The Southern Literary Journal 36.2 (2004) 31-46
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The Life You Write May Be Your Own:
Epistolary Autobiography and the Reluctant Resurrection of Flannery O'Connor
"I prayed there for the novel I was working on, not for my bones, which I care about less."
Flannery O'Connor would not have considered herself a likely object of autobiographical studies. Although she wrote occasional prose and lectures—collected posthumously in 1969's Mystery and Manners—her preoccupation was almost exclusively the production of fiction. It dominated not only her literary output but also her daily life, as she battled lupus and devoted what energy she had to writing. The disease necessitated a strict and solitary routine that only infrequently took her away from Andalusia, her mother's farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. In a 1958 letter to a friend, O'Connor went so far as to claim that there would be no biography of her because "lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy" (Habit 290-91). Such offhand self-effacement is ubiquitous in her letters, yet O'Connor's relationship to life-writing is not straightforward. At the very least, the publication of Fickett and Gilbert's 1986 book Flannery O'Connor: Images of Grace twenty-one years after O'Connor's death contradicts her prophecy that no life study would be written. Moreover, a collection of her [End Page 31] letters, The Habit of Being, appeared in 1979. Of course, letters do not fit precisely into the category of autobiography as popularly conceived, since they lack the pretence of synchronic composition and the emphasis on recollection that are hallmarks of the genre. However, epistolary collections inevitably feature the sorts of fissures and paradoxes with which critics of autobiography are perennially concerned; binaries such as the public and private, the self and others, and experience and text blur and tug at one another. Moreover, posthumous letter collections lie in the interstice between autobiography and biography. They raise the question of who owns a life, and of whose life is being owned. The Habit of Being is one putative example of epistolary autobiography that suggests letters are Orphic events in which the author both creates and disperses herself among an audience, while the posthumous collection of her correspondence appears as a Frankenstein-like re-assembly and resurrection of the dead. However, the nature of the character being resurrected is not immediately clear. The study that follows is interested less in the ethics of posthumous epistolary publication than in how its resurrection is accomplished, and in the qualities of the creature that it produces.
Whatever other suspicions O'Connor had regarding life-writing, her religious convictions were constantly at the forefront in her work, and they counselled her strongly against attempting autobiography. In a 1957 letter, she states clearly her antipathy to the genre: "Autobiography sounds very grand but I don't think grand folks are the ones to write it. I think no one should write one unless he's called on by the Lord to do so" (Habit 242). The genre's genealogy may be inextricable from the tradition of Christian confession, conversion narratives, and spiritual autobiography, but for a Catholic like O'Connor, to write one's life is to risk committing the sin of pride. Indeed, O'Connor is sceptical of self-assertion and argues in contrast for "self-abandonment" (Habit 458). Her own maxim is "I live now not I but Christ in me" (Habit 304), and the very God who makes her His vessel guarantees her sense of self. In O'Connor's terms, the movement toward self-knowledge in texts such as conversion narratives is only "the first step" (Habit 299); the greater action is to "turn inward toward God and away from your own egocentricity" (Habit 430). In this sense, her position is similar to that of John Ruskin, who argues that spiritual autobiography is...