Life With Flannery
Regents' Professor William Sessions gives the world Flannery O'Connor's official biography.
ill Sessions sat down at a table in room 312 of the Holiday Inn Express in Milledgeville, Ga., by Highway 441, and blew the dust off a metal box. Inside? The makings, as Sessions puts it, of “a book that would make a difference.” Actually, two books and counting. Sessions would use the personal papers of Flannery O’Connor to “animate” her in written words once again. O’Connor died in 1964 at age 39, a victim of lu pus. After long years of protecting O’Connor’s privacy, family members entrusted part of her archive — that metal box — to Sessions, the Regents’ Professor Emeritus of English at Georgia State and the writer’s longtime friend. From the papers, Sessions edited a 2013 volume, “A Prayer Journal,” a soulsearching collection of personal prayers O’Connor scribbled into a student diary at the University of Iowa before her 23rd birthday. (Sample:“Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to you.”)
Along with the diary, Sessions found inspiration for an O’Connor biography, a comprehensive study of the writer’s literary and personal life that stretches to 800 pages. Now completed, “Stalking Joy: The Life and Times of Flannery O’Connor” is with Sessions’ agent. “This isn’t a book that I wrote because I need prestige,” Sessions says. “I want to get it out because I know things about Flannery O’Connor nobody else knows.”
O’Connor left the world two novels, “Wise Blood” and “The Violent Bear It Away,” and 32 short stories. Unsettling, widely anthologized short stories such as “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “The Displaced Person” established her as one of America’s most influential literary figures. “The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor,” published posthumously, won the 1972 U.S. National Book Award for fiction.
In 2014, The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine inducted O’Connor into The American Poets Corner, a literary honor comparable to the British enshrinement of writers at Westminster Abbey. She joined Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Langston Hughes, Mark Twain and 43 other immortals of United States literature.
Sessions alone, among all the scholars who have written or who vie to write about O’Connor’s life, received the blessings of the O’Connor family and estate. His is the only authorized biography.
Drawing from the trove of O’Connor’s letters, illustrations and journal entries in the metal box he opened in autumn 2003, Sessions produced perhaps the most important work of his career. He is uniquely positioned, because of his friendship with O’Connor, to embellish her biography with personal detail.
“Flannery O’Connor fell in love three times,” Sessions says, in the voice of a confidant. “Not many people are aware of it.” Indeed, few people know much at all of O’Connor’s personal life. The writer lived with her mother, Regina, at Andalusia, a 554-acre family farm in Milledgeville they shared with dairy cows and a tribe of beautiful, bellicose peacocks. Many readers hold an impression of O’Connor as cloistered, too ill to engage with the world, a writer devoted to solitude.
In fact, O’Connor traveled frequently, hobbling along on crutches to a great many lecterns to talk about writing and, often, her deep Catholic faith. For a woman with a terminal illness, O’Connor attended a surprising number of events at universities and on the literary speaking circuit. She also energetically and exhaustively wrote letters.
An example? She informed Sessions in an early missive that “the Catholic believes any voice he may hear comes from the Devil unless it is in accordance with the teachings of the Church.” Sessions’ voice bemused and amused her.
On Ascension Day in May 1956, Sessions ascended O’Connor’s dirt drive at Andalusia for the first time. A copy of the Atlanta Constitution on the seat of his two-seat Chevy coupe told the news of the day: Walter George, a friend of the O’Connor family, retired from the U.S. Senate; former governor Herman Talmadge would run for the empty seat. Health officials declared Atlanta free of rabies. “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” starring Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones, played at picture shows. Dutch visitors placed flowers on Margaret Mitchell’s grave.
At the time, Sessions held his first academic position, lecturing at West Georgia College (today the University of West Georgia) in Carrolton for $3,600 a year. He also reviewed books for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and he made contact with O’Connor by commenting on one of her own reviews. They found common ground in their Catholic faith. The deeply, unapologetically religious O’Connor invited Sessions, a recent convert, to visit Andalusia.
Sessions describes their first meeting in the prelude to “Stalking Joy”:
Although Flannery had written to invite me to drop in that afternoon at any time, I felt the need to see some motion from the house. I knew Flannery had special times for special activities, including times to take her medicines, the periods changing with the plateaus and descents of her incurable disease. I also knew the porch was special. As she had warned me in her invitation, she did not emerge from her room until around 11:30 every morning, when she finished her work. She added that on good days, she would sit on the porch and, tired from the morning’s writing, crutches, across the wooden floor of the porch, and then a command to the birds, nasal and drawling. As I turn back to clear my legs, the front screen door at the top of the brick steps squeaks, opens. I look up.
Large deep blue eyes behind rimless glasses stare directly down at me. They hold that gaze as my own eyes look back. Then the eyes relax, as the young woman of medium height and with uneven teeth leans slightly on one gray metal crutch, holds the door open with the other crutch.
She glances at the beat-up car and then at me. “Well,” she says, “you got here.
Sessions got there. But he traveled a twist- ing road from rural beginnings to reach Flannery O’Connor’s front porch.
He grew up in tiny Conway, S.C., near Myrtle Beach, among strict Southern Baptists. The Sessions family, settling after immigration as French Huguenots, had lived in the area “since the late 1600s,” he says. Bright, buoyant, just 19, the Sessions scion graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1948.
