Born Mary Flannery O'Connor, 25 March 1925, Savannah, Georgia; died 3 August 1964, Milledgeville, Georgia
Daughter of Edward F. and Regina Cline O'Connor
Flannery O'Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925 and lived there with her parents until the age of thirteen. In 1938 the O'Connors moved to the small farming town of Milledgeville, Georgia. Her father died several years later of lupus erythematosus, an immune system disease that would lead to Flannery's own death in 1964. An only child, O'Connor attended Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College & State University) in Milledgeville after graduating from high school in 1942. While at Georgia State, she edited the campus literary magazine, the Corinthian, and provided illustrations for the school yearbook and newspaper.
O'Connor graduated from Georgia State in 1946, the same year her first short story, "The Geranium," was published in Accent. She received a fellowship to the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and graduated with a master's degree the following year. O'Connor then moved to upstate New York, where she was a resident at the Yaddo writers' colony in Saratoga Springs from 1948 to 1949. After leaving New York, she moved to Connecticut to live with friends and work on the novel that would become Wise Blood (1952). While in Connecticut, she was diagnosed with lupus and went home to Georgia to live with her mother.
Weak and exhausted, O'Connor could only write for three hours a day and "spend the rest of the day recuperating from it," she told a Saturday Review interviewer. The publication of Wise Blood brought O'Connor instant recognition as a powerful new literary talent, but she remained shy and modest about her success. The novel's protagonist is Haze Motes, a war veteran and shady faith healer who founds the Church Without Christ. Motes travels around the South preaching and seeking salvation but finds it only after blinding himself with quicklime.
Many of O'Connor's protagonists also search for salvation, only to find it after moments of great despair or destruction when their emotions have been stripped to the bone and only their essential selves remain. O'Connor herself explained the purpose of violence in her fiction: "The man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him.… There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected… ." Like Motes, many of O'Connor's characters are either literally or emotionally disabled, and their stories revolve around their struggle to find acceptance in others or in themselves.
In her second and final novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1960), O'Connor tells the story of Tarwater, a 14-year-old orphan raised as a Christian prophet by his great-uncle, Old Tarwater. The boy must choose between this life and that offered to him by Rayber, his modern, rational uncle. Tarwater hopes to rid himself of any gifts for prophecy or healing by baptizing his cousin Bishop, but accidentally drowns him instead. In the end, Tarwater chooses his destiny as a prophet, but only after being molested by a stranger and succumbing to madness.
Although her physical condition improved enough to allow her to lecture at various colleges and universities, O'Connor was still unable to write as much as she would have liked. It was three years after Wise Blood that she published her first collection of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955). The title story is one of O'Connor's best known and follows a family en route to Florida for a vacation. The grandmother persuades her son to take a detour to search for a plantation she visited in her youth. Embarrassed that she has led the family to the wrong place, she inadvertently causes an accident that forces the family's car off the road. A murderous stranger whom O'Connor dubs the Misfit comes along and murders the stranded family one by one. Before being shot three times, the grandmother acknowledges that the deaths are her fault and the story closes with the Misfit's statement that "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
O'Connor later wrote to a fellow novelist that "grace, to the Catholic way of thinking, can and does use as its medium the imperfect, purely human, and even hypocritical." This story reveals not only the redemption possible in times of great distress but O'Connor's ear for Southern dialect and manners. Other well-known stories from this collection are "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," "The Displaced Person," and "The Artificial Nigger." The latter is about a country grandfather's decision to take his grandson to Atlanta so he will finally be content to stay on the farm. The boy, Nelson, considers this to be his second trip to town because he was born in a hospital in Atlanta. Angry at this, his grandfather points out that Nelson does not even know what a black person looks like and therefore knows nothing about the town. The two argue violently after the grandfather becomes lost and are reunited only when they sight a statue of a black man—an "artificial nigger."
