Although certainly not as revelatory as some of literature's more celebrated epistolary exchanges, the collected correspondence of Flannery O'Connor with Brainard Cheney, a southern writer of marginal repute, and his wife is cause for modest celebration. Sparked by Cheney's favorable review of O'Connor's misunderstood (and/or neglected) first novel, Wise Blood (a review thoughtfully appended to this collection), this eleven-year exchange warms from cautious and professional formality to intimacies and confidences as O'Connor and Cheney explore a shared sense of literary matters (both were developing writers), politics (both southern Democrats), and, most profoundly, religion (both Catholics in the Protestant south). The letters do offer a rather indirect statement of O'Connor's aesthetics by detailing her loving, if pointed, criticisms of Cheney's unpublished work sent to her as their friendship endured and as O'Connor became something of a literary name. But there is little here that is not developed more fully by O'Connor elsewhere in her letters or in her reams of lectures and essays. Indeed, much of these 188 letters, all previously unpublished, dwells on the uninspiring [End Page 323] details of O'Connor's publishing travails or on the scheduling of holiday visits and lecture touring, that information carefully supplemented with generous notations after each letter.
What is of value here, however, is the constant evidence of what the sober analysis of O'Connor's Catholic humanism tends to discount: her rich, sharp humor. In matters domestic and mundane, she treats her fascination/horror over new appliances, like the telephone and the refrigerator; her loving struggle to breed her peacocks; her valiant efforts to secure a driver's license ("I did bring the patrolman back alive, but he didn't seem to think that was enough"); her self-mocking dread of the grueling tour of speaking engagements (her "bread-winning expeditions") available to her as her reputation grew. In more professional matters, she speaks of her discontent with uninformed critics (one bad review she compares to "a dirty hand wiped across your face"). But supremely there are the touching, casual asides about the onslaught of the crippling lupus, her adjusting to crutches and to life in the south exiled from the literary environs of New York. Never self-pitying, she treats her illness almost as an annoyance. That courage, that humor, constant as the correspondence moves toward O'Connor's final years, speaks volumes about her notion of Christian selflessness and the cheerful serenity available to those anchored in faith.
Unabashedly sympathetic and often extravagant in its dispensation of literary sainthood, Images of Grace seems to indulge at great length the critical mindset that has stunted the evolution of the literary analysis of Flannery O'Connor—namely, the unexamined assumption that biography (here, O'Connor's fierce Catholicism) is intimately bound to her art. Despite O'Connor's often intoned wish to absent herself from her work, the assumption here is that her fealty to Catholicism not only undergirds her most important work but is finally her contribution to the literature of the midcentury, or as the editors scornfully describe modernism and its many-headed offspring postmodernism, the "passing waves of secular literary fashions."
This handsomely assembled book is curiously bifurcated. An opening hundred pages or so rehearses the salient (and largely familiar) items of the O'Connor biography spliced seamlessly with modest critical work, valuable largely for the analysis offered of O'Connor's two novels. The closing handful of pages is a section of harsh, black-and-white photographs that range about the rural poverty of O'Connor's heavily Protestant midcentury southern landscape. Here, in short, is an "approach" to O'Connor that should be most repellant, one proudly bound to the tired prejudices of theology and geography.