O'Connor, Flannery (1925–1964)
O'Connor, Flannery (1925–1964)
Major 20th-century American writer whose work is celebrated for its unflinching, grotesquely comic, moral vision. Name variations: Mary Flannery O'Connor. Pronunciation: FLAN-er-y. Born Mary Flannery O'Connor on March 25, 1925, in Savannah, Georgia; died of complications of disseminated lupus on August 3, 1964, in Milledgeville, Georgia; daughter of Edward Francis O'Connor and Regina (Cline) O'Connor; attended parochial schools in Savannah, graduated from Peabody High School in Milledgeville, Georgia; A.B. from Georgia State College for Women; M.F.A. from State University of Iowa; never married; no children.
Lived in Savannah from birth until 1938, when family moved to Milledgeville; father died of lupus (1941); graduated from high school (1942); attended Georgia State College for Women (1942–45); graduated with a major in social science; accepted into Writers' Workshop at the State University of Iowa, where she earned an M.F.A. (1947); published first story, "The Geranium" (1946); was a resident at Yaddo writers' colony near Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (1948–49); lived briefly in New York City before going to live with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald in Connecticut (1949); after first attack of lupus (1950), moved with mother to Andalusia, a farm near Milledgeville where she spent the rest of her life under treatment to control her disease; published first novel, Wise Blood (1952); published first collection of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955); won first prize in the O. Henry awards for short stories for "Greenleaf" (1957); traveled to Lourdes and Rome with mother (1958); published second novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1960); lupus reactivated in severe form after hospitalization for abdominal surgery (February 1964).
Wise Blood (novel, 1952); A Good Man Is Hard to Find (short stories, 1955); The Violent Bear It Away (novel, 1960); Everything That Rises Must Converge (short stories, 1965); Mystery and Manners: The Occasional Prose of Flannery O'Connor (ed. by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, 1970); The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor (1971); The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor (ed. by Sally Fitzgerald, 1979); Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works (fiction, criticism, and letters ed. by Sally Fitzgerald, 1988).
When a friend proposed the idea of a biography to Flannery O'Connor in a letter in 1958, she promptly wrote back, "As for biographies, there won't be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy." Indeed, O'Connor's career as a fiction writer was shaped by an unlikely combination of conditions that circumscribed her personal experience but at the same time deepened her imaginative vision of the distinctive fictional world she fashioned. Limited by the incurable disease she endured through most of her life as a writer, she drew upon her experience living in the rural, largely fundamentalist Christian South and upon her strong religious faith to develop an aesthetic vision that gives her work its unique perspective and intensely personal style.
Born on March 25, 1925, to Edward Francis O'Connor and Regina Cline O'Connor , Mary Flannery O'Connor spent her early years in the progressive, commercial, cosmopolitan culture of the Catholic community in Savannah, living in the O'Connor family home opposite the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on the city square. Her father was a respected member of the business community, a real estate agent whom O'Connor later remembered as having the desire but not "the time or money or training" to write. She attended parochial elementary school and had begun her first year at Sacred Heart High School in Savannah when her father was diagnosed as terminally ill with disseminated lupus, a degenerative and incurable auto-immune disease that causes the body to produce antibodies that attack its own tissues; the family moved from Savannah to Regina Cline O'Connor's ancestral home in Milledgeville, Georgia.
A strong contrast to Savannah, Milledgeville, formerly the capital of Georgia, had declined in importance politically, economically, and culturally while Savannah and Atlanta developed as the state's dominant urban centers. Milledgeville remained a rural town, steeped in the traditions of the old South, provincial in its customs, refined in its manners, and largely evangelical Christian in its religious orientation. The Cline family home, built in 1820, had once served as the governor's mansion. It was purchased in 1886 by O'Connor's maternal grandfather, who lived there as the mayor of Milledgeville for 22 years.
Although O'Connor's maternal ancestors were part of a tradition of Catholic leadership in the region that antedates the American Confederacy, Milledgeville had no Catholic high school in 1938, when the O'Connors relocated, and so Flannery enrolled in Peabody High School, where her chief interests were writing, drawing cartoons, and painting. In 1941, at age 45, Edward O'Connor died.
Upon her graduation from Peabody in 1942, O'Connor matriculated at Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College). Anticipating a career in writing or cartooning, she became involved in student publications, serving as art editor of the newspaper, editor of the literary quarterly, and feature editor of her senior yearbook. She drew a weekly cartoon for the student newspaper and frequently sent cartoons to The New Yorker, which encouraged her talent but did not print her work. She graduated in 1945 with a degree in social studies.
One of her teachers at Georgia State was sufficiently impressed with O'Connor's writing to send some of the pieces she had published in the college literary magazine to the Writers' Workshop of the State University of Iowa, and on the basis of the promise they demonstrated, she was awarded a Rinehart Fellowship. By the time she left Milledgeville for Iowa, Mary Flannery O'Connor had sufficient confidence in her future as a writer to anticipate the effect of her name appearing on a dust jacket. She legally changed her name to Flannery O'Connor in 1945.