O'Connor stubbornly refused to change the story's title despite her publisher's urging. She could not be accused of racism, however, for many of her stories, including most of those in the posthumously published collection Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965), show the cruelty and ignorance at the root of racial discrimination. O'Connor is credited with using her writings to give a new image to black Americans. In the title story of Everything That Rises, a racist white woman's confrontation with a black woman forces her to acknowledge the importance of black people in her life.
Several of O'Connor's most lauded works have been published posthumously. The Complete Stories (1972) received the National Book award and contains several stories from her university days that had never before been published. The Habit of Being (1979), a collection of her correspondence, shows her dedication to writing and reveals her own views on some of her best-known pieces. This work won several awards as did Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (1969), a collection of her lectures on both her own works and those of other authors. Several of O'Connor's writings have been adapted for the stage and screen, including "The Displaced Person," produced as a play in 1966, and Wise Blood, released as a feature film in 1980.
O'Connor is widely regarded as one of the most important American fiction writers of the 20th century. Her Southern Catholicism permeated her writings, which focus almost exclusively on "both the reality of human weakness and the redemptive power of God's grace" (Authors & Artists for Young People). Many of her works have strange, often deformed characters, and virtually all are set in the predominantly Protestant South of O'Connor's birth and upbringing. O'Connor continues to attract critical acclaim despite the fact that she wrote only two novels and about 30 short stories during her lifetime.
A Memoir of Mary Ann (editor, 1961). Three by Flannery O'Connor (1964). The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews (1983). Collected Works (1988).
Brinkmeyer, R. H., The Art and Vision of Flannery O'Connor (1989). Drake, R., Flannery O'Connor (1966). Driggers, S. G., et al, The Manuscripts of Flannery O'Connor at Georgia College (1989). Driskell, L. V., and J. Brittain, The Eternal Crossroads (1971). Eggenschwiter, D., The Christian Humanism of Flannery O'Connor (1972). Feeley, K., Flannery O'Connor: Voice of the Peacock (1972). Friedman, M. J., and L. A. Lawson, The Added Dimension: The Art and Mind of Flannery O'Connor (1966). Friedman, M. J., and B. L. Clark, Critical Essays on Flannery O'Connor (1985). Giannoue, R., Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Love (1989). Golden, R. E. and M. C. Sullivan, Flannery O'Connor and Caroline Gordon: A Reference Guide (1977). Hendin, J., The World of Flannery O'Connor (1970). Hyman, S. E., Flannery O'Connor (1966). Horn, T., To Grand-mother's House We Go: Modern Grandmother Archetypes in Works by Porter, Hurston, McCarthy, O'Connor, and Olsen (dissertation, 1997). Kinney, A., Flannery O'Connor's Library: Resources of Being (1985). Magee, R. M., ed., Conversations with Flannery O'Connor (1987). Magill, F. N., ed., Great Women Writers: The Lives and Works of 135 of the World's Most Important Women Writers, From Antiquity to the Present (1994). McFarland, D. T., Flannery O'Connor (1976). Muller, G. H., Nightmares and Visions (1972). Nesbitt, A. S., ed., Short Story Criticism: Excerpts From Criticism of the Works of Short Fiction Writers (1999). Orvell, M., Invisible Parade: An Introduction (1991). Reiter, R. E., ed., Flannery O'Connor (1968). Walters, D., Flannery O'Connor (1973). Westling, L., Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens (1985).
Authors & Artists for Young Adults (1998). Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature (1991).
CANR (1992). CBY (1958). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Bulletin of Bibliography (1967). Critique (Fall 1958). Esprit (Winter 1964). Flannery O'Connor Bulletin.
—LEAH J. SPARKS
(b. 25 March 1925 in Savannah, Georgia; d. 3 August 1964 in Milledgeville, Georgia), writer of bizarre novels and short stories focusing on the rural South and peopled with misfits and prophets, matriarchs and the maimed.
