Fiercely loyal to her native region and
to her religious beliefs, Flannery O'Connor had little patience with reviewers
of her work who saw her depiction of the South as a caricature and who felt
that, as a sophisticated artist, she could not possibly share or take seriously
the religious preoccupations of her characters. But neither the incomprehension
of critics nor a series of devastating illnesses that made the last fifteen
years of her life a time of great suffering could prevent her from preserving
the integrity of her vision or from creating a body of work that, however
slender in bulk, places her securely in the first rank of American fiction
writers of the twentieth century.
Mary Flannery O'Connor was born in
Savannah, Georgia, on March 25, 1925. She was the only child of Edward O'Connor,
Jr., and Regina (Cline) O'Connor, both of whose families had emigrated from
Ireland to Georgia in the nineteenth century. Upon her birth, a gift from a
relative enabled her father to open his own real estate office. The O'Connors
were Catholics in an area that was overwhelmingly Protestant, and Flannery was
educated in a series of parochial schools. In 1938, her father, whose business
had suffered during the Depression, began working as a real estate appraiser for
the Federal Housing Authority, an appointment that required the family to
relocate in Atlanta. In the fall of that year, O'Connor and her mother went to
live in at the Cline family home in Milledgeville, while her father's work kept
him in the city. Her father had also begun to suffer from lupus, an
arthritis-related disease that destroys the body's connective tissue, which took
his life on February 1, 1941.
From 1938 to 1942, O'Connor attended
Peabody High School in Milledgeville, and wrote and drew cartoons for the school
newspaper. From 1942 to 1945, she attended Georgia State College for Women, only
one block from her home. Majoring in English and sociology, she earned her
bachelor of arts degree in 1945. It was during her college years that she
dropped her first name and began signing her work Flannery O'Connor. From 1945
to 1948, she did postgraduate work at the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop, where
she undertook a formal course of reading that introduced her to the work of
modern writers such as Joyce, Kafka, and her fellow Southerner William Faulkner.
Toward the end of this period, after several years of unsuccessful attempts at
publication, her fiction began to be accepted both by popular magazines such as Mademoiselle
and by more intellectually oriented journals such as The Sewanee Review.
She also won the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award for her novel in progress. The
award brought her $750 and gave Rinehart and Company the option to publish the
book upon its satisfactory (to them) completion.
In 1948 and 1949, O'Connor spent
considerable time working on her book at the Yaddo artists' colony near Saratoga
Springs, New York. There she met the poet Robert Lowell, through whom she came
to know the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald. As she strove to complete her
novel, she became a paying guest at the home of Fitzgerald and his family in
Ridgefield, Connecticut. Friction developed with Rinehart when O'Connor refused
to revise her book according to the publisher's editorial suggestions, and she
resented Rinehart's characterization of her as uncooperative. She obtained her
release from the agreement, and in October 1950 signed a contract with Harcourt,
Shortly before leaving for home that
December for a Christmas visit, she began to suffer pains in her arms and
shoulder joints, and then developed a high fever on the train to Georgia. She
was hospitalized on her arrival and diagnosed with lupus, the disease that had
killed her father, although she would not be informed of the diagnosis for over
a year. Her medical condition would fluctuate over the remaining years of her
life, and never again would she be completely healthy, but through cortisone
therapy and a restricted diet she recovered sufficiently to resume work on her
novel. Robert Giroux, her editor at Harcourt, sent her novel, which was now
titled Wise Blood, to the novelist Caroline Gordon, who offered extensive
comments and recommendations, in the light of which O'Connor made further
revisions. In contrast to her experience with Rinehart, she was quite
responsive--and would remain so throughout her life--to insights from those who
understood what she was trying to do and could help her see her way to achieving
it, as opposed to those who, out of misunderstanding, sought to make her work
was published in the spring of 1952, to mixed reviews. It told the story of
Hazel Motes, a young Army veteran who tries to resist what he feels to be his
calling to be a preacher and who finds himself involved in an increasingly
bizarre series of adventures. Throughout her life, O'Connor was a devout, if not
entirely orthodox, Catholic--in 1958 she would make a pilgrimage to Lourdes, and
then go on to Rome, where she met Pope Pius XII--but her fiction usually focused
upon mainstream Southern whites who professed a Protestant faith of
fundamentalist and often highly idiosyncratic tendencies. Also in 1952, O'Connor
began an activity that would become one of the great pleasures and passions of
her life, one that grew to be closely associated with her in the minds of those
who knew her well--the raising of peacocks and peahens. Meanwhile, she continued
to write and to publish short stories, including "A Good Man Is Hard to
Find," which originally appeared in 1953 in a paperback anthology called The
Avon Book of Modern Writing, and two years later became the title piece of A
Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. This collection was praised by
reviewers, and it sold unexpectedly well for a book of short fiction.
Despite continuing health problems,
including joint deterioration in one hip and later in her jaws, O'Connor
continued living and working with her mother on their family farm, visiting and
corresponding with a great number of friends, writing more than one hundred book
reviews for local Catholic publications, and bringing her second novel, The
Violent Bear It Away, to completion. Like its predecessor, it concerned a
man who feels fated to become a preacher, does all that he can to avoid that
fate, and finally achieves transcendence through an act of violence. She
predicted that the book would be misunderstood and "pounced on and torn
limb from limb" by the reviewers, and it did in fact meet with a mixed
reception upon its publication in 1960. She was especially incensed by what she
called "a revolting review" in Time, which brought up her
illness in connection with her work.
O'Connor saw her reputation consolidated
in the early 1960s with the appearance of several essays on her fiction in the
Summer 1962 issue of the Sewanee Review and the publication of her three
books the following year in a one-volume paperback edition called Three by
Flannery O'Connor. At the end of 1963, she once again suffered a
pre-Christmas attack of ill health, a fainting spell that led to the diagnosis
of a fibroid tumor, which was surgically removed in February 1964. Suffering
from a post-operative kidney infection and fearing the worst, she devoted her
remaining strength to finishing the last two of the nine stories planned for her
forthcoming collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge. When the
book appeared in 1965, it was a posthumous publication. O'Connor had died of
kidney failure on August 3, 1964, at the age of thirty-nine.
In the carefully crafted prose of the two
novels and nineteen short stories that she deemed worthy of book publication,
she created a gallery of fantastic-seeming but deeply felt and sympathetic
characters, in whose stories the humorous often gives way with sickening
swiftness to the horrible, and whose lives, however twisted and tortured they
may become, remain steadfast searches for the healing power of grace. Although
many writers in this century have sought to catch the flavor of what critics
customarily term "Southern gothic," O'Connor is unsurpassed in the
mingling of violence and beauty, of the glorious and grotesque, that is her
particular mood and theme. The early inclusion of her work in the Library of
America, tantamount to certification as a classic, was a decision that no one
who cares about American literature could find fault with.
*all are novels unless otherwise
Blood (novel). New York:
Harcourt, Brace, 1952.
Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952.
Violent Bear It Away (novel). New
York: Farrar, Straus, 1960.
That Rises Must Converge
(stories). New York: Farrar, Straus, 1965.
and Manners: Occasional Prose.
Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1969.
Complete Short Stories. New York:
Farrar, Straus, 1971.
Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews. Athens: University of Georgia, 1983.
Works. New York: Library of