At Iowa, she read widely in modern and contemporary authors, especially Southern and Catholic writers. She wrote, absorbed criticism, and learned the value of revision under the direction of Paul Engle at the Writers' Workshop, at which she was often too shy to read her compositions. Her reputation for reticence belied a strong underlying confidence in her abilities that led her to pursue publication aggressively. In 1946, she sold her first story, "The Geranium," which appeared in the summer issue of Accent. In 1947, she completed her M.F.A., submitting a thesis consisting of six short stories. She stayed at Iowa for another year, serving as a part-time teaching assistant and continuing her reading and writing.
In 1948, O'Connor was invited to spend the winter at Yaddo, the writers' colony near Saratoga Springs, New York, where she worked on a manuscript that was to become her first novel, Wise Blood. While at Yaddo, she made lasting friendships with fellow writers Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick and established important connections with the New York publishing world. She engaged Elizabeth McKee as her literary agent, and during her residence at Yaddo published "The Capture" in Mademoiselle and "The Train," the basis of a chapter of Wise Blood, in the Sewanee Review. Through Lowell, she met Robert Giroux, who would later become her editor and publisher, and Robert and Sally Fitzgerald , who remained her close friends throughout her life. Poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald would become her literary executor; Sally Fitzgerald would edit the selection of letters published as The Habit of Being; and together, the Fitzgeralds would edit her critical and occasional prose, Mystery and Manners.
In 1949, O'Connor lived briefly in an apartment in New York City where she continued work on Wise Blood. Two chapters, "The Heart of the Park" and "The Peeler," were published in the Partisan Review. Later that year, she went to live with the Fitzgeralds on their farm near Ridgefield, Connecticut. A letter written to Elizabeth McKee at this time reveals a great deal about O'Connor's writing process and her gradual discovery of her subject matter, theme, and aesthetic perspective as she wrote Wise Blood: "I don't have my novel outlined and I have to write to discover what I am doing…. I don't know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it over again." As she wrote and rewrote, the novel grew in a variety of directions, to over 1,000 pages. Then, under the discipline of focusing her subject through the double filter of her metaphysical and aesthetic vision, the novel gradually began to take the distinctive stamp of her art.
Wise Blood grows out of the realistic, contemporary, provincial Southern setting that O'Connor knew intimately, but its realistic backdrop contrasts sharply with characters inflated to cartoon-like grotesquerie and driven to bizarre and violent actions by the disjunction between their psychic and spiritual needs and the secular and material values of the modern world. Having laid claim to the rural fundamentalist South as her literary territory, O'Connor made it distinctively her own through her "Catholic" adaptation of the grotesque tradition, in which characters with names like Hazel Motes, Enoch Emery, Sabbath Hawks, and Hoover Shoats are seen as incomplete human beings spiritually diminished and psychically deformed by a culture that has fallen under the domination of an arid rationalist and materialist philosophy and the opportunistic pursuit of personal gratification. In the fallen Eden of the rural South, Hazel Motes, a young man who has returned from World War I to find his childhood home vacant and abandoned, sets out to become an itinerant preacher of the nihilistic gospel of the Church without Christ, but his obstinate flight from God's grace and redemptive power paradoxically becomes a spiritual quest for faith and meaning, ending in saint-like martyrdom.
As O'Connor's purpose became clearer to her, however, the direction Wise Blood was taking became less desirable to the publishing firm that had an option on the novel. When her editor at Rinehart expressed misgivings that eventually led to a release from her contract, Robert Giroux offered to publish the book through Harcourt, Brace. Thus with her first novel, O'Connor had the good fortune of establishing an enduring relationship with an editor and publisher who understood and sympathized with her literary vision.
Just as she was discovering the central theme and personal style that became the hallmarks of her fiction, the tragic event that would affect the rest of her life and career occurred. O'Connor was stricken, at age 25, with disseminated lupus erythematosus, the disease of which her father had died. Her first attack transpired in December of 1950 when she left the Fitzgeralds to visit home for the Christmas holidays. In The Habit of Being, Sally Fitzgerald reports that when she put Flannery on the train for Georgia, "she was smiling, perhaps a little wanly but wearing her beret at a jaunty angle. She looked much as usual, except … [for] a kind of stiffness in her gait…. By the time she arrived she looked, her uncle later said, 'like a shriveled old woman.'" She was hospitalized in Atlanta, where she was reported near death. Treatment with blood transfusions, massive doses of a new experimental drug called ACTH, and cortisone stabilized her condition, and she was well enough to leave the hospital in the spring of 1951. The lupus went into remission, but the disease or the treatment or a combination of the two had seriously weakened her and had caused such extensive deterioration of her hip bones that she could not climb stairs. It was clear that a return to the North to resume her independent life as a writer was out of the question.