O'Connor was born Mary Flannery O'Connor; she dropped her first name for professional purposes. She was the only child of Edward Francis O'Connor, Jr., owner of a real estate business, and Regina L. Cline, a homemaker. When O'Connor was twelve, her father began to experience symptoms of disseminated lupus erythematosus, a fatal disease. The family moved into Regina O'Connor's family home in Milledgeville, Georgia. Witnessing her father's illness until he died in 1941 strengthened O'Connor's Roman Catholic faith. After graduating from high school in 1942, she enrolled in Georgia State College for Women (later Georgia College) in Milledgeville. Initially working on a degree in sociology, O'Connor shifted her focus to writing.
After graduating with a B.A. in 1945, O'Connor went to the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University of Iowa, where she joined the Writer's Workshop. In 1946 she sold her first story, "The Geranium," to Accent magazine. During her second year at Iowa she was awarded the Rinehart Prize for part of what was to become her first novel, Wise Blood (1952). In June 1947 O'Connor received her M.F.A. in literature and accepted an invitation to Yaddo, a writer's colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. There she worked on Wise Blood, with different chapters published in Mademoiselle, Sewanee Review, and the Partisan Review. She also met lifelong friends. When her Yaddo friends Robert and Sally Fitzgerald moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut, in the summer of 1949, she moved in with them. O'Connor planned to stay in the North, but in late 1950, on her way home for Christmas, she became gravely ill. Doctors in Atlanta diagnosed her condition as lupus, the disease that had killed her father. O'Connor almost died, but the disease was arrested by massive injections of ACTH, a cortisone derivative.
It was not until the summer of 1951 that O'Connor was able to leave the hospital, too weak to climb stairs. O'Connor and her mother moved to Andalusia, the site of a dairy farm, a few miles outside Milledgeville. With her mother managing the farm, O'Connor went back to writing. When Wise Blood was published in 1952, it created a stir. Set in the rural South, it is a story of a quest for faith, full of dark comedy, violence, and religious symbolism. The characters are best described as grotesque. O'Connor's next book, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955), was critically acclaimed.
As a result of the massive doses of ACTH, O'Connor's bones were weakened to the extent that her hipbones could not support her weight, and she was forced to use aluminum crutches. Although it was difficult for her to get around, during the late 1950s and early 1960s O'Connor traveled to colleges and universities, lecturing to students and faculty and participating in symposia on writing. The lectures were informative and entertaining and covered a variety of topics. For example, "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction" discusses the function of the grotesque, a major feature of her writing. Her lectures were often explanations of her novels and stories given to a bemused public.
In 1958 she was persuaded to travel to Lourdes, France, to seek a miraculous cure for her disease. In a letter to the poet Elizabeth Bishop she wrote, "We went to Europe, … but my capacity for staying at home has now been perfected, sealed & is going to last me the rest of my life." Although O'Connor initially had left home to become a writer, being at home did not mean that she became a recluse. O'Connor had many visitors, and she corresponded continually with the famous and the not so famous. She was particularly generous with her time and advice for aspiring writers.
O'Connor's masterpiece, The Violent Bear It Away (1960), is the story of the initiation of a reluctant prophet. Again using a bizarre set of characters, the concept of a journey to find faith, and religious symbolism and violence, O'Connor shows that humans must destroy and suffer to find themselves. The novel focuses on Protestant fundamentalism, appropriate because the author is from the Bible Belt but unusual since she is a Roman Catholic. O'Connor explained in one of her lectures that Protestants are in closer contact with God without the mediation of the church and, therefore, subject to more intensity. Although the hero, a young adolescent, tries to fight his fate, it overtakes him. The hardships of his journey, which include experiencing death, committing murder, and being raped, cause him to be reborn into the life of the spirit.
