Do a quick Google search for Flannery O'Connor and the result is an astounding 4,590,000 in .21 seconds. Yet the majority of what is written about FlaDo a quick Google search for Flannery O'Connor and the result is an astounding 4,590,000 in .21 seconds. Yet the majority of what is written about Flannery O'Connor concerns the literary criticism of her work, not her biography. And, if you take Ms. O'Connor at face value, there's not a lot to say. Brad Gooch, author of "Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, published in 2009, chose the O'Connor's own words as the book's epigraph: "As for biographies, there won't be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy."
What Brad Gooch accomplishes in his careful biography, among other things, is to show that Miss O'Connor was a droll wit and a master of understatement. It's not surprising that Flannery O'Connor spoke about time spent in the chicken yard. From a young age, Flannery was a collector of rare varieties of chickens. Her first claim to fame was Pathe' News showing up at her Savannah, Georgia home to film six year old Flannery and one of her precious chickens which she had taught to walk backwards. Well, it was 1931. The country was in a depression. Pathe' was known for its, shall we say, lighthearted news reels shown before feature films to poor folks looking for cheap entertainment.
O'Connor was fortunate to have been born into a wealthy family, at least on her mother's side, the Clines. Father, Edward O'Connor, was tall and had the good looks, but his social background lacked the ethereal realm of the Clines. After all, the Cline's laid claim to Aunt Katie Semmes who had been married to Raphael Semmes, the son of the famous, or infamous, Confederate naval raider during the recent unpleasantness between the states.
Born in 1925, in Savannah, Flannery was a daddy's girl. There was always a distance between Flannery and her mother, Regina. Father Edward doted on his little girl. He was the purchaser of the unusual menagerie of chickens of which Flannery was so fond. Flannery would draw pictures and write little notes to her father. He would share them with friends and co-workers.
In the boom before the depression, Ed O'Connor became a successful realtor and builder. The crash put an end to that. He pulled on family connections to secure a position with the earliest form of the Federal Housing Agency. That entailed moving to Atlanta. O'Connor rented a cottage in Buckhead, specifically selecting the house because it overlooked the duck pond which he knew would provide hours of entertainment for Flannery.
But death came for Ed O'Connor at a young age. Lupus killed him at age 45. Flannery was 15. Her father's death devastated her.
Mother Regina took her husband's death in stride. She moved Flannery to the old Cline family farm called Andalusia just outside of Millidgeville, Georgia. It was there that Flannery would spend most of her life.
Regina was a domineering mother. She selected suitable companions for her daughter. She selected the schools she would attend. Flannery graduated from Peabody College and went on to Georgia State College for Women, graduated in an accelerated program of three years. Here, Flannery demonstrated a flair for art and the beginnings of a writer. She aspired to be a cartoonist. Her technique was production of images through linoleum cuts. There were easier methods, but Flannery always sought perfection no matter how difficult the technique required.
As difficult as it was for Regina to allow Flannery to go, Flannery was accepted for a coveted place in the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She went there with the intention of studying journalism. However, under the tutelage of Paul Engel, Flannery turned to fiction. Engel was her greatest supporter. He wrote that O'Connor could walk past a pool hall and describe every sight, sound and smell that emanated from the place.
O'Connor landed a contract with Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich for her first novel, "Wise Blood." Because she wrote at a snail's pace and constantly revised, edited and redrafted chapter after chapter, the first novel was seven years in production. HB&J lost interest. However, Robert Giroux had left Harcourt and gone to what would eventually become FS&G. Giroux would be the moving force behind the publication of "Wise Blood."
Critics were widely divided in their reception of O'Connor's first novel. During that time, it was not required that reviewers identify themselves. Hiding behind the title of their publications, "The New Yorker" and "Time Magazine" anonymous critics blasted O'Connor's first work. Other reviewers recognized that America had a new and most unusual writer on their hands.
Back home in Milledgeville, Flannery's novel was a quandary in the realm of social reaction. How could Mary Flannery O'Connor, a good young Catholic lady of good family create a character of the nature of Hazel Motes? The obligatory tea parties, which Flannery despised, were given. The question then became what to do with Flannery's book so graciously inscribed to the guests at those tea parties. It was a puzzle. Even the men in town had their own opinion. One physician was heard to say, "Well, I'll tell you one thing. That young woman doesn't know what goes on in a whore house." I suppose that was some small comfort to the more genteel citizens, if that word ever got back to them.
But "Wise Blood" had brought Flannery freedom. She became a member of the Yaddo Artists' colony where she befriended poet Robert Lowell. Robert and Sally Fitzgerald were fast friends. While at Yaddo, Flannery would turn her attention to the short story. It was here that stories such as "The Life You Save May be Your Own" and "A Good Man is Hard to Find" began to take shape.
In 1955, "A Good Man is Hard to Find" appeared as an anthology with nine other stories, including her first O.Henry first prize stories. Life for Flannery O'Connor was looking up.
However, Flannery's health was poor. Her mother Regina saw to it that she received all the necessary medical tests. Regina told her she had arthritis. Eventually, Flannery would learn from a friend in whom her mother had confided that it wasn't arthritis, it was Lupus.
It was after O'Connor's discovery of her true illness that Gooch reveals a portrait of a woman who never flinched at the knowledge she had inherited the illness that killed her father. O'Connor rarely let her illness break her routine.
