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Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964)

 

American writer, particularly acclaimed for her stories which combined comic with tragic and brutal. Along with authors like Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor belonged to the Southern Gothic tradition that focused on the decaying South and its damned people. O'Connor's body of work was small, consisting of only thirty-one stories, two novels, and some speeches and letters.

"Does one's integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man, Freedom cannot be conceived simply." (in Wise Blood, 1952)

Mary Flannery O'Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, the only child of a Catholic family. The region, part of the 'Christ-haunted' Bible and its spiritual heritage shaped profoundly O'Connor's writing as described in her essay 'The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South' (1969): "The South impresses its image on the Southern writer from the moment he is able to distinguish one sound from another." O'Connor's father, Edward F. O'Connor, was a realtor owner. He worked later for a construction company and died in 1941. Her mother, Regina L. (Cline) O'Connor, came from a prominent family in the state - her father had been a mayor of Milledgeville for many years.

Opposite the O'Connors' three-story Georgian row house was the French Gothic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, which gave rise to the often-repeated comment, that Flannery O'Connor "was conceived in the shadow of the cathedral". When she was 12, the family moved to Milledgeville, her mother's birthplace. She attended the Peabody High School and enrolled in the Georgia State College for Women. At school she edited the college magazine and graduated in 1945 with an A.B. Before devoting himself to what he held most dear: writing, O'Connor spent a great deal of her youth drawing pictures and for a period she considered a career as a cartoonist.

O'Connor continued her studies at the University of Iowa, where she attended writer's workshops conducted by Paul Engle. At the age of 21 she published her first short story, 'The Geranium', in Accent. In the following year she received the degree of Master of Fine Arts in Literature. In 1947 she lived for seven months at Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., an estate left by the Trask family for writers, painters and musicians.

O'Connor published four chapters of Wise Blood in Mademoiselle, Sewanee Review, and Partisan Review in 1948 and 1949. The complete novel came out 1952. It dealt with a young religious enthusiast, who attempts to establish a church without Christ. The Signet paperback version of the book advertised it as "A Searching Novel of Sin and Redemption". O'Connor's second novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1960), had a related subject matter. The protagonist is Francis Marion Tarwater, who begins his ministry in his youth. He baptizes and drowns Bishop, his uncle's idiot son. Old Tarwater warns his grand-nephew: "'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.'" Young Tarwater sets fire to his own woods to clean himself, and like his great-uncle, a mad prophet, he finally becomes a prophet and a madman. O'Connor once explained that "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 young protagonist of Wise Blood, Hazel Mote, returns from the army with his faith gone awry. He founds the Church Without Christ, wears a preacher's bright blue suit and a preacher's black hat. He is accompanied by bizarre villains. Asa Hawks pretends to have blinded himself. Sabbath Lily, his daughter, turns into a monster of sexual voracity. The fox-faced young Enoch Emery steals from a museum a mummy, which he thinks of as "the new jesus." Enoch knows things because "he had wise blood like his daddy." Eventually Enoch finds his religious fulfillment dressed in a stolen gorilla costume. Hazel buys an old Essex automobile, his own religious mystery: "Nobody with a good car needs to be justified." Haze murders the False Prophet, his rival, by running over him with his second-hand Essex, and faces his cul-de-sac.

John Huston read the novel in 1978 - he had received a copy of it from Michael Fitzgerald, whose father was O'Connor's literary executor. Against all odds, Michael Fitzgerald got the money for the production, some $2,000,000; the screenplay was written by Michael and his brother, Benedict, and everyone worked for a minimum wage. Most of the film was shot in Macon, Georgia. "There were seven outstanding performances in Wise Blood. Only three of those seven actors have any reputation to speak of: Brad Dourif, Ned Beatty and Harry Dean Stanton. The other four are unknowns. They are all great stars, as far as I'm concerned. Nothing would make me happier than to see this picture gain popular acceptance and turn a profit. It would prove something. I'm not sure what... but something." (John Huston in An Open Book, 1988)

In 1950 O'Connor suffered her first attack from disseminated lupus, a debilitating blood disease that had killed her father. She returned to Milledgeville where she lived with her mother on her dairy farm. In spite of the illness, O'Connor continued to write and occasionally she lectured about creative writing in colleges. "I write every day for at least two hours," she told in an interview, "and I spend the rest of my time largely in the society of ducks." In 1953 O'Connor met a young Danish student, Erik Langkjaer. Their relationship ended when he returned to Europe. On their farewell ride, he kissed her, and later recalled that he had "a feeling of kissing a skeleton". Erik became infatuated with a Finnish woman, and eventually married the daughter of an actor. O'Connor's letters to him were tender. 

"I am making out fine in spite of any conflicting stories," O'Connor said 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." She read such thinkers as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-195), George Santayana (1863-1952), and Hannah Arendt (1906-1975).

In New York  O'Connor befriended with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, two other literary Roman Catholics. She lived and wrote in their house in Ridgefield, Connecticut until illness redirected her life in 1951. O'Connor named Robert Fitzgerald as her literary executor. He selected and edited with his wife a volume of O'Connor's occasional prose, which was published in 1969 under the title Mystery and Manners.

