baffled by their strangeness that he told Flannery she would have to abandon “her aloneness” and make the book clearer, at which she wrote him: “I am not writing a conventional novel. . . . The finished book will be just as odd, if not odder, than what you now have.” At their final meeting the editor came to the conclusion, Flannery said, “that I was ‘prematurely arrogant.’ I supplied him with the phrase.” This led him to cancel the contract (she did not have to return the prize money) and she signed up with me.
I’ve often been asked how I knew she was a genius. The answer is I really didn’t know, but had a hunch. Her demeanor, her reluctance to theorize about the book, her integrity impressed me. When Elizabeth McKee, her literary agent, sent me the first nine chapters of Wise Blood, I was convinced.
Earlier in 1940, when I started at Harcourt, I had become a good friend of Robert Fitzgerald through one his teachers, Dudley Fitts, and I edited his and Fitts’s co-translations of Greek drama, ending with Robert’s fantastic solo rendering of Oedipus at Colonus. The Fitzgeralds, I was delighted to hear from Lowell, had arranged for Flannery to live with them and work on her novel in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where I joined them in 1950 for their daughter Maria’s christening, at which Flannery and I stood up as her godparents.
The Fitzgerald family’s contribution to the O’Connor mythos is nothing less than fabulous. On Flannery’s death her will named Robert her literary executor. Then came Mystery and Manners, Flannery’s essays, which Sally compiled and Robert introduced. Of even greater importance was The Habit of Being, the big collection of letters which Sally compiled and edited, revealing the person behind the work and particularly her sense of humor. Flannery’s letters to “A,” a fellow-Georgian named Elizabeth Hester, whose tragic suicide occurred two years ago, were perhaps the most extraordinary part of the book. In 1979 Michael Fitzgerald persuaded that great film director John Huston to make a movie of Wise Blood. Michael was its producer and his brother Benedict wrote the script. When Richard Poirier and Jason Epstein added Flannery to the roster of the Library of America in 1988, as the third woman writer in the series after Harriet Beecher Stowe and Edith Wharton, I proposed that Sally edit the volume. She quickly became the pre-eminent O’Connor scholar here and abroad. Flannery’s mother, Regina, asked Sally to take on the task of writing the authorized biography; it was unfinished at the time of her death last June. The greatest gap in the proceedings tonight is Sally’s absence.
Wise Blood was published in 1952 and the reviews were not good, but two critics were perceptive. Caroline Gordon wrote: “I was more impressed by Wise Blood than any novel I have read in a long time. Her picture of the modern world is terrifying. Kafka is the only one of our contemporaries who has achieved such effects.” In the Sunday New York Times, novelist William Goyen wrote: “One cannot take this book lightly, or lightly turn away from it. It introduces the author as a writer of power.” When I moved to fsg, I learned that Wise Blood was out of print in the cloth edition, and we republished it. I persuaded Flannery to write a brief note for the second edition, though she had always refused to characterize the novel. Ten years after writing Wise Blood, she said of it: “It is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui, and as such very serious. . . . That belief in Christ is a matter of life and death to some has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence.” Wise Blood is still in print.
In the three years following the publication of Wise Blood, Flannery’s development as a writer of stories was amazing. Despite her illness (lupus), her writing became better and better. Catharine Carver, an admirer of Flannery and a great editor herself, who had come to work with me in this period, brought each new story to my desk with almost the same words: “Wait till you read this one!” It was a magnificent series, one beauty after another, including “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “Good Country People,” “The Displaced Person,” “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “The River,” and that masterpiece of a story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” When dramatizations of the stories began to appear on TV, Flannery said that locally, especially among her family and relatives, her importance as a writer rose from zero to one hundred overnight. The best TV versions had John Houseman playing the priest in “The Displaced Person,” and Agnes Moorehead and Gene Kelly (whom Flannery called a tap-dancer) starring in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”
Once on an editorial scouting trip, I journeyed from the Trappist monastery south of Louisville, where I had met with Thomas Merton, to the airport at Atlanta. There I phoned Flannery to tell her I had a present for her from Thomas Merton—an inscribed copy of the limited edition of his meditation, Prometheus. She promptly invited me to spend the weekend with her and Regina at their farm, “Andalusia,” near Milledgeville. When I got there I never saw so many peacocks—forty of them, in all sizes from peachicks to the full splendor of their papas. She told me her love of peacocks dated from her childhood in Savannah at age five when the Pathé Newsreel people sent cameramen to film her Cochin bantam because it walked backwards. At Andalusia I noticed the peacocks were so slow crossing the road that the rear part of their long trains got caught under the taxi wheels, so they waited patiently for release, leaving behind a couple of feathers. When I was taken to my guest room, I found plenty of bookshelves and good books, though none of Flannery’s. The next day we were invited as lunch guests to Milledgeville, by Regina’s older sister. Mrs. Kline’s white-pillared antebellum mansion stood in the center of town and I was told that Milledgeville had served as the temporary capital of Georgia during the Civil War.
Flannery said she was pleased with Merton’s gift and she asked many questions about the monastery routine. Did I, as a guest, follow the prescribed offices of the day. Not the earliest—Lauds, at 3:45 a.m. That was too early for me, but I tried to follow the rest, ending at sundown when the monks, but not necessarily the guests, retired for the day. Flannery told me a new Trappist monastery was being built nearby at Conyers, Georgia and we drove over to meet the young abbot, Father Bourne, whose name I recognized as one of Thomas Merton’s censors, the one Merton preferred to the others, because he was the most understanding. The financing of the new monastery came mostly from the royalties of The Seven Storey Mountain.
To my relief, during my visit at Andalusia there was little or no literary or publishing talk, except that Flannery did reveal she was currently reading everything she could find by Lord Acton, the historian who wrote, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” On Monday morning, the last day of my visit, at breakfast with Flannery and her mother, Regina suddenly asked: “Mr. Giroux, why can’t you get Flannery to write about nice people?” I was expecting Flannery to laugh, as I was about to, or at least smile, but when I saw her poker-faced look, I realized I was facing something of a crisis. I answered that since in my opinion many of Flannery’s characters were aspects of herself, including the young men, she did write about nice people. Apparently this ended the crisis, since Regina offered no other editorial suggestions. On the whole it was an interesting visit, but I was glad to head home.
When Flannery died at age 39, Thomas Merton was not exaggerating his estimate of her worth when he said he would not compare her with such good writers like Katherine Anne Porter, Hemingway and Sartre, but rather with “someone like Sophocles. . . . I write her name with honor, for all the truth and all the craft with which she shows man’s fall and his dishonor.”