Flannery was up at six, praying Prime from the breviary. She dressed and attended mass. By nine a.m. she was seated at her writing desk in her room at Andalusia. She wrote from nine to noon. By the end of three hours of constant writing, her illness left her fatigued. On those days she felt well, she would receive guests on the porch of Andalusia approximately 3:30 till 5p.m.
O'Connor entered the lecture circuit constantly appearing at colleges and writers' forums discussing such topics as "The Catholic Southern Writer," "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction," and other similar topics her works had given rise to question.
During it all, Flannery thought she had found time for love. The Librarians, bless their hearts, had seen fit to introduce a young Dane, Erik Lankgjear, a text book salesman on the southern route. Erik became known as Flannery's boyfriend. However, he had other plans. Eventually, he returned to Denmark, delayed his return ostensibly for extended studies in literature, and finally sent Flannery and engagement notice announcing his forthcoming marriage. Flannery graciously responded she would welcome him and his bride in hers and her mother's home.
Although no one can know for sure, Flannery was kissed once and only once by the traveling book salesman. He found it less than pleasing. And, yes. He kissed and told. In an interview with Christopher O'Hare, Langkjear said, "As our lips touched I had a feeling that her mouth lacked resilience, as if she had no real muscle tension in her mouth, a result being that my own lips touched her teeth rather than lips, and this gave me an unhappy feeling of a sort of memento mori>...So I had the feeling of kissing a skeleton." Ah, how gallant.
Living and writing in relative isolation from the time she discovered she was suffering from Lupus, O'Connor never stopped working. She frequently traveled, lecturing English Literature Students, and was a regular guest at the Cheney residence in Nashville, Tennessee, where she rubbed elbows with Robert Penn Warren, whom she called "Red." Peter Taylor, Allen Tate and others were regular readers for O'Connor. She delighted in performing "A Good Man is Hard to Find."
In 2007 O'Connor's private letters were released, providing Brad Gooch with a wealth of information previously unknown about O'Connor's life, philosophy, and her creative process. Brad Gooch was a patient biographer. He held off attempting to write this biography out of respect for Sally Fitzgerald who claimed she intended on publishing her biography of O'Connor. Yet, when Fitzgerald died at age 83, no manuscript was found. Gooch's work was well worth the wait.
Above everything else, Gooch has shown us the living human being behind a relatively short collection of work. And he has shown us how other well known authors perceived her. We have her opinions of them as well.
Pointing to his copy of "A Good Man is Hard to Find," William Faulkner exclaimed, "Now that's some good stuff." Carson McCullers despised her. Flannery's feeling for McCullers was on par. Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams made her plumb sick.
When it was suggested to T.S. Eliot that he should publish "A Good Man is Hard to Find" in England, he dutifully read the book and declined. Eliot responded his nerves just couldn't take Miss O'Connor. Well, keep calm and carry on.
Under the surface of Flannery O'Connor's writing life lie her feelings for her domineering mother. One friend, when asked what Flannery would do without her mother replied she'd be lost. She'd lose half her material. No doubt, Flannery killed off her mother repeatedly in various and sundry ways through a number of stories.
Regina is the stand in for the grandmother who would have been a good woman if there'd have been somebody there to shoot her every day. After Regina converted Andalusia from a dairy farm to a beef farm, Flannery wrote her O.Henry prize winning "Green Leaf," wherein the protagonist lady farmer is gored to death by one of her prized bulls. When asked how her mother would feel about her numerous demises within the pages of Flannery's stories, she blithely remarked, "Oh, she never reads my stuff."
Shortly before her death, editor Robert Giroux visited Flannery and Regina at Andalusia. Giroux was net at the gate by mother and daughter. Flannery's tremendous flock of peacocks and pea fowl made the journey to the house seem interminable. That evening at the dinner table, Regina asked Giroux, "Isn't there some way you might get Flannery to right about nice people?" Flannery found no humor in the conversation.
O'Connor was well aware of the potential of violence in humanity. Her philosophy regarding such frank depictions of it was that people for the most part were so inured to its occurrence that they had to be slapped in the face to see it and do something about it. She and Peckinpaugh most likely would have gotten along famously.
Flannery completed one of her finest stories, "Revelation" close to the time of her death. In her hospital bed she kept a notebook in which she was penning her last story, "Parker's Back." These and other stories were published posthumously in her final anthology, "Everything That Rises Must Converge."
Flannery O'Connor died August 3, 1964. She was thirty-nine years old. She was buried the next day at Memory Hill Cemetery in Millidgeville, Georgia. Today, Andalusia is a public shrine. Whether one will find any chickens that walk backward is a question that one must determine alone.
In 1971, Robert Giroux published "The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor." It won the National Book Award in 1972. Robert Giroux accepted the award on her behalf. Backstage a celebrated author, whom Gooch had the good grace not to name, complained to Giroux,"Do you really think Flannery O'Connor was a great writer? She's such a Roman Catholic." Giroux responded, "I'm surprised at you, to misjudge her so completely. If she were here, she'd set you straight. She'd impress you. You'd have a hard time out-talking her."
In truth, O'Connor would have said, "Whoever invented cocktail parties should be drawn and quartered."
In 1988, the Library of America chose Flannery O'Connor as the first author born in the 20th Century who works would be published in this canonical selection of writings. That book stays on my bedside table....more