New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979. First edition. Large octavo, original black cloth, yellow top edge, original dust jacket. A nearly-fine copy. Item #406
First edition of Flannery O'Connor's engaging letters, an essential component of her published body of work. It was easy for readers in the 1950s and early 60s to discern the religious themes in Flannery's work "but only with the posthumous publication of her letters in The Habit of Being did it become clear how much the shape of her art owed to her Catholic faith. What is more the letters revealed just how much her personal circumstances, her sharp intelligence, and her deeply held faith had combined to forge a prophetic vision of extraordinary depth." (Robert Ellsberg, All Saints). The letters are arranged chronologically, covering the last 16 years of O'Connor's life. Part I: Up North and Getting Home 1948-1952, Part II: Day In and Day Out 1953-1958, Part III: "The Violent Bear it Away" 1959-1963, Part IV: The Last Year 1964. Selected and edited by Sally Fitzgerald, Flannery's longtime friend who had undertaken a similar task with Mystery and Manners (1969). Fitzgerald provides a valuable Introduction (dated "Cambridge, Massachusetts/March 1978") and a brief Editor's Note in addition to a Dedication: "To Regina Cline O'Connor/in gratitude for letting readers/come to know her daughter better." Fitzgerald adapted the title from Flannery's personal copy of Jacques Maritain's Art and Scholasticism. Maritain describes a "habit of art," a mindset/an ideal originating in the scholastic view that "Art is a virtue of the practical intellect." Fitzgerald defines the "habit of being" as "an excellence not only of action but of interior disposition and activity."
The tendency to view literary letters as an author's unguarded self-portrait is not necessarily true when it comes to this collection because Flannery knew that she was writing these letters for posterity. This is most apparent in her long correspondence with Elizabeth Hester, known as "A" in the letters. "Their correspondence--O'Connor's side of it, that is--dominates The Habit of Being, and it has shaped the interpretation of O'Connor's fiction more than anything else she wrote. That is just the way she wanted it. In undertaking such a correspondence, she wrote for 'public consumption,' and she later made provisions in her will for the letters to be published. She remarked that she would trade a hundred readers in the present for ten readers ten years later or one reader a century further on, and she wrote to Elizabeth Hester as if to the reader of the future, so that that reader might know who she was and what she was about." (Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own). The front panel of the dust jacket (designed by Janet Halvorson) features a vibrant illustration of "a phoenix risen" while the back panel boasts the famous photograph by Joe McTyre, captioned: "Flannery O'Connor and Peacock/on the porch of her home, "Andalusia,'/in Milledgville, Georgia." A splendid copy.