Queer O’Connor: Surprises from the Archives

In February 2019, Sean DiLeonardi conducted research at Emory’s Rose Library as a recipient of our Short-Term Fellowship Program. Mr. DiLeonardi is a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Thanks to a research fellowship from the Stuart A. Rose Library at Emory University, I was able to spend extensive time recently with the Flannery O’Connor papers. I was looking for bits of information—a flourish from a letter here, a biographical fact there—that might strengthen my dissertation chapter about the gender of character autonomy in O’Connor’s fiction. That is, I am interested in how characters make decisions in novels, and whether those decisions appear to conform to a traditional dichotomy that pits autonomous masculinity against feminine passivity. As I entered the archives, my reading of her novels already suggested that O’Connor developed a particularly non-gendered model in which characters make active decisions, even as they submit to greater, external forces. What I didn’t expect, when combing through her papers, was to discover a similar denial of gender, or at least an antipathy for firmly designating gender, in O’Connor’s personal writings. And this tendency wasn’t just limited to her book contracts, in which legal terminology designated her “by the masculine singular pronoun” (Figure 1). Such examples speak to both the surprises that naturally emerge from archival searches and the surprising person of Flannery O’Connor herself.

Figure 1: From the book contract for The Violent Bear It Away (Series III: Personal Papers; Box 15; Folder 9)

As a southerner and a devout Catholic, O’Connor’s opinions on social issues, such as gender roles or sexuality, seem fairly predictable. For example, I enjoyed finding the letter in which O’Connor expressed her outrage at discovering, to her mind, a lewd image published alongside her story, “The Comforts of Home,” causing her to end her career-long relationship with The Kenyon Review (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The image that caused O’Connor to end her relationship with The Kenyon Review. See The Kenyon Review 22.4 (1960), 525

Or likewise, in a letter to Betty Hester, dated August 9, 1955, O’Connor relayed the tale of St. Thomas, who drove out a prostitute with a red-hot poker. “It would be fashionable today,” she wrote, “to be in sympathy with the woman but I am in sympathy with St. Thomas.” This kind of self-righteous indifference to midcentury interests in feminist rights and sexual freedom seems about right coming from the conservative Georgian. And on September 22, 1956, she put the matter frankly: “On the subject of the feminist business I just never think.” The privilege to disengage from the issue altogether, to “never think,” makes it difficult to argue for a progressive politics of gender and sexuality in O’Connor’s writings.

However, in the same letter, O’Connor clarified that to “never think” about gender is not to disengage, but to question what seems, to her, like overwrought or deterministic categories. As she explained, “that is [I] never think of qualities which are specifically feminine or masculine.” The point seems to be that O’Connor thought first of humanity, what unites all people together, rather than sexuality, or what makes us different. But her clarification also seems to suggest that she was hesitant to identify qualities as inherently “feminine” or “masculine.” On the one hand, O’Connor’s vision of sexuality in light of stringent Catholic dogmatism and her condemnation of homosexuality, akin to her regressive thoughts on racial segregation, should not be ignored. On the other hand, my discovery in the archives of what we might think of as the queerness of O’Connor destabilizes the easy assertions we make about her. O’Connor was a religious thinker, to be sure, but what I discovered at the Rose Library was that her faith in a better future depended on the erasure of social disparities, which emphasized the queering of restrictive gender categories.

The primary component of this discovery is the unique collection at the Rose Library of O’Connor’s letters to Betty Hester, a gay woman who corresponded with O’Connor about theology, aesthetics, writing, and yes, even gender politics. The two women developed a deep and lasting relationship. They exchanged nearly 300 letters, of which O’Connor’s, having been donated to Emory by Hester in 1987, though not released for study until 2007, are contained within three boxes, each with a dozen or so folders, and span a period from July 1955 to shortly before O’Connor’s death in 1964. Except for a handful published in The Habit of Being, the letters are unpublished, undigitized, and restricted from being photographed or copied. They thus maintain that particular aura that belongs to archival documents. To have read O’Connor’s letters to Hester is to have sat about where I sat, and to have engaged with the fragile materiality of the objects themselves, turning the pages, one by one.

Her correspondence with Hester, in many ways, forced O’Connor to speak about topics usually tempered in her essays and stories. O’Connor went so far as to suggest that it is because of her religious convictions that she was ambivalent about gender specification. This time on January 13, 1956, as they discussed the writings of Fr. Walter J. Ong, she wrote, “Whether the male or female is the superior sex ain’t going to ruffle [Ong’s] orthodoxy any; or mine. You may be right that a man is an incomplete woman. It don’t change anybody’s eternal destination.” What’s fascinating about O’Connor’s sentiment here, is that clearly she privileged “eternal destination,” that is, a person’s soul, over the accidental distinctions of gender. But by reading into the gaps, we can observe that Hester was also introducing O’Connor to progressive ideas about “the superior sex” and psychoanalytic theories such as man being “an incomplete woman,” in order to challenge O’Connor’s religiosity.

In some of these brief and private epistolary moments, O’Connor came closer to acknowledging the social disparities between the sexes, often veiled by her sharp and wry humor. She offered Hester a scorching review of one “Dr. Crane,” who was “always telling Alma A. how to keep her husband by losing 75 pounds.” In another letter she wrote, “I’m glad your lady doctor crosses the i-s and dots the t-s. Being a lady doctor she can’t afford to make mistakes like her brothers in the trade.” O’Connor demonstrated a keener awareness than we might think about the inherent double standards facing midcentury women. But those differences, she continued to insist to Hester, could be eradicated by an identity founded on love, one untethered to the worldly and contradictory restrictions of gender.

Finally, in a letter from January 1, 1956, O’Connor clarified her reluctance to recognize Hester’s insistence on matters of sexual difference. “The enclosed says where my thought heads on the subject of all things working toward becoming a woman,” she wrote, “a phrase I am made suspicious of naturally when you go on to mention the artistic sterility ‘that a woman is.’ I guess you mean ‘can be.’” O’Connor switches Hester’s language from that of determinism (“that a woman is”) to possibility (what a woman “can be”), which suggests a surprising degree of flexibility in O’Connor’s sense of gender as a category. She continued, “Also what I call moral basis is a good deal more than a masculine drive . . . I don’t assume that renunciation goes with submission, or even that renunciation is good in itself . . . what you call my struggle to submit, which is not a struggle to submit but a struggle to accept and with passion. I mean, possibly, with joy. Picture me with my ground teeth stalking joy – – fully armed too as it’s a highly dangerous quest.” It seems Hester had charged O’Connor with turning religion into a passive submission to male authority, thus forgetting what a “woman is.” But O’Connor’s denial of both “masculine drive” and feminine “submission” landed her somewhere in between in an un-gendered struggle, or maybe a struggle of un-gendering, that depended on the queer pursuit of “joy.”

My theory of a queer O’Connor in the archives is bolstered by so many other discoveries that I am unable to expand on here. From her description of Christ as “effeminate,” to her numerous letters from women readers, who extoled her “power” and “control” as a “woman writer” and expressed her superiority to male authors like William Faulkner, to her legal book contracts with which this post began. At the Rose Library, I had surely discovered the moments of ungendering that I had suspected were there; but I had also been surprised to find that a queer sensibility surrounded O’Connor entirely, informed, as it was, by her uncompromising faith in spiritual mystery.