Flannery O'Connor was a famous Southern writer who produced 32 incisive short stories prior to a tragic death at the age of 39.
Mary Flannery O'Connor was born March 25, 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, the only child of Francis and Regina O'Connor. The family lived on Lafayette Square at 207 East Charlton Street in Savannah, adjacent to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, where Mary Flannery was baptized into the Catholic faith on April 12, 1925. She attended school at St. Vincent's grammar school, taught by the Sisters of Mercy from Ireland. She received national media attention at the age of five when she trained a chicken to walk backwards. The summers were often spent visiting her mother's family, the Clines, in Milledgeville, Georgia.
Because of financial difficulties with his real estate business, her father, who had developed health problems as well, took a federal job in Atlanta in 1938, when Mary Flannery was 13. However, settling in Atlanta proved difficult for the family, and Mary Flannery and her mother Regina Cline O'Connor moved to Andalusia, the mother's family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia in fall of the same year.
Her father's health continued to decline, and it was not until shortly before his death on February 1, 1941 that he was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosis, the same disease that would claim Flannery.
Following graduation from Peabody High School and the Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville, she began attending the State University of Iowa, where she began her writing career and introduced herself as Flannery. While in Iowa City, she attended Mass daily at St. Mary's Church; throughout her life, she remained true to her Catholic faith. During graduate school, her short story The Geranium was accepted for publication by Accent in 1946. She submitted her thesis in 1947, entitled The Geranium: a Collection of (Six) Short Stories, and received her Masters of Fine Arts degree on June 1, 1947.
Flannery O'Connor's writings offer deep insight on the fallen nature of mankind through original sin, but redemption through the grace of Jesus Christ.
Flannery O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood, published in 1952, achieved only a modest reception. However, she received critical acclaim and popular success with the 1955 publication of A Good Man is Hard to Find, a collection of 10 short stories, the first story bearing the same name; this collection also included The River, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, and Good Country People. A second novel, The Violent Bear it Away, was published in 1960. She attempted a third novel in 1962, Why Do the Heathen Rage, but was able to finish only the first chapter because of illness, leaving us with a short story of the same name.
Flannery O'Connor, along with the social activist Dorothy Day (The Catholic Worker), the Trappist Monk Thomas Merton (The Seven Storey Mountain), and Walker Percy (The Moviegoer), were four highly inspirational writers during the "Catholic Moment," an American spiritual movement during the post-war disillusionment of the mid-twentieth century.
Her writing career unfortunately was interrupted by crippling illness. It was in 1951, only four years following graduation, that she was diagnosed as having her father's condition, systemic lupus erythematosis. The advent of steroid therapy provided some relief, but progressive illness required her to return to Milledgeville. She and her mother moved to the family dairy farm known as Andalusia, 4 miles outside of Milledgeville. The next 13 years were marked by periods of intense writing interspersed by bouts of illness, until her death at the age of 39 on August 3, 1964.
A second collection of nine short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge, was published post-humously in 1965. Judgement Day, a rewritten version of both The Geranium and the never-published An Exile in the East, was the last story Flannery ever wrote, and served as the last story in the collection. This second collection included three stories that won her three first prizes in the O'Henry awards: Greenleaf in 1957, Everything that Rises must Converge in 1963, and Revelation in 1965.
In 1971 her publisher Robert Giroux released 31 of her short stories in The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor, which won the National Book Award in 1972. A thirty-second short story, An Afternoon in the Woods, a rewritten version of one of her first stories, was published in The Library of America Series in 1988.
Her lifelong friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald published her essays in Mystery and Manners in 1969, and Sally Fitzgerald released a collection of her letters in A Habit of Being in 1979. Some of her essays include The Fiction Writer and His Country, The Church and the Fiction Writer, The Regional Writer, and The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South. A few selections from her essays and letters are included here to offer a glimpse of her philosophy on life and writing.
"I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed."
Letter to her friend A, July 20, 1955
"The Catholic writer, in so far as he has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for."
The Church and the Fiction Writer, 1957
"The writer's value is lost, both to himself and to his country, as soon as he ceases to see that country as a part of himself, and to know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility, and this is not a virtue conspicuous in any national character."
The Fiction Writer and His Country, 1957
"Art is a word that immediately scares people off, as being a little too grand. But all I mean by art is writing something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself. The basis of art is truth, both in matter and mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less."
The Nature and Aim of Fiction, in Mystery and Manners, Date Unknown
"The universe of the Catholic fiction writer is one that is founded on the theological truths of the Faith, but particularly on three of them which are basic - the Fall, the Redemption, and the Judgement. These are doctrines that the modern secular world does not believe in. It does not believe in sin, or in the value of suffering, or in eternal responsibility, and since we live in a world that since the sixteenth century has been increasingly dominated by secular thought, the Catholic writer often finds himself writing in and for a world that is unprepared and unwilling to see the meaning of life as he sees it. This means frequently that he may resort to violent literary means to get his vision across to a hostile audience."
Catholic Novelists and Their Readers, in Mystery and Manners, Date Unknown
"I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer that uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned to at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world."
On Her Own Works, October 14, 1963
"Whenever I am asked why Southern writers particularly have this penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man. And in the South, the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. Of course, the South is changing so rapidly that almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted."
The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South, 1963
1 Regis Martin STD. The Writings of Flannery O'Connor. Commemorative Lecture on the 80th Birthday Celebration of Mary Flannery O'Connor, Savannah, Georgia, March 2005.
2 The Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home Foundation. Paintings by and courtesy of Preston Russell MD. If you wish to support Flannery's heritage, please consider a tax-deductible donation to her home at 207 East Charlton Street, Savannah, Georgia, 31401.
3 Flannery O'Connor. Mystery and Manners, Occasional Prose. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (Editors). Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1969.
4 The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor, with an introduction by Robert Giroux. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1971.
5 Flannery O'Connor. The Habit of Being, Letters. Sally Fitzgerald (Editor). Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1979.
6 The Library of America Series - The Collected Works of Flannery O'Connor. Literary Classics of the United States, New York, 1988.
7 Thomas Merton. The Seven Storey Mountain. Harcourt & Brace, New York, 1948.
8 Paul Elie. The Life You Save May Be Your Own - An American Pilgimage. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 2003.