Instead, O'Connor and her mother decided to make their permanent home at Andalusia, the 150-year-old dairy farm outside Milledgeville that her mother had inherited from a brother. At Andalusia, O'Connor lived in an environment that minimized her discomfort and disability: a first-floor suite allowed plenty of room to read, write, and rest, and a large screened-in porch provided easy access to the outdoors and a place where she could enjoy visitors without feeling confined to the atmosphere of a sickroom. Regina assumed the management of the farm and the care of her daughter, and soon Flannery returned to her writing, eager to complete Wise Blood.
Living in rural Georgia once again immersed O'Connor in the setting and characters she had already chosen as her essential subject matter. Her imagination found fresh nourishment in observing the genteel provincial society of her mother's friends in Milledgeville, the rural characters she came in contact with while buying livestock with her mother or visiting a doctor's office, the African-American families employed for generations on the farm, and the succession of itinerant white tenants who passed through Andalusia. Their lives, characters, and language were transformed into the comedy, tragedy, humor, satire, and pathos of O'Connor's fiction.
The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet.
At the farm, O'Connor also resumed her childhood hobby of raising fowl by collecting a menagerie of chickens, ducks, pheasants, quail, geese, pea-fowl, and swans that fascinated and amused her. Her favorites were the peacocks, whose brilliant tail feathers she distributed as gifts to friends. Even this hobby found its way into her fiction, most markedly in the symbolic description of the peacock's stunning display as an emblem of the second coming of Christ in "The Displaced Person," one of her most admired stories.
Her life had assumed a pattern of reading, writing, and rest adapted to her illness by the time Wise Blood was published in 1952. Critical reaction to the novel was mixed. Most critics placed her work in the tradition of Southern grotesque fiction. Some admired her skillful use of language and imagery, her irony and humor; others criticized a strain of cruelty they found in her depiction of mentally and physically defective characters given to bizarre and violent actions; but few recognized the religious perspective that provided the rationale for her grotesque characters and their behavior. As she later explained in "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," "Whenever I am asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you must have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the conception of the whole man is still, in the main, theological." Equally confusing to early critics was a style that developed a serious theme—Hazel Motes' belated and reluctant religious conversion—through comic characterization and incidents culminating in the violent, tragic catastrophe of Hazel's self-blinding, suffering, and death.
Following the publication of Wise Blood, which had taken O'Connor several years and great effort to complete, she concentrated on refining her art as a short-story writer. In the next two years, she wrote several of her best-known stories, publishing most of them in magazines and literary reviews. Her talent was recognized in 1953, when she was awarded the Kenyon Review Fellowship in Fiction, to which she was reappointed in 1954. Also in 1954, her story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" received second prize in the O. Henry short-story awards.
In 1955, her first collection of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, established her reputation as a major talent in this genre. The title story, perhaps O'Connor's best-known work, is the piece that she most enjoyed reading to audiences when she was later invited to discuss her work at colleges and universities. In this tale, an escaped convict known as the Misfit, a psychopathic killer troubled by metaphysical questions who murders a vacationing family of six, is the unlikely agent of one of O'Connor's recurrent themes: the necessity of a violent awakening to the possibility of redemptive grace. The Misfit is cast in a dialectical relationship with the complacently moral and respectable grandmother in the story, whose recognition, in the moment before she is shot, that the Misfit is "one of [her] own children" represents her first real understanding of the equal value of all human souls in the eyes of God. And the Misfit's judgment on her—"She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life"—acts as a shocking awakening for the reader to both the Misfit's and O'Connor's moral seriousness in a story that begins as comedy and ends in mass murder. The shock value of the story's gory climax illustrates O'Connor's view of the role of the artist, who is called like an Old Testament prophet to awaken torpid minds and spirits to the reality of the ultimate things: life, death, and judgment. The volume also included such widely admired stories as "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," "A Late Encounter with the Enemy," "The Temple of the Holy Ghost," "A Circle in the Fire," and "The Displaced Person."
By 1955, the continuing deterioration of her bones caused by the steroids she was taking to keep her alive made it impossible for O'Connor to walk without the aid of crutches. Nonetheless, she continued to perfect her art in such stories as "Good Country People," "You Can't Be Any Poorer Than Dead," and "The Artificial Nigger," the story that she called "my favorite and probably the best thing I'll ever write." She was awarded a second O. Henry prize for "A Circle in the Fire." But longer fiction remained a challenge to her, and in 1955 she began a story she felt might "become a novel." She would spend the next five years working intermittently on The Violent Bear It Away.
