O'connor, (Mary) Flannery
O'CONNOR, (Mary) Flannery
Nationality: American. Born: Savannah, Georgia, 25 March 1925. Education: Peabody High School, Milledgeville, Georgia, graduated 1942; Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College at Milledgeville), 1942-45, A.B. 1945; University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1945-47, M.F.A. 1947. Career: Writer; suffered from disseminated lupus after 1950. Awards: American Academy grant, 1957; O. Henry award, 1957, 1963, 1964; Ford Foundation grant, 1959; National Catholic Book award, 1966; National Book award, 1972. D.Litt.: St. Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1962; Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1963. Died: 3 August 1964.
Complete Stories, edited by Robert Giroux. 1971.
Collected Works (Library of America), edited by Sally Fitzgerald. 1988.
A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. 1955; as The Artificial Nigger and Other Tales, 1957.
Everything that Rises Must Converge. 1965.
Wise Blood. 1952.
The Violent Bear It Away. 1960.
Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. 1969.
The Habit of Being: Letters, edited by Sally Fitzgerald. 1979.
The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews, edited by CarterW. Martin and Leo J. Zuber. 1983.
The Correspondence of O'Connor and the Brainard Cheneys, edited by C. Ralph Stephens. 1986.
Conversations with O'Connor, edited by Rosemary M. Magee. 1987.
Editor, A Memoir of Mary Ann. 1961; as Death of a Child, 1961.*
O'Connor and Caroline Gordon: A Reference Guide by Robert E. Golden and Mary C. Sullivan, 1977; O'Connor: A Descriptive Bibliography by David Farmer, 1981.
O'Connor: A Critical Essay by Robert Drake, 1966; O'Connor by Stanley Edgar Hyman, 1966; The Added Dimension: The Art and Mind of O'Connor edited by Melvin J. Friedman and Lewis A. Lawson, 1966, and Critical Essays on O'Connor edited by Friedman and Beverly L. Clark, 1985; The True Country: Themes in the Fiction of O'Connor by Carter W. Martin, 1969; The World of O'Connor by Josephine Hendin, 1970; The Eternal Crossroads: The Art of O'Connor by Leon Driskell and Joan T. Brittain, 1971; The Christian Humanism of O'Connor by David Eggenschwiler, 1972; Nightmares and Visions: O'Connor and the Catholic Grotesque by Gilbert Muller, 1972; O'Connor: Voice of the Peacock by Kathleen Feeley, 1972, revised edition, 1982; Invisible Parade: The Fiction of O'Connor by Miles Orvell, 1972, as O'Connor: An Introduction, 1991; O'Connor by Dorothy Walters, 1973; The Question of O'Connor by Martha Stephens, 1973; O'Connor by Preston M. Browning, Jr., 1974; O'Connor by Dorothy Tuck McFarland, 1976; The Pruning Word: The Parables of O'Connor by John R. May, 1976; O'Connor's Dark Comedies: The Limits of Inference by Carol Shloss, 1980; O'Connor: Her Life, Library, and Book Reviews, 1980, and Nature and Grace in O'Connor's Fiction, 1982, both by Lorine M. Getz; O'Connor's South by Robert Coles, 1980; O'Connor's Georgia by Barbara McKenzie, 1980; The O'Connor Conpanion by James A. Grimshaw, Jr., 1981; O'Connor: The Imagination of Extremity by Frederick Asals, 1982; O'Connor: Images of Grace by Harold Fickett and Douglas Gilbert, 1986; O'Connor's Religion of the Grotesque by Marshall Bruce Gentry, 1986; O'Connor: A Study of the Short Fiction by Suzanne Morrow Paulson, 1988; O'Connor and the Mystery of Love by Richard Giannone, 1989; Flannery O'Connor: The Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary by Ted Ray Spivey, 1995; Understanding Flannery O'Connor by Margaret Earley Whitt, 1995; Writing against God: Language as Message in the Literature of Flannery O'Connor by Joanne Halleran McCullen, 1996; Flannery O'Connor's Characters by Laurence Enjolras, 1998.* * *
Even in her tragically brief lifetime Flannery O'Connor came to be recognized as one of the most distinguished and distinctive writers of modern American fiction. Stricken in 1950 with disseminated lupus, an incurable tubercular disorder, she nonetheless saw two novels published—Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away—and a collection of ten stories—A Good Man Is Hard to Find. A second collection of ten stories originally printed separately in magazines and journals, Everything that Rises Must Converge, appeared in 1965; other posthumous publications include Mystery and Manners, a selection of lectures and occasional prose edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald; The Complete Stories, 31 in all, including the six that had made up her master's thesis as well as an incomplete novel; and The Habit of Being, a collection of her letters edited by Sally Fitzgerald.
