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Emory to unveil O’Connor letters

After two decades of waiting, Emory University is unsealing its collection of hundreds of letters between author Flannery O’Connor and one of her longtime friends.

The collection was given to Emory by Elizabeth “Betty” Hester, who began corresponding with O’Connor as a fan in 1955. The relationship developed into a close friendship lasting until O’Connor’s death in 1964. Hester donated the letters to Emory in 1987 on condition that they remain sealed for 20 years.

Edited versions of some of the letters were published in a 1979 book, but this is the first time the public will be able to read the entire collection. The letters will give fans and scholars of the famed Southern writer a glimpse into O’Connor’s feelings on religion, society and culture, said Rosemary Magee, vice president at Emory and an O’Connor scholar.

“They engaged in a theological and philosophical conversation,” said Magee. “To get further insight into her as a thinker, as a person and as a writer is just an amazing opportunity for anybody who has read her literature.”

O’Connor, a Georgia native, lived much of her life in Milledgeville, Ga., on her family’s farm, called Andalusia. She graduated from Georgia State College for Women — now Georgia College & State University — and received a master’s degree from the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa.

Her work includes the novels “Wise Blood” and “The Violent Bear It Away.” She also produced numerous short stories, including “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

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Hester, a file clerk in an Atlanta credit bureau, lived a reclusive life, but she was an avid reader and intellectual. She also corresponded with British writer Iris Murdoch. Her identity as one of O’Connor’s confidants was kept secret until Hester’s death in 1998.

“I think Betty Hester was the most important correspondent in Flannery O’Connor’s life,” said Steve Enniss, director of Emory’s manuscripts, archives and rare books library where the letters are housed. “These letters help tell with great fullness the story of O’Connor’s own life that is so intertwined with her stories.”

The collection of 274 letters will be opened to the public May 12.

Emory is home to a variety of literary collections, ranging from the personal papers and library of Salman Rushdie to collections from poets Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney.

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