JACKI LYDEN, host:
Test your mind now to a south steep(ph) in Christian fundamentalism. That's the world in which the noted writer, Flannery O'Connor set her fiction. Her characters experienced deep spiritual conflict and often found grace in violent or unexpected ways.
In her short life, the Georgian native penned two novels and 31 short stories, collected in volumes like "A Good Man is Hard to Find." But she also wrote 274 letters to a seemingly unremarkable credit bureau clerk named Elizabeth "Betty" Hester. This nine years worth of correspondence represented good portion of O'Connor's adult life. She died at age 39 of lupus in 1964.
This morning, Emory University made public the full collection of Flannery O'Connor's letters to Betty Hester after sealing them, at Hester's request, for 20 years.
Steve Enniss is the director of the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library at Emory University, which houses the letters. I asked him if he could bring the recipient, Betty Hester, to life for us.
Mr. STEVE ENNISS (Director, Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, Emory University): Betty Hester remains a somewhat shadowy figure. She led a very unassuming life as a file clerk at the Retail Credit Company, which later became Equifax here at Atlanta. She was a very widely read woman. She can certainly keep pace with Flannery O'Connor in her reading and her engagement with the subjects that's coming up in the course of this correspondence. But she wished to live a somewhat private and reclusive life. And we get some clue to the reasons for that in these letters themselves.
After about a year of corresponding with Flannery O'Connor, Betty Hester must have written to her friend and confided her own history of horror - that seems to be the phrase she used - because that's the praise that Flannery O'Connor picks up on in her response.
LYDEN: A history of horror. Let me just interject. Did Hester had some demons in her life? I mean, she committed suicide herself in 1998.
Mr. ENNISS: That's right. And she had, as a child, witnessed her own mother's suicide, something that's stuck with her for the rest of her life.
LYDEN: What else did you glean that shed some light on this very private woman - and what taunted her?
Mr. ENNISS: Well, Betty makes reference to a shadowy experience during her time in the military, which seems to have involved some sexual indiscretion. So the nature of what had occurred in her past remains precisely unclear. But we do know that she was dishonorably discharged from the military and there's the implication that it was for some sexual intimacy.
LYDEN: Presumably with another woman.
Mr. ENNISS: Presumably. Flannery O'Connor received that letter in October of '56. And she hurries to write a response on the 31st of that month. And she writes to her friend Betty. I can't write you fast enough and tell you that it doesn't make the slightest bit of difference in my opinion of you, which is the same as it was, and that is based solidly on complete respect. The letter goes on. And I think it's worth hearing in some fullness.
She continues, compared to what you have experienced in the way of radical misery, I have never had anything to bear in my life but minor irritations. But there are times when the sharpest suffering is not to suffer and the worse affliction not to be afflicted. And Job's comforters were worse off than he was, but they didn't know it. If in any sense my knowing your burden can make your burden lighter then I'm doubly glad I know it, you were right to tell me. But I'm glad you didn't tell me until I knew you well. Well you were wrong is in saying that you are a history of horror. The meaning of the redemption is precisely that we do not have to be our history and nothing is plainer to me than that you are not your history.
So, as you see, Betty had confided some incident in her past, some sense of shame, some sense of fearfulness, some sense of vulnerability to Flannery O'Connor, who response in a very grace filled a letter that really is a demonstration of grace, I think, still it work in the world and the character of Flannery O'Connor.
LYDEN: Each of the women shared, not only the fact of being southerners and being somewhat reclusive, they were also those women of faith. Can you talk about this spiritual bond that O'Connor herself alludes to in the letter you've just read?
Mr. ENNISS: Yes. The early letter, especially the content is very taken up with the subject of each of their faith journeys. That's, of course…
LYDEN: O'Connor's, of course, being a devout Catholic.
Mr. ENNISS: That's right. And Betty Hester interested in the church and during the course of the correspondence decided to become Catholic and actually -asking that Flannery O'Connor served as a sponsor for her joining the church, something Flannery O'Connor was happy to do. At one point, Betty Hester must have made a reference to Flannery O'Connor's - being herself a mystique - and it's interesting O'Connor's response to that word - if I could, I'd share just a brief passage from a letter where she…
Mr. ENNISS: …writes to Betty Hester and denies that label - I'm not a mystique, she writes, and I repeat it. But if I ever said it, you can discount it as my not having been in my right head. You were confusing the artist's gifts with the mystiques and imbuing me with your own mysticism. And then she adds, all I have is a talent and nothing else to do but cultivate it.
So, Flannery O'Connor was certainly a deeply religious woman but she did not want her art to be perceived as a direct expression of some spiritual or mystical reality. She was striving towards a faithful life and within a faith tradition, but striving to do what with her own raw talent.
LYDEN: Well Steve Enniss, thank you very, very much for joining us.
Mr. ENNISS: Glad to be with you.
LYDEN: Steve Enniss is the director of the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University. This morning the university opened its complete collection of letters from Flannery O'Connor to Elizabeth Hester. The collection had been sealed for 20 years.
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