Reflections on the Life and Work of Sally Fitzgerald
Thus I considered it an honor when asked to conduct a public interview of Sally Fitzgerald at Berry College last April for their Southern Women Writers' Conference. And it was a deep disappointment when Sally's declining health prevented her from coming south. After much deliberation, we devised instead a series of taped telephone conversations. What had been intended to last one hour ended up taking five, on three separated mornings. What we had expected to discuss in the public forum-- O'Connor's life and work--became transformed into Sally's private reflections. Separated by distance and the exigencies of life, we were joined through technology and shared convictions. Sally talked until she could no more, with an urgency that I did not fully understand at the time.
Sally Fitzgerald spoke in the crisp, clearly articulated phrases of a longtime New Englander. Although her manner was often formal, she also could be warm and witty. Within a single conversation, she was capable of drawing apt quotations from across the Western literary canon. Yet what at first to me had seemed a calm, carefully planned life turned out to be quite the opposite. I became intrigued with her response to the inexplicable turns of fate, which she described as her "lurch through life".
Born in Texas and educated at the University of Southern California, Sally intended to pursue a career in art. However, after meeting Robert Fitzgerald when they were both naval intelligence officers, she says "all thoughts of being an artist fled my mind". They married in 1947. During the next decade she had six children and managed them with little household help and a husband who commuted weekly to teaching jobs. The Fitzgeralds even moved to Italy for eleven years in order for Robert to work on his translation of The Odyssey. Before the Fitzgerald's went abroad, while living in rural Connecticut, Flannery O'Connor joined them as a house guest for two years. Thus began the relationship that transformed both all their lives. Together they affirmed their devout faith as Catholics as they conducted evening theological and literary conversations around the kitchen table.
As I reviewed Sally Fitzgerald's life with her, I was struck by her evolving, unexpected role as chief editor and translator of the O'Connor oeuvre. Robert Fitzgerald had been approached by Robert Giroux, after the death of O'Connor in 1964, to collect her essays and letters. He agreed to do so, but by then was translating the Iliad-- spending one semester each year at Harvard and the other in Italy. Sally was responsible for the children; however she also devoted herself to this editorial task. She carried across the ocean "mountains of papers" that became Mystery and Manners, published under both their names in 1969. Robert Giroux asked Robert Fitzgerald to collect the letters. He replied that he was too but added, "I will tell you, Sally did the other one".
When Sally completed Mystery and Manners in 1969, she was in her late fifties. She finished The Habit of Being ten years later. In the 1980's she collected the materials for the Library of America edition of O'Connor's works. She was writing a biography of O'Connor when she died. For most of Sally Fitzgerald's life, Catholicism, Robert Fitzgerald, her children and Flannery O'Connor were her preoccupations. Yet as her children grew up and her marriage collapsed, she turned more to research, writing and lecturing. Even though some scholars have questioned her efforts to manage the O'Connor literary tradition, few have doubted her dedication or scholarly precision.
Sally Fitzgerald told me that the quality she most admired in Flannery O'Connor was her "passion for getting it right". This drive motivated Sally as well. In her work she learned to be a detective, someone " who liked to read other people's mail". Her dogged persistence is evidenced elsewhere. Even with the demise of her marriage to Robert Fitzgerald, Sally never fully accepted the spiritual reality of divorce. Their marriage may have been interrupted, but their relationship was eternal.
I asked Sally about those times when she and Robert sat around the table with Flannery O'Connor, asked her if she had imagined they might become so closely connected. Her response was, "Not at all, but even in death, Flannery was a friend. She reached out to me when I needed work." Here was a woman of immense intelligence, who formed her identity first through others, yet found a calling that became almost an obsession--resulting in extensive scholarly and biographical materials on O'Connor. In ways that most of us would find unsettling, Sally refused to let her divorce or death transform her view of life. Nonetheless, this same woman, suffering from a fatal illness, also observed: "I never expected to be any of the places I found myself in." Life unfolded for her in surprising ways.
This openness to unexpected events, what Sally called serendipity, along with her faith, tempered qualities that might otherwise have turned to rigidity. Thus, whatever one's own beliefs, it is tempting to see her now in some state of ultimate reconciliation--with Robert Fitzgerald and Flannery O'Connor, sitting at another kitchen table discussing mysteries, manners and meanings. Sally Fitzgerald help some beliefs so fiercely that it became almost impossible for them not to be true. That was indeed her habit of being.
Rosemary M. Magee, PhD, is senior associate dean for resources and planning, Emory College, and a member of the Women's Center Advisory Board. She has written widely on southern women writers and other topics.