Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Flannery O’Connor

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Mary Flannery O’Connor (March 25, 1925 – August 3, 1964) was an American writer and essayist. An important voice in American literature, she wrote two novels and 32 short stories, as well as a number of reviews and commentaries. She was a Southern writer who often wrote in a Southern Gothic style and relied heavily on regional settings and grotesque characters. Her writing also reflected her own Roman Catholic faith, and frequently examined questions of morality and ethics.

O’Connor’s Complete Stories won the 1972 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction and was named the “Best of the National Book Awards” by Internet visitors in 2009. O’Connor was the first writer born in the twentieth century to have her works collected and published in the Library of America.


 

Early years and education:

O’Connor was born on March 25, 1925, in Savannah, Georgia, the only child of Edward F. O’Connor, a real estate agent, and Regina Cline. She described herself as a “pigeon-toed child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you complex.” When she was six, living at a home still standing, she experienced her first brush with celebrity status. The Pathé News people filmed “Little Mary O’Connor” with her trained chicken, and showed the film around the country. She said, “When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathé News. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been an anticlimax.” O’Connor and her family moved to Milledgeville, Georgia in 1940 to live on Andalusia Farm, which is now a museum dedicated to O’Connor’s work. In 1937, her father was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus. It led to his eventual death on February 1, 1941, and O’Connor and her mother continued to live in Milledgeville.

O’Connor attended Peabody High School, where she worked as the school newspaper’s art editor and from which she graduated in 1942. She entered Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College & State University), in an accelerated three-year program, and graduated in June 1945 with a Social sciences degree. While at Georgia State College for Women, she produced a significant amount of cartoon work for the student newspaper. In 1946, she was accepted into the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she first went to study journalism. While there she got to know several important writers and critics who lectured or taught in the program, among them Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Robie Macauley, Austin Warren and Andrew Lytle. Lytle, for many years editor of the Sewanee Review, was one of the earliest admirers of her fiction. He later published several of her stories in the Sewanee Review, as well as critical essays on her work. Workshop director Paul Engle was the first to read and comment on the initial drafts of what would become Wise Blood. During the summer of 1948, O’Connor continued to work on Wise Blood at Yaddo, an artists’ community in Saratoga Springs, New York where she also completed several short stories.

In 1949, O’Connor met and eventually accepted an invitation to stay with Robert Fitzgerald (a well-known translator of the classics) and his wife, Sally, in Redding, Connecticut.


 

Career:

Regarding her emphasis of the grotesque, O’Connor said: “anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” Her texts usually take place in the South and revolve around morally flawed characters, while the issue of race often appears in the background. Most of her works feature disturbing elements, though she did not like to be characterized as cynical. “I am tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man brutal and sarcastic,” she writes. “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism… when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”

O’Connor’s two novels were Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960). She also published two books of short stories: A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge (published posthumously in 1965).

Many of her short stories have also been published in major anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories.

She felt deeply informed by the sacramental, and by the Thomist notion that the created world is charged with God. Yet she would not write apologetic fiction of the kind prevalent in the Catholic literature of the time, explaining that a writer’s meaning must be evident in his or her fiction without didacticism. She wrote ironic, subtly allegorical fiction about deceptively backward Southern characters, usually fundamentalist Protestants, who undergo transformations of character that to her thinking brought them closer to the Catholic mind. The transformation is often accomplished through pain, violence, and ludicrous behavior in the pursuit of the holy. However grotesque the setting, she tried to portray her characters as they might be touched by divine grace. This ruled out a sentimental understanding of the stories’ violence, as of her own illness. She wrote: “Grace changes us and change is painful.” She also had a deeply sardonic sense of humor, often based in the disparity between her characters’ limited perceptions and the awesome fate awaiting them. Another source of humor is frequently found in the attempt of well-meaning liberals to cope with the rural South on their own terms. O’Connor uses such characters’ inability to come to terms with race, poverty, and fundamentalism, other than in sentimental illusions, as an example of the failure of the secular world in the twentieth century.

However, several stories reveal that O’Connor was familiar with some of the most sensitive contemporary issues that her liberal and fundamentalist characters might encounter. She addressed the Holocaust in her famous story “The Displaced Person,” and racial integration in “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” Her fiction often included references to the problem of race in the South; occasionally, racial issues come to the forefront, as in “The Artificial Nigger,” “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” and “Judgment Day,” her last short story and a drastically rewritten version of her first published story, “The Geranium.” Fragments exist of an unfinished novel tentatively titled Why Do the Heathen Rage? that draws from several of her short stories, including “Why Do the Heathen Rage?,” “The Enduring Chill,” and “The Partridge Festival.”


 

Deteriorating health and death:

In 1951, O’Connor was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, like her father, and subsequently returned to her ancestral farm, Andalusia, in Milledgeville, Georgia. Although expected to live only five more years, she managed fourteen. At Andalusia, she raised and nurtured some 100 peafowl. Fascinated by birds of all kinds, she raised ducks, ostrich, emus, toucans, and any sort of exotic bird she could obtain, while incorporating images of peacocks into her books. She describes her peacocks in an essay entitled “The King of the Birds.” Despite her sheltered life, her writing reveals an uncanny grasp of the nuances of human behavior. She was a devout Catholic living in the “Bible Belt,” the Protestant South. She collected books on Catholic theology and at times gave lectures on faith and literature, traveling quite far despite her frail health. She also maintained a wide correspondence, including such famous writers as Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. She never married, relying for companionship on her correspondence and close relationship with her mother.

O’Connor completed more than two dozen short stories and two novels while battling lupus. She died on August 3, 1964, at the age of 39, of complications from a new attack of lupus following surgery for fibroma, at Baldwin County Hospital and was buried in Milledgeville, Georgia, at Memory Hill Cemetery.


 

Legacy:

O’Connor was the first fiction writer born in the twentieth century to have her works collected and published by the Library of America, which occurred in 1988.

In June 2015, the United States Postal Service honored O’Connor with a new postage stamp. The stamp, which shows O’Connor as a young woman, went on sale June 5, 2015.

The Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home is a historic house museum in Savannah, Georgia where Flannery O’Connor lived during her childhood. The house is located at 207 E. Charlton Street on Lafayette Square. Today, in addition to serving as a museum, the house hosts several events and programs throughout the year. Their most well-known program is the annual Ursrey Memorial Lecture. The Ursrey Memorial Lecture, founded in 2009 by Mrs. Alene Ursrey, Dr. John Hunt, and Ms. Betsy Cain, includes a reading and lecture and often educational workshops and gatherings. It is free and open to the public, and is endowed “in memory of the brothers Terry and Ashley Ursrey, native Georgians who, like Flannery O’Connor, were lifelong devotees of all things Southern, particularly the art of storytelling”.


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