- A Circular Reverie: Flannery O'Connor
The query came out of the blue: Did I have a copy of Goodbye, Columbus, inscribed by Philip Roth to my late husband, George Starbuck? George had been Roth's editor on that book when he had briefly worked at Houghton Mifflin in Boston. He brought that house two young poets, Galway Kinnell and Anne Sexton, in addition to the fiction writer Roth, his friend from their days together at the University of Chicago. Now a Manhattan bookseller was writing me, having seen one of my poems in the New Yorker. He said he'd been searching for an inscribed copy of that Roth book for years and had a buyer who would pay handsomely for such a copy. Any chance I could help? George seldom held on to his books, alas.
The bookseller's letter sent me into a circular reverie about my beloved husband and his father, George Beiswanger, and about Flannery O'Connor and her mother, Regina; and about our friends, the extraordinary classicist, translator, and poet Robert Fitzgerald and his second wife, Sally Fitzgerald, who edited O'Connor's letters; and about Paul Engle, the legendary director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. All long dead, all dear to me in one way or another. The only one of them I did not know personally was Flannery, but her first three books sit on my bookshelf, inscribed to my father-in-law, George Beiswanger, who left me his sizable O'Connor collection. My reverie took me back and forth from Iowa City, where I worked, to Boston, where George taught for eighteen years, to Milledgeville, Georgia, to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I now live and hope to spend the rest of my days.
George's father, George Beiswanger, a dance critic and aesthetician, was Flannery's philosophy professor at Georgia College in Milledgeville, then called Georgia State College for Women. In Brad Gooch's recent O'Connor biography he notes that Beiswanger and his wife were affectionately called Dr. He-B and Dr. She-B by their Milledgeville students. George Beiswanger had taken his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Iowa in the late 1920s. He knew Paul Engle, and he told Flannery she needed to study writing with Engle and company at Iowa. And, as we know, she did. I was Paul Engle's assistant for some three years at the Writers' Workshop in Iowa City in the early 1960s, many years after Flannery was there. Paul often spoke of her as one of his favorites in a long career that was then drawing to a close. She was one of very few women writers at Iowa at the time.
It was in Iowa City that I met the poet George Starbuck. In 1966 he succeeded Paul Engle as director of the workshop. He became my husband in 1968, and in 1969 George and I left Iowa. After six months in the Peloponnesus, [End Page 466] we moved to Boston, where he directed the writing program at Boston University until the slow progression of Parkinson's disease, which hit him in his forties, forced him to give up the director's post after five or six years. He was able to teach at B.U. until 1988.
George had met Robert and Sally Fitzgerald in Italy after his first Boston stint. We continued to see the Fitzgeralds when we moved back to Boston in 1970. Some years later the Fitzgeralds were divorced, and Robert married Penelope Laurans. Robert was Flannery's literary executor. In the mid-1970s, when Sally Fitzgerald decided to edit Flannery's selected letters, she made one of her visits to the Beiswangers in Georgia. George and I were also visiting them at the time. We had a separate lunch with Sally, and she eventually got around to asking us, as many people had over the years, why George Starbuck had a name different from his father's.
George Beiswanger, a lovely learned man, left his wife, Margaret Starbuck, for Barbara Page when George was six months old. Margaret Starbuck brought up her son under the name Starbuck...