Authors: Flannery O’Connor

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Author

March 25, 1925

Savannah, Georgia

August 3, 1964

Milledgeville, Georgia

Biography

Mary Flannery O’Connor’s literary art combined a disarming Catholic orthodoxy with a Hawthorne-like knowledge of the effect of sin on human relationships, which she set in the Protestant South. It proved to be an irresistible mix even for secular critics, who found her parodies and celebrations of Bible Belt religion compelling and strangely disturbing. Her fiction succeeded not in making Christianity more palatable but in making its claims unavoidable.

Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925, O’Connor was by temperament and faith a devout Roman Catholic, the only child of Edward O’Connor and Regina Cline O’Connor. After her father fell gravely ill in 1938, she moved with her mother to the old Cline farmhouse, Andalusia, in Milledgeville, Georgia, her mother’s birthplace. O’Connor’s father died three years later. She attended Peabody High School with no perceptible sign of the deadly lupus, a serious and painful autoimmune disorder, which took her father’s life and would eventually end hers.

Flannery O'Connor

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Flannery O'Connor

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By the time O’Connor took her bachelor’s degree from Women’s College of Georgia in 1945, she knew what she wanted to do: go north to learn the craft of fiction. She was accepted at the prestigious creative writing program at the University of Iowa, earning her master of fine arts degree in 1947. O’Connor published several stories in prominent literary periodicals during her stay in Iowa, including "The Geranium" in Accent and "The Train" in The Sewanee Review. The latter story, a portion of the novel that would later be published as Wise Blood, won for her the Rinehart-Iowa fiction award in 1947.

On the strength of this award and her promise as a writer, O’Connor was offered a fellowship by the Yaddo Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to supporting the arts. Upon accepting the fellowship, she spent several fruitful months at the Yaddo study center in Saratoga Springs, New York, in early 1949. The young and naïve O’Connor returned to Milledgeville soon thereafter, however, because of the turmoil erupting over procommunist accusations against another Yaddo guest writer. Her brief stay at Yaddo had, nevertheless, yielded important friendships with some prominent writers and editors—including the poet Robert Lowell, who introduced her to Robert Giroux, editor in chief at Harcourt Brace in New York—contacts that would be invaluable to her in her career.

After spending a few months back at her home, where she continued to work on Wise Blood, she accepted the invitation to move in with the Robert and Sally Fitzgerald family in Ridgefield, Connecticut. These friends of Giroux became her unofficial literary patrons and her surrogate brother and sister. Upon completion of her manuscript in 1950, O’Connor was offered a contract by Giroux.

The onset of lupus during Christmas, 1950, redirected her life back to Andalusia permanently, where under her mother’s watchful eye she did the rest of the editing for the book. Wise Blood was published in 1952 to the applause of astonished critics startled to find its initially nihilistic protagonist, Hazel Motes, the creation of a genteel, mild-mannered young southern woman. Motes exemplifies one of O’Connor’s main themes: that the mystery of free will is not the war between one will and another but of many wills conflicting in one character.

From her Milledgeville sanctuary, O’Connor continued to carry on a lively correspondence with friends, readers, critics, and her new editors at Farrar and Giroux in New York. When her health permitted, she made trips to colleges and universities to give readings and to lecture on literary craft. After O’Connor won The Kenyon Review Fellowship in fiction for 1953, her next project was the series of short stories that were collected in A Good Man Is Hard to Find in 1955. O’Connor filled this collection with dozens of well-wrought, "Christ-haunted" characters, among them one of her most memorable: Hulga, the one-legged doctor of philosophy of "Good Country People" who thinks that she has seduced a backwater Bible salesman, only to discover his country existentialism out-rationalizes her and has actually made her the fool.

