Flannery O'Connor's Kiss of Death

Tracking down O’Connor’s Danish inspiration

Klaus Rothstein

Illustration by Monika Grubizna


In the spring of 2011, I read the Southern US author Flannery O'Connor's novel The Violent Bear It Away, and was enthralled by the opening scene: The corpse of a man sits at a breakfast table; the dead man's nephew got too drunk to finish digging his grave. A "Negro named Buford Munson" comes by and decides to help by assuming the task, so the dead body can receive a proper Christian burial with "the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up."

Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964), a Catholic woman of the South, wrote two novels and a couple of short story collections before dying at age thirty-nine from lupus. She grew up in Savannah, Georgia, in a family of Irish emigrants. In 1938, they moved to Milledgeville, Georgia, and less than three years later, the fifteen-year-old O'Connor lost her father to lupus. She decided to stay in Milledgeville, where she attended Georgia State College for Women. In 1945, after a brief time in journalism school, O'Connor was accepted into the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. In 1947, O'Connor won the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award for her short stories, a few of which would become chapters in her debut novel, Wise Blood, published five years later.

In December 1950, O'Connor was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus and subsequently returned to the family farm in Milledgeville. In August, 1964, she passed away. Despite the brevity of her writing career, O'Connor's works have become classics, mentioned in the same breath as other great Southern writers, such as William Faulkner and Carson McCullers. Her literature is characterized by strong religious faith, a depiction of life in the American South during a time of racial segregation, and by an eye for the peculiar and the grotesque. In the midst of her pain, and despite her awareness of the early death awaiting her, O'Connor managed to display both perceptive humor and charitable mildness in her otherwise gloomy stories. Perhaps it was this peculiar aesthetic sensibility that also made her breed exotic birds such as ostriches, emus, toucans, and—especially—peacocks.

Then I came across a review of a new biography of O'Connor. This biography's "scoop" was the information provided by Erik Langkjær, a Dane. Erik Langkjær? Who was he? I googled the name and discovered that he had written a memoir, Something Other Than Shadows: The Reflections of a Danish-American. I called the publisher and found out that Langkjær was living in a coastal town north of Copenhagen. I called Langkjær, who confirmed that he had known Flannery O'Connor in the 1950s and that he had recently been interviewed for a biography about her. He told me his remarkable story.


"My mother was born in Russia to Russian parents in 1901. Her name was Marguerite Baralevsky, and she was the grandchild of Alexander II of Russia.

"After the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, she fled with her mother in the spring of 1918 from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. From there she came to New York, where my grandmother met another Russian refugee, whom she married. Around the same time, my mother met my father, who was the Danish consul general in the city. They met each other at a ball thrown by the rich man Vanderbilt; it couldn't get any more distinguished than that. I once asked my mother why she and my grandmother were at a Vanderbilt ball, and she told me they were invited because of their noble Russian background.

"In 1926, I was born in Shanghai where my father was stationed. We returned to Copenhagen after that; but when my parents divorced in the late 1920s, my mother travelled back to New York. She would visit me every summer, and I would come to visit her in the US. However, when World War II broke out, travelling was suddenly made impossible, so we didn't see each other for six years.

"After Germany's defeat in 1945, I immediately travelled by container ship to New York to be with my mother. For three years, from 1945 to 1948, I studied at Princeton University. Since my mother and grandmother had recently converted to Catholicism from the Russian-Orthodox Church, I began studying at the Catholic Fordham University in New York, to become acquainted with the religion. I studied philosophy from 1949 to 1952, but became increasingly aware of the fact that it didn't bring me any closer to the Catholic faith, so I didn't see any point in completing the degree. Instead, I searched for a job in publishing, in the hope that I would be hired as an editor. I did get a job, but it was as a sales representative in the South.

"During these travels, I met a professor at the University of Georgia. She suggested that I pay a visit to a local woman who had had her first book published by Harcourt, Brace & Company, where I was now a sales agent in the education branch. The professor believed that this author would enjoy meeting me because of her affiliation with the publishing firm. Weakened as she was by her disease, lupus, she wasn't in contact with many people, so it would be nice to receive a visit from outside. A few years back, her father had died from the same disease, but the doctors had told her not to worry.

"I was driven to her home outside the town of Milledgeville, Georgia. The farm was situated in the middle of a pretty deserted landscape consisting of a few villages, fields, and some woods. When I arrived, I saw a two-story farmhouse, which turned out to be from the middle of the 1800s.

"Then Flannery's mother, Regina, appeared in the doorway. Flannery herself couldn't make it to the entrance because of her crutches. The mother was happy to receive a visitor for her daughter, since they lived in quite a lonesome place, but she made it clear that I shouldn't expect to stay the night. Once I started visiting Flannery regularly, I could tell that Regina didn't like my visits, even though she was quite polite. She perceived me as a threat, afraid that Flannery might settle down with me in Denmark.

"Nevertheless, Flannery and I quickly became friends. I made an effort to plan my sales route in a way that made it possible for me to visit her every two or three weeks. I would arrive in my own car, and then suggest going for a ride in the surrounding countryside. She was always up for it. We talked about our family backgrounds, and she was excited to hear about my mother's Russian heritage and my father's career as a consul general. I told her how I came to the US after World War II, and what my time at the university had been like. That I had studied philosophy at a Catholic university, and that my mother was now a Russian Catholic, allowed for a certain spiritual connection between us. Flannery herself was a devout Catholic, highly conscious of living in the Protestant South. She considered it a great challenge to be surrounded by Protestants, and to belong to a minority. She had a church to go to on Sundays, but she was aware of the growing secularism, which she considered a threat.