Rarely has a writer with so relatively small a corpus attracted such intense and sustained critical engagement and controversy as she has. Although some of her early stories are generally seen as apprentice work and numerous readers find her unorthodox novels to resemble collections of intertwined stories, it is long since generally agreed that she wrote a number of the finest short stories in American literature. The lively range and variety of analytical commentary about her work (some of it, to be sure, erroneous or wrong-headed) is a tribute to the rich, dense complexity of her voice, methods, and vision. A native of Georgia (she grew up and died there, having spent just a few years in Iowa City earning an M.F.A. degree, in Saratoga Springs, New York, at the writers' workshop Yaddo, and then at the Connecticut home of her friends the Fitzgeralds), she was a regionalist of a new stripe in her South—the fundamentalist, Bible-belt, "Christ-haunted" areas of northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee. She was at the same time, to use one of her titles, her own "Displaced Person" there, a relentlessly committed Catholic with a steadfast view of history and existence as incarnational, sacramental, and redemptive. These two determinants coupled with her first-hand experience with pain, suffering, and the knowledge of imminent death.
Her aesthetic states baldly that "fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them." In the "local," then, however commonplace, tawdry, ugly, cliché-ridden, debased, and violent, would she find the essential conditions of the "transcen-dental," the inspiriting occasions of sanctifying grace that are for her always present and that her characters are free to accept or reject. Throughout her practice there is an insistence on mystery: "The fiction writer," she says, "presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes, there has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula." She has here in her sights the character of the postmodern world as steeped in the values of gnosticism and secular humanism: "Part of it [is] trying to eliminate mystery … while another part tries to rediscover it in disciplines less personally demanding than religion." Given the deeply problematic relationship her aesthetic and her practice prompt with the unbelieving reader, O'Connor's stature is astonishing.
Her fictional worlds are an original extension of the modes of Southern Gothic and the grotesque; and the terms used to describe her vision—black humor, black comedy, sadistic wit, the banal, the absurd, Freud's "Uncanny"—are legion. Violence, whether physical or psychological or both, and of the most shocking kinds, abounds. In "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" The Misfit sees to the mass murder of a family of five; in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" Mr. Shiftlet, having abandoned his new child-bride in a road-side diner called "The Hot Spot," feels that "the rottenness of the world was about to engulf him"; in "The Displaced Person" three bystanders neglect to help and instead hear "the little noise the Pole [Mr. Guizac] made as the tractor wheel broke his back"; the nihilistic con-artist Manley Pointer of "Good Country People" steals Joy/Hulga Hopewell's artificial leg, which is for both of them the signature of her being, and leaves her stranded in a barn loft; "Greenleaf" has Mrs. May gored to death by her tenant farmer's bull, which "had buried his head in her lap, like a wild tormented lover"; in "The Comforts of Home" the 35-year-old-son, Thomas, ostensibly trying to rid his home of Sarah Ham, shoots his mother "accidentally" when she rushes to defend the young woman; another son, Julian, in "Everything that Rises Must Converge" watches hysterically as his overweight mother succumbs to a heart attack after he has ceaselessly bullyragged her; and so on, from rapes through self-mutilations to drownings by baptism.
O'Connor's density of interconnected images, her subtle allusions to, say, texts both sacred and profane, and her carefully controlled omniscient authorial voice empower each of these horrific incidents to be epiphanic, even theophanic, depending on the dramatized perception and free choice of her characters. Citing Teilhard de Chardin's radically Christological theory of evolution, she contends that everything that rises must converge. But convergence comes only after an elevated redeeming insight and a movement of will. No rise, no convergence—but, instead, only a continuing desperately obsessive conflict.
The violence and the sacramental merge in O'Connor's vision. They are not presented dualistically as banal profaneness and numinous sacredness but are absorbed alike under the grotesque. They function in tandem in O'Connor's anagogic and typological imagination, the visible traces of the violence having a correspondence in the invisible movements of grace. One of her most persistent techniques in dramatizing this extraordinary paradox is her masterful configuration of "doubles" that frequently define her recognition scenes. Thomas and Sarah Ham, embattled antagonists throughout "The Comforts of Home," can stand as an example. Sheriff Farebrother rushes into the house to see Thomas's mother lying "on the floor between the girl and Thomas," sees too that "the fellow had intended all along to kill his mother and pin it on the girl," and sees, finally, that "Over her body, the killer and the slut were about to collapse into each other's arms." That Freudian and/or Jungian criticism and other "human formulas" can and should yield understanding here goes without saying. When they do, however, O'Connor's uncannily inverted Pietà imbues the scene, the gesture with that left-over sense of mystery still unaccounted for.
—J. Donald Crowley