DEAR REGINA: Letters from Flannery O’Connor of Iowa. Edited by Monica Carol Miller. University of Georgia Press. 304 pages. $34.95.
Before Flannery O’Connor became one of America’s most famous and studied literary figures, she was a young student who had written to her mother every day since grad school. These letters, which reveal so much about O’Connor and his early work, have been compiled and first published in the new book “Dear Regina: Flannery O’Connor’s Letters from Iowa”, edited by Monica Carol Miller.
O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, where she spent most of her childhood until her father’s job brought the family to Milledgeville. At age 20, O’Connor went to Iowa to study writing, her first time away from home and away from the South. When she arrived in Iowa, she was enrolled in the school’s journalism program. But she soon visited the director of the school’s prestigious creative writing program and asked for a place. His southern accent was so thick in his Midwestern ear that he had to ask her to write his request. She simply wrote: “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writers’ Workshop? The principal agreed to watch her work, and by the second semester she was into it.
Her mother’s side isn’t included, and the letters don’t carry much weight in terms of subject matter, but they convey the depths of the relationship and the writer. They’re like everyone’s daily check-ins with a best friend or spouse or, in this case, parent. Almost every letter mentions food, where she eats, what she picked up at the grocery store, what she cooks on her hot plate in her bedroom, from eggs to canned meats to oranges, and what she loved and hated in the most recent care package. She tells her mother what her teachers thought of her work. She was, in every way, an outstanding student. By the end of her freshman year of college, she had published her first short story, “Geranium,” in a well-regarded literary journal.
Looking for autobiographical details in an author’s fiction is, in general, an uninspiring pursuit, but “Geranium” concerns similar situations to those she alludes to in her letters to her mother, and themes that have made her work so unique and powerful. The graduate school was O’Connor’s first extended trip outside of his bourgeois south-to-north world, where Cuban women tried to fit into the same building and a black woman was in his class of workshop.
When it was her turn to share her work out loud in class, the teacher had to read her story because no one could understand O’Connor when she spoke. O’Connor wrote to her mother asking the teacher to read her work anonymously because she had used the N-word in her story and did not want to upset the black woman. When O’Connor eats a meal with her black classmate, she teases her mother about it, who must have been, on O’Connor’s side of things, outraged at the idea.
“Geranium” is about a southern white man in poor health who is forced to live up north with his daughter. Both father and daughter have deeply racist views, but they react differently when they realize a black man is watching the apartment next door. The daughter, who was “well brought up,” minds her own business and stays away from the black people she encounters in integrated society. But her father is deeply troubled. When he meets the black man in the stairwell, the shock nearly kills him. But the black man, probably the only one raised in this situation, is friendly and helps the old man upstairs. In the end, the humiliated old man’s worldview is shattered, as we like to think O’Connor’s was when she first sat in class with a black woman.
O’Connor grew up in an awful time and place where “being raised right” meant being racist, but his work captured something honest about that oppressive system, and he didn’t associate with black people the way black people did. smaller representations. As in “Geranium,” she had a cruelly comedic knack for showcasing the immense power of black people over southern white people. In “Dear Regina”, Miller quotes writer and critic Hilton Als on this aspect of her work: “O’Connor’s deepest gift was her ability to impartially describe the bourgeoisie into which she was born, to humorously and nonjudgmentally portray his rapidly collapsing social order.”
The letters from “Dear Regina” show that all the elements of a promising young writer’s career are falling into place, but that career was ultimately cut short. O’Connor mentions various family members and friends, but she doesn’t say much about her father, who died young of lupus five years before O’Connor went to Iowa. This same illness would take O’Connor’s life 20 years later, although she did not know it at the time. The only time O’Connor mentions lupus to her mother, she writes, “I sure hope Dr. Nippert can say that Ben Harrison doesn’t have lupus; however, I imagine they can do more about it now than 5 years ago. The absence of the disease in their correspondence, and certainly the sad hope of this single mention, haunts the letters.
“Dear Regina” will delight scholars and O’Connor fans alike. But even passive readers of O’Connor can revel in the details of daily life in America in the late 1940s, as observed by a serious young woman going to college, making herself through her formative years. .