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Flannery O'Connor

An American writer who concentrated her literary efforts on exposing the spiritually damnable and damned in society, Flannery O'Connor set her comic-tragic Gothic landscapes in the decaying world of the Old South.  Although she was far less prolific a writer than contemporary southern revelationists Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty, she nonetheless earned a prominent place in literary history.  Her 31 short stories and two novels are today considered American classics.

O'Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, on March 25, 1925, to Edward Francis O'Connor Jr. and Regine Cline.  She was the only child of a southern Catholic family in a southern Protestant community.  They lived on East Charlton street across LaFayette Square from the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, where the family attended mass regularly.  Her father owned a real estate office in town and later worked for a construction company. 

In the spring of 1938, the family moved to Atlanta where Edward took a job as a Federal Housing Authority real estate appraiser.  But he and his wife were miserable in the city, so two years later, they moved to Milledgeville to live in Regine's family home on Greene Street.  Regine's father had been a prominent Milledgeville businessman and the town mayor.

Milledgeville, which lay deep inside the region known as the Christ-haunted Bible Belt, was not without its spiritual allure, something that intrigued young O'Connor greatly.  The area's religious heritage and covert spiritualism would later play a major influence in the author's writings, as in her essay, The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South (1969).  In all, O'Connor was happy with life in a small town, and she found the drama and the passion that lay just below the surface of the town exciting.

But the excitement was not to last.  The family had lived in Milledgeville for only a few years when O'Connor's father became ill.  His health steadily deteriorated, and he was eventually diagnosed with lupus.  He died shortly after when O'Connor was only 15, and his daughter was devastated.

O’Connor and her mother continued living in the home on Greene Street for a while, accompanied by several aunts.  The teenager had a bedroom on the second floor, where she often spent time reading.  She attended Peabody High School before entering Georgia State College for Women, where she quickly discovered an innate love for literature.  She was graduated in 1945 and accepted a fellowship to attend the Iowa State University Writer's Workshop, where at the age of 21 she published her first short story, "The Geranium," in the spring issue of Accent.  It would later become the basis for her first novel.  She completed her thesis and received her Master's degree in 1947. 

O'Connor published four chapters of Wise Blood in the magazines, Mademoiselle, Sewanee Review, and Partisan Review, in 1948-49.  The complete novel would not be published until 1952.  The story followed the life of a young religious enthusiast--that daunting religious theme again--who attempts to establish a church without acknowledging the influence of Christ.  The Signet paperback version of the book promoted it as "A Searching Novel of Sin and Redemption," a summation that could have been applied to nearly all of her writing. 

In 1949, O'Connor spent a year at the Yaddo Writer's Colony in Saratoga Springs before traveling to New York City, after which she lived for a while in Connecticut.  In 1950, riding a wave of literary popularity although barely 26 years old, she was preparing to return home for Christmas when she suffered her first attack of disseminated lupus, the same deadly disease of the blood that had claimed her father. 

Instead of returning to the family home in town, O'Connor and her mother moved to the nearby family farm, Andalusia, where they hoped the open spaces and fresh air would help ease her pain.  She traveled periodically throughout the United States for various speaking engagements, but she spent most of her time on the farm.  She wrote each morning until noon and then spent afternoons and evenings tending to her domestic ducks and other birds or entertaining family and friends. 

The setting of Andalusia, including the ever-present peafowl, figured prominently in her fiction.  Southern fiction is often marked by the importance of a sense of place, and O'Connor's work was stamped with the indelible beauty of the farm.  It provided for her not only a place to live and write, but also a functioning landscape in which to set her fiction. 

"I write every day for at least two hours," she said in an interview in 1952, "and I spend the rest of my time largely in the society of ducks."

"I am making out fine in spite of any conflicting stories," she wrote to Robert Lowell.  "I have enough energy to write with and as that is all I have any business doing anyhow, I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing.  What you have to measure out, you come to observe more closely, or so I tell myself."  

In 1955, O'Connor was forced to rely on crutches to get around, although she refused to surrender her faith.  She traveled to Lourdes, France, in 1958 and followed that up with a journey to Rome, where she enjoyed an audience with the Pope. 

She produced her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, in 1960.  Its story line is similar to that of her first.  The protagonist, Francis Marion Tarwater, begins his ministry in his youth.  After baptizing Bishop, his uncle's idiot son, he drowns the boy.  In a stern warning to his grandnephew, Old Tarwater says, "'You are the kind of boy,' the old man said, 'that the devil is always going to be offering to assists, to give you a smoke or a drink or a ride, and to ask you your bidnis.  You had better mind how you take up with strangers.'"

After that, Young Tarwater sets fire to his own woods to cleanse his soul of his sins, and like his great uncle, a prophet who totters on the brink of insanity, he too becomes a prophet and a madman.

O'Connor once said of her writing, "I can write about Protestant believers better than Catholic believers -- because they express their belief in diverse kinds of dramatic action which is obvious enough for me to catch.  I can't write about anything subtle."

By the time of her second novel's release, O'Connor had secured a solid literary reputation, although she had led a remarkably unspectacular life focused nearly entirely on her vocation as a writer and on the strength of her religious beliefs.  She never held a job and lived primarily on grants, fellowships, and small royalties from her writing.  She never had a serious love affair, preferring to spend quiet evenings at home with family and friends.  The very sedentary nature of her life makes the author's illuminations into the spiritual insights of modern-day humanity that much more remarkable.

Flannery O'Connor, wracked by pain and bedridden, died on August 3, 1964, at her family home in Milledgeville under the care of her mother, who was her only survivor.

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