ATLANTA — They don't seem like much at first glance, the two boxes of yellowing letters sitting amid the shelves of aged leather-bound volumes.
But the 274 epistles have unlocked two decades' worth of mysteries about the years of correspondence between author Flannery O'Connor and longtime friend Elizabeth "Betty" Hester.
A steady stream of O'Connor biographers and a few fans have wandered into Emory University's special collections library over the last few weeks to read the letters, which were unsealed in mid-May after 20 years. Hester donated them to Emory in 1987 with the stipulation that they remain closed to the public for that long.
"The idea of reading new letters of Flannery O'Connor is amazing," said Brad Gooch, who has been working on a biography about the Georgia native for four years. "It creates a timeline, a picture in your head of what it was like."
The letters begin in 1955 when Hester, a file clerk in Atlanta, wrote to O'Connor, by that time living in Milledgeville, Ga., about her stories. O'Connor immediately responded, writing that although the two were separated by 87 miles, "I feel the spiritual distance is shorter."
The two women wrote each other until 1964 -- the last correspondence coming just a few weeks before O'Connor, the author of the novels "Wise Blood" and "The Violent Bear It Away," slipped into a coma and died of complications from lupus.
Edited versions of some of the letters were published in a 1979 book, but this is the first time the public has had access to the entire collection. Hester's identity as the correspondent in the letters was revealed after her death in 1998.
Many of the letters to Hester reveal O'Connor's sharp, quick wit and her passion for religion, philosophy and literature. The two talked extensively about writing and Catholicism -- to which Hester converted briefly at O'Connor's prompting.
"You would probably do just as well to get that plot business out of your head and start simply with a character or anything that you can make come alive," she wrote to Hester. "Wouldn't it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write rather than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you."
In one letter, O'Connor acknowledges being embarrassed by her literary influences. Her early school years were marked by the scarce humor writings of Edgar Allan Poe, and she began graduate school at the University of Iowa in 1946 not ever having heard of William Faulkner, Franz Kafka or James Joyce, she writes.
"Then I began to read everything at once, so much so that I didn't have time, I suppose, to be influenced by any one writer," O'Connor writes.
She downplays her fame, saying that celebrity is "a comic distinction shared with Roy Rogers' horse and Miss Watermelon of 1955."