Mary Flannery O'Connor
Mary Flannery O'Connor (March 25, 1925 – August 3, 1964) was an American novelist, short-story writer and essayist.An important voice in American literature, O'Connor wrote two novels and 32 short stories, as well as a number of reviews and commentaries. She was a Southern writer who often wrote in a Southern Gothic style and relied heavily on regional settings and grotesque characters. O'Connor's writing also reflected her own Roman Catholic faith, and frequently examined questions of morality and ethics.
O'Connor was born on March 25, 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, the only child of Edward F. O'Connor and Regina Cline O'Connor. Her father was diagnosed with lupus in 1937; he died on February 1, 1941 when Flannery was 15. The disease was hereditary in the O'Connor family and Flannery O'Connor was devastated by the loss of her father
O'Connor described herself as a "pigeon-toed child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I'll-bite-you complex." When O'Connor was six she taught a chicken to walk backwards, and this led to her first experience of being a celebrity. The Pathé News people filmed "Little Mary O'Connor" with her trained chicken, and showed the film around the country. She said, "When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathe News. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”
O'Connor attended the Peabody Laboratory School, from which she graduated in 1942. She entered Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College & State University), in an accelerated three-year program, and graduated in June 1945 with a Social Sciences degree. In 1946 she was accepted into the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she first went to study journalism. While there she got to know several important writers and critics who lectured or taught in the program, among them Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Austin Warren and Andrew Lytle. Lytle, for many years editor of the Sewanee Review, was one of the earliest admirers of O'Connor's fiction. He later published several of her stories in the Sewanee Review, as well as critical essays on her work. Workshop director Paul Engle was the first to read and comment on the initial drafts of what would become Wise Blood.
In 1949 O'Connor met and eventually accepted an invitation to stay with Robert Fitzgerald (the well-known translator of the classics) and his wife, Sally, in Redding, Connecticut.
In 1951 she was diagnosed with disseminated lupus, and subsequently returned to her ancestral farm, Andalusia, in Milledgeville, Georgia. Although expected to live only five more years, she managed fourteen. At Andalusia, she raised and nurtured some 100 peafowl. Fascinated by birds of all kinds, she raised ducks, hens, geese, and any sort of exotic bird she could obtain, while incorporating images of peacocks into her books. She describes her peacocks in an essay entitled "The King of Birds."
Despite her sheltered life, her writing reveals an uncanny grasp of the nuances of human behavior. She was a devout Catholic living in the "Bible Belt," the Protestant South. She collected books on Catholic theology and at times gave lectures on faith and literature, traveling quite far despite her frail health. She also maintained a wide correspondence, including such famous writers as Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. She never married, relying for companionship on her correspondence and on her close relationship with her mother, Regina Cline O'Connor.
O'Connor completed more than two dozen short stories and two novels while battling lupus. She died on August 3, 1964, at the age of 39, of complications from lupus, at Baldwin County Hospital and was buried in Milledgeville, Georgia, at Memory Hill Cemetery. Her mother died in 1997.
Regarding her emphasis of the grotesque, O'Connor said: "anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic." Her texts usually take place in the South and revolve around morally flawed characters, while the issue of race often appears in the background.
One of her trademarks is blunt foreshadowing, giving a reader an idea of what will happen far before it happens. Most of her works feature disturbing elements, though she did not like to be characterized as cynical. "I am tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man brutal and sarcastic," she writes. "The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism... when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror."
Her two novels were Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960). She also published two books of short stories: A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge (published posthumously in 1965).
She felt deeply informed by the sacramental, and by the Thomist notion that the created world is charged with God. Yet she would not write apologetic fiction of the kind prevalent in the Catholic literature of the time, explaining that a writer's meaning must be evident in his or her fiction without didacticism. She wrote ironic, subtly allegorical fiction about deceptively backward Southern characters, usually fundamentalist Protestants, who undergo transformations of character that to O'Connor's thinking brought them closer to the Catholic mind.
The transformation is often accomplished through pain, violence, and ludicrous behavior in the pursuit of the holy. However grotesque the setting, she tried to portray her characters as they might be touched by divine grace. This ruled out a sentimental understanding of the stories' violence, as of her own illness. O'Connor wrote: "Grace changes us and change is painful." She also had a deeply sardonic sense of humor, often based in the disparity between her characters' limited perceptions and the awesome fate awaiting them. Another source of humor is frequently found in the attempt of well-meaning liberals to cope with the rural South on their own terms. O'Connor uses such characters' inability to come to terms with race, poverty, and fundamentalism, other than in sentimental illusions, as an example of the failure of the secular world in the twentieth century.
However, several stories reveal that O'Connor was familiar with some of the most sensitive contemporary issues that her liberal and fundamentalist characters might encounter. She addressed the Holocaust in her famous story "The Displaced Person," and racial integration in "Everything that Rises Must Converge." O'Connor's fiction often included references to the problem of race in the South; occasionally, racial issues come to the forefront, as in "The Artificial Nigger," "Everything that Rises Must Converge," and "Judgment Day," her last short story and a drastically rewritten version of her first published story, "The Geranium." Fragments exist of an unfinished novel tentatively titled Why Do the Heathen Rage? that draws from several of her short stories, including "Why Do the Heathen Rage?," "The Enduring Chill," and "The Partridge Festival."
Her best friend, Betty Hester, received a weekly letter from O'Connor for more than a decade. These letters provided the bulk of the correspondence collected in The Habit of Being, a selection of O'Connor's letters edited by Sally Fitzgerald. The reclusive Hester was given the pseudonym "A.," and her identity was not known until after she killed herself in 1998. Much of O'Connor's best-known writing on religion, writing, and the South is contained in these and other letters, including letters written to her friends Brainard Cheney and Samuel Ashley Brown. The complete collection of the unedited letters between O'Connor and Hester was unveiled by Emory University on May 12, 2007; the letters were given to the university in 1987 with the stipulation that they not be released to the public for 20 years. Betty Hester was a lesbian, and Emory's Steve Enniss speculates that she probably kept the letters from public scrutiny for that reason. The unsealed letters include unflattering remarks about O'Connor's friend William Sessions and the work of other Southern writers.
The Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, named in honor of O'Connor by the University of Georgia Press, is a prize given annually to an outstanding collection of short stories. O'Connor was the first fiction writer born in the twentieth century to have her works collected and published by the Library of America.From 1956 through 1964, O'Connor wrote more than one hundred book reviews for two Catholic diocesan newspapers in Georgia: The Bulletin, and The Southern Cross. According to fellow reviewer Joe Zuber, the wide range of books O'Connor chose to review demonstrated that she was profoundly intellectual. Her reviews consistently confront theological and ethical themes in books written by the most serious and demanding theologians of her time. Professor of English, Carter Martin, an authority on O'Connor's writings, notes simply that her "book reviews are at one with her religious life".