An American writer who concentrated her literary efforts on exposing the
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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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