"I was not really in love; I simply enjoyed the company of women during my lonely travels in the South. Although Flannery was both conventional and religious, we eventually became so close that she, while the car was parked, allowed me to kiss her. At that moment, her disease revealed itself in a new way: there was no strength in her lips. I hit her teeth with my kiss, and since then I've thought of it as a kiss of death.

"I visited her twelve to fourteen times, and later we started exchanging letters. As I returned to Denmark to settle down, she wrote that she would like to hear more from me, and her first letter from June 1954 ends with a reference to our drives around Milledgeville: . . . I haven't seen any dirt roads since you left and I miss you.

"When we drove around, we'd talk about Flannery's writings. She had just finished the novel Wise Blood and was working on another manuscript. She wrote for a few hours every day; it meant everything to her. First and foremost was her faith, then came literature, which gave her something to do. I tried luring a new manuscript out of her for the publisher, but she wasn't ready for that.

"The first time I visited Flannery, I noticed a portrait of her on the wall. Who painted that, I asked. She answered that she had done it herself. I told her that she was obviously much prettier in reality. No, that's what I look like, she answered. In the portrait she was holding one of those peacocks that walked freely around the farm. You would almost trip over them when trying to enter the house! She was extremely interested in peacocks, and I asked her what purpose they could possibly serve. They do have a purpose, she said, they are the pinnacle of nature with those colorful feathers. During my next visit I discovered that she called one of the peacocks Eric. It was named after me, she said, because it was the most handsome of them all, and I was supposed to take that as a compliment.

"When I later read one of Flannery's short stories, 'Good Country People,' I noticed that the main character was a travelling Bible salesman. I didn't sell bibles, but I used to call my binder with the records of the publishing firm 'my bible.' Also, the salesman in the story is named Manley Pointer, which has an obvious erotic connotation.

"I think Flannery was hoping for it to be the two of us. Between April 1953 and June 1954, when my visits were frequent, there was indeed enough contact between us for her to envisage something more. Her letters might also contain a certain disappointment in the fact that the contact wasn't as strong on my part.

"We wrote to each other from 1954 to February 1958, until I got married and had my first children in Denmark. Then the correspondence fizzled out, and for the last six years of her life we weren't in touch. I learned through a mutual acquaintance in the US that she had died in August, 1964. I was, naturally, sad to discover this, but it didn't hit me as hard as it could have, since there had been so much distance between us for years.

"I have an image of her as a relaxed, smiling, curious, and spiritual person, who never gave any sign of how sick she actually was.

"And I have a copy of the novel Wise Blood with an inscription: To Erik, who has wise blood too . . . "


When Erik Langkjær had finished his story, he asked if I would be interested in taking a look at the letters he had received from O'Connor between 1954 and 1958. Upon reading these letters I realized that this Catholic Southerner, for all her ill health and struggle, was blessed with an abundant humor and sense of satire, and that her letter writing was no less dynamic than her prose.

The letters to Langkjær are not included in O'Connor's selected correspondence (Letters of Flannery O'Connor: The Habit of Being [1979]). Apparently, O'Connor did not keep copies of these letters, which the book's editor, Sally Fitzgerald—a close friend of hers—most likely did not know existed.

Editor's note:

From here, Klaus Rothstein goes on to explain how the letters should be read: "for their stylistic and linguistic qualities, for their content's sharpness and wit, as a depiction of a time period, and as an indirect portrayal of a person." However, we have chosen to truncate his text before this point, because, for the reasons detailed below, we are not able to present the letters themselves.

Believing them to be an unparalleled discovery and that the rights to publish the letters lay with Erik Langkjær, who conferred them to him, Rothstein offered
Asymptote the opportunity to showcase O'Connor's letters to Langkjær, along with this introductory essay. We were naturally excited by the prospect of providing our readers with access to these captivating letters on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the author's death. However, correspondence with O'Connor scholars and the O'Connor estate itself have made it apparent that neither is true. Therefore, we cannot reproduce the letters on our site at this time.

As the final section of his essay indicates, Rothstein assumed O'Connor did not hold copies of the letters and that Sally Fitzgerald, the editor of
The Habit of Being (1979), was unaware of the letters' existence. While it is correct that the letters to Langkjær are not included in that volume, one of them does in fact appear in the Library of America edition of O'Connor's collected works, which was released in 1988 and which was also edited by Fitzgerald. Other writers interested in O'Connor also knew about the letters: Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own, from 2004, mentions them briefly, and Brad Gooch's Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, which came out in 2009, quotes short phrases from some of them by adhering to the legal stricture of "fair use."

Now, as
The New York Times recently announced, all of the letters, along with some thirty boxes' worth of other personal effects, will soon be made available to the public through a new archive at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. In an attempt to secure permission to publish the letters on our own website, Asymptote contacted a representative from the author's estate, who informed us that Farrar, Straus & Giroux has exclusive rights to first-time publication of the material in the archive.

We are grateful to Erik Langkjær for sharing the letters with Rothstein—and ultimately with us. We will continue working with the O'Connor estate in the hope of reprinting the letters, along with translations into a number of other languages, in the near future.

translated from the Danish by Katrine Øgaard Jensen