An O. Henry first prize in short fiction and a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant followed, both in 1957. In 1958 she contracted with Farrar and Giroux for a new novel in progress, eventually published in 1960 as The Violent Bear It Away. Praised for its psychological realism, this work shows O’Connor returning to the theme of the antiquest found in Wise Blood. The protagonist, Francis Marion Tarwater, runs away from a prophetic career ordained by his deceased uncle until, unable to escape the call of God, he succumbs; he ends up drowning a young boy in order to save his soul, the enduring Christian symbol of death in life.

O’Connor spent the last months of her life, from 1963 to 1964, completing the stories that eventually were published in her 1965 posthumous collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, the title derived from a key concept in the work of French Catholic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. These stories, like those of A Good Man Is Hard to Find, feature familiar O’Connor protagonists, souls torn between heaven and hell, looking for solace in self-willed religion or high-handed and vain intellectualism.

Since O'Connor's death, several volumes of her previously unpublished materials have been published that amplify the quality of her fiction and the nature of her achievement as well as provide insight into her buoyant personality. These include a collection of cartoons made before she embarked on her literary career, as well as a deeply personal prayer journal. Yet it is the enduring strength of her fiction that keeps her in the critical eye. Few postmodern writers have written with as clear a vision of their audience as O’Connor did. For "the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures," she said, alluding to the grotesque imagery that she employed to communicate her Christian orthodoxy to readers no longer conversant with common Christian symbols. Her fiction was calculated to subvert the habitualization of Christian truth, to raise such notions as sin, redemption, and resurrection out of the realm of the commonplace and into the modern consciousness. For her, there was no middle ground, no neutral corner, and her most admiring critics were often the irreligious intellectuals whom she parodied in her fiction.

Attempts have continually been made to place O'Connor's fiction into some convenient pigeonhole: southern gothic, Catholic grotesque, the school of southern degeneracy, and so on; however, her work resists such facile generalization. Her themes, admittedly repetitious, were best suited to the medium of the short story, where her sharp, shocking characterization could have full impact upon the reader. However, her recreations of the southern disposition, its religiosity, and its distinctive orality were too vivid, her spiritual vision too piercing to be ultimately embodied by a single critical label. O’Connor’s reputation remains intact as one of the most important southern writers of the twentieth century.