Her fiction was widely known and admired enough by 1956 to bring her a series of invitations to lecture and read her works at various colleges and universities. She undertook these trips as long as her health allowed, enjoying both the opportunity to meet her audiences and the additional income such visits brought. In the next several years, she read or spoke at more than 20 colleges and universities and participated in many local and regional arts festivals, book clubs, and writers' panels. Also in 1956, she began publishing book reviews, many of them on theological or religious works for Catholic magazines. Writing these reviews and the one short story published that year, "Greenleaf," offered a break from the new novel she was finding difficult to shape. As she wrote to a friend, "I have put up the novel for a short spell and am writing a story and it's like a vacation in the mountains." The following year, she published several short stories and reviews, lectured, and received two more O. Henry awards.
In 1958, after much medical consultation to see if she was fit for the trip, she went with her mother on a pilgrimage to Lourdes and Rome at the insistence of an elderly cousin who paid for the trip. She wrote that she expected Lourdes "to be a comic nightmare," and Sally Fitzgerald records that O'Connor "dreaded the possibility of a cure in those circumstances," but once there, she was persuaded to take the baths with other pilgrims seeking relief from illness and affliction. In Rome, she received a special blessing at an audience with the pope. She returned to Milledgeville exhausted and glad to be at home.
She resumed work on her novel with renewed vigor and the help of a Ford Foundation grant. The Violent Bear It Away, which some critics have hailed as her masterwork, was published in 1960. Like Wise Blood, this novel focuses on a character attempting to escape his destiny as a prophet in a world that has lost all sense of spiritual values. And like Hazel Motes, Marion Tarwater discovers the hopelessness of evading prophetic responsibility, which O'Connor saw as an essential function of art. As she wrote to Shirley Abbott , "my 'message' (if you want to call it that) is a highly moral one. Now whether it's 'moralistic' or not I don't know…. Let me make no bones about it: I write from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy…. I find this in no way limits my freedom as a writer and that it increases rather than decreases my vision."
With the publication of The Violent Bear It Away, O'Connor's literary reputation was secured. Critics recognized Flannery O'Connor as a major voice in 20th-century American fiction. As her stories were reprinted in anthologies and became widely read, taught, and discussed in college classes, her fame grew. She was presented with honorary Doctor of Letters degrees from Saint Mary's College of Notre Dame in 1962 and from Smith College in 1963. With modesty and good humor, she enjoyed both the fame that brought her prizes and invitations to read and lecture and the suspicion with which she was regarded as a famous homegrown writer in a small Southern town. She valued the many friendships based on literary and religious interests that she had developed over the years and had maintained through her lively letters. She began to prepare a second volume of short stories, which she hoped to have ready for publication in fall of 1964.
Toward the end of 1963, O'Connor began to suffer from fainting spells and weakness. She was treated for anemia, and for a while seemed to improve. In February of 1964, however, her doctors discovered that her weakness was caused by a benign fibroid tumor. Surgery, always considered risky for a lupus patient, became necessary because of the alarming growth of the tumor, and after massive doses of cortisone to prepare her, she underwent abdominal surgery on February 25. As feared, the surgery reactivated the lupus in a severe form. Extremely weakened, she was limited to an hour or two of work a day at a typewriter moved next to her bed. Still cheerful and good-humored, she continued collecting, revising, and arranging the volume of short stories she had been working on. On July 7, at her own request, she received the Last Rites of the Catholic Church. Her condition gradually deteriorated until she fell into a coma and died of kidney failure in Milledgeville Hospital on August 3.
Everything That Rises Must Converge, her second collection of short stories, published posthumously in 1965, met with virtually universal praise. Called the "greatest of Flannery O'Connor's books" by Joyce Carol Oates , the volume included, in addition to the title story, such well-known works as "The Enduring Chill," "Revelation," and "Parker's Back." In 1971, The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor won the National Book Award. Her reputation continued to grow with the publication of her occasional prose, Mystery and Manners (1969), and her letters, The Habit of Being (1979). In the space allotted her "between the house and the chicken yard," Flannery O'Connor had built a fascinating and distinctive imaginative world that has enriched the tradition of American letters.
Browning, Preston M., Jr. Flannery O'Connor. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974.
Fickett, Harold, and Douglas R. Gilbert. Flannery O' Connor: Images of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI: 1986.
Getz, Lorine M. Flannery O'Connor: Her Life, Library and Book Reviews. NY: Edward Mellen Press, 1980.
Oates, Joyce Carol. "The Visionary Art of Flannery O'Connor," in Southern Humanities Review. Vol. 7, no. 3. Summer 1973.
O'Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor. Ed. by Sally Fitzgerald. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979.
——. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. by Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.
Walters, Dorothy. Flannery O'Connor. NY: Twayne, 1973.
Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works, 1988.
Flannery O'Connor: Modern Critical Views. Ed. by Harold Bloom. NY: Chelsea House, 1986.
Patricia B. B. , Professor of English, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania