The Correspondence of Flannery O'Connor and the Brainard Cheneys
Edited by C. Ralph Stephens
252 pages, 6 X 9 inches
978-1-60473-166-8 Paper $30.00R
A fascinating and revealing set of letters between a great southern author and one of her critics who became a dear friend
In 1953 Flannery O'Connor was so pleased by Brainard Cheney's review of her much misunderstood first novel Wise Blood that she wrote the reviewer to thank him. What Cheney, himself a novelist, had said about the book was right on target. Very soon a friendship between this rising star of southern literature and Brainard and Frances Cheney was flourishing.
Over the next eleven years there was a spirited exchange of letters and visits. Whenever possible, the Cheneys stopped by Andalusia, the O'Connor farm near Milledgeville, Georgia, and O'Connor was able to visit them at Cold Chimneys, their home in Smyrna, Tennessee. This fascinating book collecting their correspondence reveals a devoted friendship that ended with Flannery O'Connor's death at thirty-nine in 1964.
In these 188 letters, all previously unpublished, we see a new aspect of her life, the part she shared with "Lon" and "Fannie" Cheney. These letters not only give the pleasure of knowing more about the talented Cheneys, an eminent couple close to the Tate circle, but also provide yet another occasion for readers to revel in the delight of Flannery O'Connor's sparkling wit and dark humor.
From O'Connor there are 117 letters, from Cheney 71. All Mrs. Cheney's letters to Flannery O'Connor have been lost, but from the surviving correspondence the reader can note with pleasure the interests that seemed to draw this trio closer as they shared opinions and reports about their native South, their Roman Catholicism, their novels in progress, and their commitment to good writing.
"I am on crutches," Flannery writes, "and will have to be on them a year or two. Right now I feel like the Last Ape. . . . I can still throw garbage at the chickens . . . which is my favorite exercise." In the background of O'Connor's letters is the supportive Mrs. O'Connor. "My mother always prepares for the wrong accident—she was expecting a hole to be burned in her tablecloth," Flannery writes. "But somebody set a wet punch cup on her Bible." And, "My mother has a Chamber of Commerce approach to literature and she thinks that I must address all these DARs and Book Review Groups when called upon. The trouble is it takes me two to three weeks of hard labor to amuse these girls for five minutes."
O'Connor and the Cheneys search, through their letterwriting, for understanding of their presence as "Cathlik interleckchuls" in the Bible Belt Southland. But it is chiefly the literary illuminations via these letters that enhance the friendship as well as ignite the reader's compelling curiosity. The letters focus attention upon a time in Flannery O'Connor's life when correspondence was of great importance to her. The O'Connor/Cheney letters make it clear that her circumscribed life was enlarged and enriched by this friendship during her most creative and productive years.
C. Ralph Stephens is a professor of English at Essex Community College in Baltimore.
252 pages, 6 X 9 inches