In early 1964, while at work on a third novel, O'Connor had an abdominal tumor removed. It was benign, but the procedure reactivated the lupus, and her kidneys were affected. O'Connor knew that she was dying and discontinued the novel. (A fragment of it, entitled "Why Do the Heathens Rage?" had been published in Esquire in 1963.) She focused instead on finishing enough short stories for another book. O'Connor slipped into a coma and died of kidney failure in Milledgeville. She is buried in Memory Hill Cemetery there. Everything That Rises Must Converge was published posthumously in 1965. As in her previous work, the setting and subject are of the contemporary South, and social issues are part of the fabric of the stories. In the title story, the serious subject of integration has moments of high comedy when a white woman, indignant at the presence of a black woman sitting opposite her on a bus, realizes that both of them are wearing the same hat. Although O'Connor believed in integration and recognized the plight of blacks in the South, she was reluctant to criticize her community openly.
"Revelation" is another story that alludes to social issues. Here, a self-righteous matriarch busies herself placing people into social classes until a college student, home from Wellesley College, throws a book at her, tries to strangle her, and calls her a pig. Violence leads to revelation. The final story in the volume, "Judgement Day," is a reworking of an old story first written at Iowa in 1946, and the subject of death and symbolic resurrection is particularly poignant as the dying author labored to complete her work.
Although O'Connor did not publish a large number of books, she became a major figure in the literary world. Her writing was critically acclaimed and translated into a dozen languages. Writing about the rural South in a contemporary time frame, O'Connor's focus on the spiritual condition of modern humanity has a universal appeal. She detected an attitude of smugness and self-righteousness in people that she believed needed to be changed. In addition, the deeply religious O'Connor saw the shallow complacency of an increasingly highly rationalized and technological society and felt people's need to rediscover faith. But O'Connor rejected a return to the past. There was no desire to hark back to the Old South and its traditions. Those characters who yearned to return to so-called better days usually provoke some type of death or destruction. To urge her readers toward new insight, O'Connor used humor, violence, and the grotesque. She juxtaposed comedy and murder, the intensity of belief with the despair of those who had no faith. Her techniques often upset readers, but to be disturbed and repulsed can lead people to view their world in new ways.
O'Connor's papers are at the Georgia College Library in Milledgeville. Her lectures and essays are collected in Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, eds., Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (1969). Sally Fitzgerald selected and edited the Letters of Flannery O'Connor: The Habit of Being (1979). Numerous studies of O'Connor have biographical material and criticism of her work, including Stanley Edgar Hyman, "Flannery O'Connor," in Seven American Women Writers of the Twentieth Century: An Introduction (1963); James A. Grimshaw, Jr., The Flannery O'Connor Companion (1981); Jill P. Baumgaertner, Flannery O'Connor: A Proper Scaring (1988); and Richard Giannone, Flannery O'Connor, Hermit Novelist (2000). An obituary is in the New York Times (4 Aug. 1964).
Marcia B. Dinneen
Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) was a writer of short stories and novels in which comedy, grotesquerie, and violence were united with a profound moral and theological vision.
Flannery O'Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, on March 25, 1925, the only child of Regine Cline and Edwin Francis O'Connor. Both her parents came from Catholic families that had lived in the South for generations. In the late 1930s her father developed disseminated lupus, an immunological disorder that causes the body to make antibodies against its own tissues, and the O'Connors moved to Milledgeville, which had been the home of the Cline family since before the Civil War. At that time lupus was untreatable, and O'Connor's father died in 1941.
O'Connor graduated from Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville with a degree in social science in 1945. A fellowship enabled her to attend the Writers' Workshop at the State University of Iowa, from which she received a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1947. While at Iowa she published her first short story and won a prize for a novel in progress. After leaving Iowa she continued to work on her novel at Yaddo, the writer's colony at Saratoga Springs, New York; in New York City; and in Connecticut, where she lived in the household of the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald.