Author Works Short Fiction: A Good Man Is Hard to Find, 1955 Everything That Rises Must Converge, 1965 The Complete Stories, 1971 Long Fiction: Wise Blood, 1952 The Violent Bear It Away, 1960 Nonfiction: Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, 1969 The Habit of Being: Letters, 1979 The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews, 1983 The Correspondence of Flannery O’Connor and Brainard Cheneys, 1986 Conversations with Flannery O'Connor, 1987 A Prayer Journal, 2013 Miscellaneous: Collected Works, 1988 Flannery O'Connor: The Cartoons, 2012 Bibliography Asals, Frederick. Flannery O’Connor: The Imagination of Extremity. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982. In one of the best books on O’Connor’s fiction, Asals focuses on the use of the Doppelgänger (double) motif in the novels and short fiction, the most thorough and intelligent treatment of this subject. Asals also concentrates on O’Connor’s religious extremity, which is evident in her fiction through her concern with polarities and extremes. Contains extensive endnotes and a good bibliography. Asals, Frederick. "A Good Man Is Hard to Find": Flannery O’Connor. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993. Critical essays on O’Connor’s story from a variety of perspectives. Critics discuss the pros and cons of O’Connor’s shift in point of view from the grandmother to The Misfit, the nature of grace in a materialistic world, and the theological significance of the story’s concluding confrontation. Bacon, Jon Lance. Flannery O’Connor and Cold War Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Reads O’Connor’s stories in relation to social issues of their milieu. Discusses the context of Cold War politics, popular culture, media, and consumerism that form the backdrop to O’Connor’s stories. Cash, Jean W. Flannery O'Connor: A Life. University of Tennessee, 2002. A painstakingly researched portrait of O'Connor. Includes a bibliography and index. Desmond, John F. Risen Sons: Flannery O’Connor’s Vision of History. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. Desmond’s argument is that O’Connor’s fictions reenact Christian history and Catholic theology through an art O’Connor herself saw as an "incarnational act." Discussing several major stories and the two novels, the book focuses on the metaphysical and the Christian historical vision as observed through reading O’Connor’s fiction and emphasizes that The Violent Bear It Away represents the fullest development of her vision. Includes an extensive bibliography and useful endnotes. Enjolras, Laurence. Flannery O’Connor’s Characters. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1998. Chapters on O’Connor’s descriptions of the body, of wicked children, of "conceited, self-righteous Christians," of "intellectuals and would-be artists." Includes notes and bibliography. Feeley, Kathleen. Flannery O’Connor: Voice of the Peacock. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1972. A useful though somewhat early study of O’Connor’s fiction from a theological perspective. Contains analyses of almost all the stories and novels and focuses on the connection between the books in O’Connor’s library and her works. Feeley’s primary fault is that the works are sometimes oversimplified into religious messages without enough emphasis on the humor, the sarcasm, and the satire. A bibliography of primary and secondary works is included, as is a list of some possible sources of O’Connor’s fiction found in her library. Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. Drawing upon letters that O’Connor wrote to friends and family, and interviews with those who knew her, Gooch develops an in-depth picture of O’Connor. Her views on race and religion are discussed, as well as her relationships with men, her family, and her community. Includes sixteen pages of black and white photos. Hendin, Josephine. The World of Flannery O’Connor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. Makes the case that O’Connor may be read in other than religious ways. Hendin offers effective analyses of most of the major O’Connor stories. While her interpretations should be approached with caution, they are nevertheless convincing as they attempt to show that O’Connor was an artist rather than a polemicist. Select bibliography and useful endnotes. Orvell, Miles. Flannery O’Connor: An Introduction. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991. Chapters on the novels as well as explorations of O’Connor’s treatment of the South, of belief, of art, of the American romance tradition, of prophets and failed prophets, and of comedy. Appendices include a chronological list of the fiction, book reviews by Flannery O’Connor, notes, and bibliography. Paulson, Suzanne Morrow. Flannery O’Connor: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1988. A useful resource for the beginner. Paulson’s book includes primary and secondary material on O’Connor’s fiction and concentrates on the predominant issues, themes, and approaches to O’Connor’s fiction. Paulson divides O’Connor’s stories into four categories: death-haunted questers, male/female conflicts, "The Mystery of Personality" and society, and good/evil conflicts. Supplemented by a chronology of O’Connor’s life and a bibliography of primary and secondary works. Rath, Sura P., and Mary Neff Shaw, eds. Flannery O’Connor: New Perspectives. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996. The perspectives illustrated in this collection of essays are primarily feminist and Bakhtinian, with one essay using discourse theory and one focusing on race and culture. Seel, Cynthia L. Ritual Performance in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2001. A Jungian approach to the religious imagery and themes in the work of the novelist. Spivey, Ted R. Flannery O’Connor: The Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1995. Attempts to understand O’Connor first as a southerner, then as a modernist intellect, and finally as a visionary thinker. Argues that O’Connor reflects the personal and social issues of the last decades of the twentieth century. Walters, Dorothy. Flannery O’Connor. Boston: Twayne, 1973. This early introduction to the works of O’Connor includes analyses of the short fiction and the novels. Walters argues perceptively and conventionally that O’Connor is predominantly a religious writer whose works can be classified as Christian tragicomedy. Walters also makes observations about O’Connor’s connections with earlier literary traditions. Includes a chronology of O’Connor’s life, useful endnotes, and a select bibliography. Westling, Louise Hutchings. Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985. A useful book for those interested in critical perspectives other than religious readings of O’Connor’s fiction as well as for those curious about O’Connor’s relationship with Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, two of her rivals as masters of short fiction. This book is the first feminist study of O’Connor’s fiction. Westling discusses the female characters and emphasizes that O’Connor often shows female protagonists as victims of male antagonists. Contains an extensive bibliography as well as useful endnotes.

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