Flannery O’Connor

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.

Early Years

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.

Literary Career

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, Brace.

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 more conventional.

Wise Blood 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.

Last Years & Legacy

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.

Principal Works

*all are novels unless otherwise indicated

Wise Blood (novel). New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952.

The Violent Bear It Away (novel). New York: Farrar, Straus, 1960.

Everything That Rises Must Converge (stories). New York: Farrar, Straus, 1965.

Also contains "Revelation."

Mysteries and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1969.

The Complete Short Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1971.

The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews. Athens: University of Georgia, 1983.

Collected Works. New York: Library of America, 1988.