In December 1950, on her way home to Milledgeville for Christmas, she became seriously ill on the train and was hospitalized on her arrival in Atlanta; she was diagnosed as having lupus, the same illness that had killed her father nine years earlier. The recent discovery of cortisone made the disease treatable, but it was still considered incurable. After several months, during which time O'Connor was in and out of the hospital, she and her mother moved to "Andalusia," a dairy farm four miles from Milledgeville that Mrs. O'Connor had recently inherited and that she ran with the help of tenants. Dairy farms, the capable and efficient women who run them, and their tenant help figure largely in O'Connor's later stories. O'Connor spent the remaining 14 years of her life at Andalusia, writing and raising various kinds of fowl, including peacocks.
During the first year after the outbreak of her illness O'Connor continued to work on the final revisions of her first novel, Wise Blood, which was published in 1952. Strong, original, drawn with hard outlines and in a peculiarly modern style, at once bizarrely comic and completely serious, it is the story of the ultimately futile attempts of Hazel Motes, the grandson of a Southern fundamentalist preacher, to escape from Jesus.
Following the publication of Wise Blood O'Connor returned to writing short fiction. The stories written between the summer of 1952 and 1955 (collected in A Good Man Is Hard To Find, 1955) make it obvious that she had come into her own as a short story writer. Wickedly funny, realistic, displaying her sharp eye for the comic and the grotesque and her accurate ear for Southern speech, often ending in unexpected and shocking violence, the best of them—"A Good Man Is Hard To Find," "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," "The Artificial Nigger," "The Displaced Person," "Good Country People"—are classics of the short story form.
O'Connor, who took her Catholicism as seriously as she did her writing, called them stories about original sin. She described her work in general as being about the action of grace in the world, about those moments in which grace, usually in the form of violence, descends on her comically complacent characters, sometimes opening their eyes to an appalling realization, sometimes killing them. Many readers find O'Connor's identification of the transcendent with a violent and disruptive force unpalatable and even more shocking than the stories themselves. O'Connor, however, felt that a violent shock was necessary to bring both her characters and her modern secular audience to an awareness of the powerful reality of the realm of transcendent mystery.
Although a softening of the bone in her hip caused her to have to use crutches, O'Connor frequently accepted invitations to speak at colleges and writers' conferences in the latter half of the 1950s and early 1960s. She took advantage of these opportunities not only to give perceptive talks on the nature of fiction but to clarify her own position as a writer "with Christian concerns." Such a writer, she said, was interested both in the everyday reality seen all around (the level of manners) and in making that everyday reality transparent to the underlying level of mystery, the level of the eternal and the absolute. These talks, together with a number of essays on similar subjects, were edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald and published after O'Connor's death under the title Mystery and Manners (1969).
O'Connor's second collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge, continued in much the same vein as the first. It was completed just before her death and published posthumously in 1965. Her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1960), has some thematic similarities with Wise Blood, although it is very different in style. As Wise Blood follows the protagonist's attempts to escape from his vocation to be a Christian, The Violent Bear It Away deals with the efforts of a backwoods Southern boy to escape his calling to be a prophet. In both cases, an act of violence plays a role at the turning points at which the characters embrace their painful vocations.
O'Connor had to have abdominal surgery in the spring of 1964. Her lupus reacted to the stress of the surgery and could not be controlled by drugs. In July she suffered kidney failure, and she died in the Milledgeville Hospital on August 3, 1964. In 1972 she was posthumously awarded the National Book Award for her Collected Stories. A collection of her letters, edited by Sally Fitzgerald and titled The Habit of Being, was published in 1979.
No biography of Flannery O'Connor has yet been published, but there are more than a dozen critical studies of her fiction. These include Leon Driskell and Joan Brittain, Eternal Crossroads: The Art of Flannery O'Connor (1971); David Eggenschwiler, The Christian Humanism of Flannery O'Connor (1972); Dorothy Tuck McFarland, Flannery O'Connor (1976); and Dorothy Walters, Flannery O'Connor (1973), among others. □