From around 1955 O'Connor was forced to use crutches. An abdominal operation reactivated the lupus and O'Connor died on August 3, 1964, at the age of 39. Her second collection of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge, was published posthumously in 1965. The Complete Short Stories (1971) contained several works that had not previously appeared in book form. O'Connor's letters, published as The Habit of Being (1979), reveal her conscious craftsmanship in writing and the role of Roman Catholicism in her life.

O'Connor's short stories have been considered her finest work. With A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories (1955) she came to be regarded as a master of the form. The cover art of the 1956 Signet paperback edition featured an encounter with a man in a dark suit and voluptuous woman. In the title story a grandmother, her son and daughter-in-law and their three children, are on a car journey. They encounter an escaped criminal called the Misfit and his two killers, Hiram and Bobby Lee. The family is casually wiped out by them when the grandmother recognizes the Misfit from his ''Wanted'' poster. The hallucinating grandmother murmurs: "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!" The Misfit shoots her and says: "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

'A View of the Woods' was a violent and perhaps pointless tale of the seventy-nine-year-old Mr. Fortune and his nine-year-old granddaughter, Mary Fortune Pitts, both selfish and mean. The story ends in a fight. The grandfather smashes Mary's head several times against a rock, killing her. Exhausted, he manages to take a few steps, has a final "view of the woods," and dies of a heart attack.

In the story "Good Country People" a young woman with a sense of moral superiority experiences her downfall. The protagonist, Joy Hopewell, has an artificial leg as a result of a hunting accident. She has a Ph.D. in philosophy and she has changed her name legally from Joy to Hulga. Joy-Hulga tries to seduce a Bible salesman, a simple-seeming country boy, with the obvious phallic name of Manley Pointer. He turns out to be another 'Hazel Motes' and disappears with her artificial leg. "The Artificial Nigger" is a lesson about injustice. 

O'Connor's short stories have not so strong theological basis as her novels. They often focus on grotesque characters, have a crisp humor, and are open to interpretation. Recurrent images include the flaming suns, mutilated eyes, peacocks - she raised them in Milledgeville - colorful shirts, and bright blue suits and stern black hats of preachers. Like Victorian writers, she avoided overt treatment of the sexuality of his characters. "Mr Truman Capote makes me plumb sick, as does Mr. Tenn. Williams," she wrote in a letter. Once she protested, "As for lesbianism I regard that as any form of uncleanness. Purity is the twentieth centuries dirty word but it is the most mysterious of the virtues."

For further reading: The Added Dimensions, ed. by M.J. Friedman and L.A. Lawson (1966); The Eternal Crossroads: The Art of Flannery O'Connor by L.V. Driskell and J.T. Brittain (1971); Flannery O'Connor by K. Feeley (1972); Nightmares and Visions by G.H. Muller (1972); Invisible Parade: The Fiction of Flannery O'Connor by M. Orvell (1972); The Pruning Word by J.R. May (1976); Flannery O'Connor by D.T. McFarland (1976); Flannery O'Connor's Dark Comedies by C. Shloss (1980); Conversations With Flannery O'Connor by Rosemary M. Magee (1987); American Gargoyles: Flannery O'Connor and the Medieval Grotesque by Anthony Di Renzo (1993); The True Country: Themes in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor by Carter W. Martin (1994); Flannery O'Connor: New Perspectives, ed.  Sura Prasad Rath and Mary Neff Shaw (1996); Writing Against God: Language As Message in the Literature of Flannery O'Connor by Joanne Halleran McMullen (1996); Flannery O'Connor; The Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary by ´Ted R. Spivey (1997); Flannery O'Connor's Characters by Laurence Enjolras (1998); Flannery O'Connor: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide, ed. by Harold Bloom (1999); Flannery O'Connor, Hermit Novelist by Richard Giannone (2000); Flannery O'Connor: A Life by Jean W. Cash (2002); Flannery: A Life by Brad Gooch (2010)  --- For further information: Flannery O'Connor - Andalusia Foundayion, Inc. ; Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home Foundation

Selected works:

  • Wise Blood, 1952 - Film 1979, prod. Anthea, Ithaca, dir.  John Huston, screenplay Benedict Fitzgerald, Michael Fitzberald, starring Brad Dourif, Ned Beatty, Dan Shor, Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright. - "Odd story, not easy to like but with many impressive moments." (Halliwell's Film & Video Guide 2001, 2000)
  • A Good Man Is Hard To Find, and Other Stories, 1955 (published in England as The Artificial Nigger) - TV film: The Displaced Person, 1977, dir. Glenn Jordan, starring Dina Herrington, John Houseman, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Earl Jones
  • The Violent Bear It Away, 1960
  • A Memoir of Mary Ann. 1962 (ed., published in England as Death of a Child)
  • Three by Flannery O'Connor, 1964
  • Everything That Rises Must Converge, 1965 (with an introduction by Robert Fitzgerald)
  • Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, 1969 (ed.  Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald)
  • The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor, 1971 (The National Book Award)
  • The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor, 1979 (ed.  Sally Fitzgerald)
  • The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews, 1983 (ed. Carter W. Martin)
  • The Correspondence of Flannery O'Connor and the Brainars Cheneys, 1986 (edited by C. Ralph Stephens)
  • Collected Works, 1988 (edited by  Sally Fitzgerald)


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