At Chapel Hill, he had become founding editor of the respected literary periodical, The Carolina Quarterly. But he felt dance his true passion, and he dallied in theater. Today, guests at his home in the genteel Brookhaven area of Atlanta can view a re- markable photograph, a 20-something avatar of Sessions at the height of a balletic leap, impossibly levitating. The beautiful young man executing a perfect temps de poisson appears destined for a stage with Nureyev. Sessions was good. His luck was not.
Sessions was good. His luck was not. A bad fall at a Metropolitan Opera Ballet rehearsal of “Brigadoon” ended any terpsichorean ambitions. (The injury later required hip surgery.) Sessions then prudently turned to studies at Columbia University, where he’d gone for post-graduate study. He eventually earned a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature.
Diploma in hand, he searched for a position in academia. The telephone didn’t ring until Sessions heard from little West Georgia College.
“I thought I was at the end of the world,” he says, “but it was a job.”
The teaching outpost proved a revelation. The college received a steady influx of Catholic intellectuals who came to visit a local monastery.
“It was a tremendously sophisticated group of theologians, from Europe and all over,” Sessions says. “I got to know Dorothy Day, a very holy woman, and spent time at the monastery with her.” (Journalist and social activist Day co-founded the non-violent Catholic Worker Movement and edited the Catholic Worker newspaper. The Catholic Church is considering her for canonization.)
Sessions also admired a group of authors who professed Catholic beliefs and wrote openly about their faith. The list included T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and that Georgia writer named Flannery O’Connor.
He moved along to academic posts at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., and St. John’s University in New York City. In 1964, the year O’Connor died, he came on board at Georgia State University. He made full professor in 1972 and became Regents’ Professor of English in 1992.
Sessions flourished at Georgia State. His early modern English literature classes (Milton, Shakespeare, Donne, the usual suspects) drew crowds. He published two major books, both still in print and selling. “Francis Bacon Revisited, Twayne English Authors” series earned extensive critical attention. “Henry Howard, the Poet Earl of Surrey: A Life” became required reading at Yale University.
He published articles on O’Connor and presented at the International Flannery O’Connor Conference at Brigham Young University in 1995. He took the stage at the American Literature national convention, at the South Central Modern Language Association Conference and at other conferences and universities.
He also ventured into subject matter far beyond that of his Milledgeville muse, writing dozens of academic articles on other writers. Sessions founded Studies in the Literary Imagination at Georgia State, and he published poetry in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, The Chattahoochee Review and elsewhere. And he found his way into theater after all, by writing plays. One, “A Shattering of Glass,” won the Southern Theatre Playwrights Competition. The University of Mississippi produced that work for the Festival of Southern Theatre.
Among many awards, Sessions claimed a Fulbright while at Columbia, and later the Nikos Kazantzakis Medal from Greece, the Outstanding Teacher Award from the South Atlantic Association of Departments of English and an honorary degree from Coastal Carolina University.
Sessions retired from Georgia State in 2005.
Neither time nor accolades changed him, although Sessions changed himself at times to humor Flannery O’Connor. He put on a “silly Billy” person, a pose also used for effect in “Stalking Joy.”
“I make myself deliberately silly, off-beat,” he explains. “I think it works as a way to show how Flannery thought and acted.”
What does he mean? During one porch-swing conversation on faith — O’Connor and Sessions were “true believers together,” he says— the young convert asked a challenging question “as a sort of a joke, in one of my silly Billy ways.”
Out of the blue, he blurted, “What about being a saint?”
Sessions vividly remembers O’Connor’s reaction.
“Her face changed,” he says. “It was plain the idea of holiness was very real to her.”
So was her fondness for “breathless” Bill, as O’Connor dubbed Sessions in letters.
O’Connor remembered their first meeting, too, but very differently. She wrote a letter about it to Betty Hester, a mutual friend in Atlanta, three days after that memorable 1956 Ascension Day.
The unnecessary worry of the year was whether it would be necessary to hold a literary conversation with Billy. No conversation whatever was necessary. He arrived promptly at 3:30, talking, talked his way across the grass and up the steps and into a chair and continued talking from that position without pause, break, breath, or gulp until 4:50. At 4:50 he departed to go to Mass (Ascension Thursday) but declared he would like to return after it so I thereupon invited him to supper with us. 5:50 brings him back, still talking, and bearing a sack of ice cream and cake to the meal. He then talked until supper but at that point he met a little head wind in the form of my mother, who is also a talker. Her stories have a non-stop quality, but every now and then she does have to refuel and every time she came down, he went up. After supper she retired and I listened to Billy until around 10. If I said six complete sentences all afternoon and evening I don’t know what they were. Two days later, we both get thank you letters from him saying he knew he stayed too long but he had enjoyed the conversation so much that he forgot the time. My mother and I howled.
It was, Sessions writes in his prelude, the beginning of a long and lasting friendship.
Charles McNair publishes nationally and internationally. He is the author of two novels, “Pickett’s Charge” and “Land O’ Goshen.” He was books editor at Paste Magazine from 2005-’15. McNair lives in Bogota, Colombia.