Bookish Birthdays: Flannery O’Connor

25th Mar 2011

Flannery OConnor
“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 anticlimax.”

Mary Flannery O’Connor was born on March 25, 1925, in Savannah, Georgia, USA. An only child, Flannery described herself as “pigeon-toed…with a receding chin and a ‘you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you’ complex.” Her father died when she was just 15.

In 1946, Flannery O’Connor graduated from Georgia State College for Women and was accepted to study journalism at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

At the age of 25, Flannery was diagnosed with lupus, a degenerative illness, and was expected to live for only a few years. She returned to the family farm, ‘Andalusia’, and raised ducks, hens, geese, and many peacocks. These exotic birds often featured in her fiction.

O’Connor was a fish out of water – a devout Roman Catholic living in the ‘Bible belt’, the largely protestant South. She wrote over a hundred book reviews for Catholic magazines, covering a wide intellectual range.

Her fiction was richly allegorical and sardonic, her perspective on human nature unflinching. Refusing to compromise her singular vision, Flannery found humour, tenderness and even beauty within a dark, remorseless landscape.

Wise Blood (1952), O’Connor’s début novel, was followed by A Good Man is Hard to Find, a short story collection, in 1955, and another novel, The Violent Bear It Away, in 1960.

A second volume of short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge, and a non-fiction collection, Mystery and Manners, were published after her death. (Flannery also left behind an unfinished novel, based on some of her last short stories, entitled Why Do the Heathen Rage?)

Despite her ailing health, Flannery O’Connor survived until 1964. She travelled, gave lectures, and corresponded with such writers as Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Her letters are collected in The Habit of Being.

O’Connor’s work has been labelled as ‘Southern Gothic,’ though she preferred the phrase ‘Christian Realism.’ “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called ‘grotesque’ by the northern reader,” she remarked, “unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”

Her mostly Southern characters took on the challenges of grinding poverty, racism and religious ferment in a modern, secular society, but while ignorance and bitterness loomed large, the potential for change, or ‘grace’, though often tortuous, remained.

A technique that became integral to O’Connor’s fiction was ‘foreshadowing’, subtly indicating to readers what may happen long before it occurs.

In 1988, O’Connor’s complete works were published by the Library of America, the first by any author born in the twentieth century. Her 34 short stories have been collected by Faber, and Brad Gooch’s biography, Flannery, was published in 2009. Wise Blood was filmed in Georgia by director John Huston during the 1970s.

The critic Sarah Churchwell considers Flannery O’Connor “arguably the greatest Southern writer after Faulkner.” Flannery never married, and her closest friendships were with other women.

In the final, pained years of her life, she was cared for by “her domineering but devoted mother, Regina, who never understood her daughter’s writing but unfailingly safeguarded the time and space she needed to produce it.”


  • Janet says:

    Flannery O’Connor is so uncomfortably funny. It’s a kind of humor I think people are more accepting of now than they were when she was writing, when a lot of people weren’t sure what to make of her and weren’t sure it was ok to laugh at the terrible things that happen to some of her characters.

    Just as an aside, I’ve got a copy of the Library of America “complete” works, and it isn’t complete. It only has eight of her essays and a selection of letters the editors liked. Get it if you want all her stories and novels, but there’s some fantastic stuff that was omitted, particularly among her essays and occasional prose.