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Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) was accepted to the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1945 and obtained her Master of Fine Arts degree in 1947. She was then offered a post-doctoral fellowship at the Workshop and spent another year in Iowa City. Her years in Iowa City became a major turning point in her writing character. It was here, in 1946, that she finally decided to use the name Flannery O’Connor (against the previously used Mary O’Connor, M.F. O’Connor, or even MFOC).

Flannery O'Connor in Letters

The transition in her writing career is best summarized in the opening part of Sally Fitzgerald’s The Habit of Being[fn]O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being: letters edited and with and introduction by Sally Fitzgerald. New York – Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1979: 3-5[/fn], a comprehensive collection of letters written by O’Connor from 1948 until her premature death on August 3, 1964:

 

Most of the readers of these letters are probably familiar with the simpler facts of Flannery O’Connor’s life: she was born in Savannah, Georgia, on March 25, 1925, and she moved to Milledgeville, Georgia, her mother’s birthplace, when she was twelve years old, after her father had fallen gravely ill. He died when Flannery was fifteen. Thereafter she lived in Milledgeville with her mother, in the fine old home of the Cline family, and attended Peabody High School and Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College) in the same town. By the time she received her A.B. degree in 1945, she knew very well what she could and wanted to do.

 

When Flannery left Milledgeville to “go north,” it was to the School of Writers, conducted by Paul Engle at the University of Iowa. Her promise had been recognized in college, and she received a scholarship for her Master’s studies. This seems to have been an interesting and fruitful time for her: she read a great deal and she learned a lot about writing. Her first publication, in Accent magazine, of her story “The Geranium,” occurred in 1946 while she was still a student. In 1947 she won the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award for a first novel, with part of Wise Blood.

 

On the strength of this, she was recommended for a place at Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York, a philanthropic foundation offering artists periods of hospitality and freedom, enabling them to concentrate on their work. For a few months she enjoyed working there, but in the spring of 1949, together will all the other guests, she left Yaddo, which was undergoing turmoil. After a few disagreeable weeks in New York City, she went back to Milledgeville, returned to New York for the summer, then came with her half-finished novel in September of the same year to join the Sally and Robert Fitzgerald family in Ridgefield, Connecticut. There she lived and wrote until, in 1951, illness redirected her life.

 

None of the letters she wrote while she was in Iowa have been made available. Most of them were probably to her mother, who feels that they are purely personal and contain nothing of literary interest. Her close college friend, the late Betty Boyd Love, wrote us, soon after Flannery’s death, that they had corresponded monthly in the first few years after they graduated, when Flannery went her way and Betty Boyd set off for the University of North Carolina to take her own master’s degree in mathematics. Inevitably, some of these letters were lost, and unfortunately none at all from Iowa turned up in the search.

 

So it must be that Flannery’s correspondence during her years in the North begins with the letter she wrote, in 1948, at the outset of her professional life, on a professional matter of great importance. As it turned out, it was a lucky letter, for it marked the beginning of an association and a friendship that continued throughout her life and, on the part of her correspondent, until the present day.

 

“To Elizabeth McKee
Yaddo
Saratoga Springs, New York
June 19, 1948
 
Dear Miss McKee,

I am looking for an agent. Paul Moor suggested I write to you. I am at present working on a novel [Wise Blood] for which I received the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award ($750) last year. This award gives Rinehart an option but nothing else. I have been on the novel a year and a half and will probably be two more years finishing it. The first chapter appeared as a short story, ‘The Train,’ in the Spring 1948 issue of the Sewanee Review. The fourth chapter will be printed in a new quarterly to appear in the fall, American Letters. I have another chapter which I have sent to Partisan Review and which I expect to be returned. A short story of mine [‘The Turkey’] will be in Mademoiselle sometime in the fall.

 

The novel, except for isolated chapters, is in no condition to be sent to you at this point. My main concern right now is to get the first draft of it done; however as soon as Partisan Review returns the chapter I sent them, I would like to send it to you, and probably also a short story [‘The Crop’] which I expect to get back from a quarterly in a few days. I am writing you in my vague and slack season and mainly because I am being impressed just now with the money I am not making by having stories in such places as American Letters. I am a very slow worker and it is possible that I won’t write another story until I finish this novel and that no other chapters of the novel will prove salable. I have never had an agent so I have no idea what your disposition might be toward my type of writer. Please consider this letter an introduction to me and let me know if you would like to look at what I can get together when I get it together. I expect to be in New York a day or two in early August, and if you are interested, I would like to talk to you then.
Yours sincerely,
(Miss) Flannery O’Connor”

 

(Excerpts from THE HABIT OF BEING: LETTERS OF FLANNERY O'CONNOR, edited by Sally Fitzgerald. Copyright © 1979 by Regina O'Connor. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.)

 

Novels and Collections

O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood was published in 1952. Elizabeth McKee became her agent for life. A collection of short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955) and a novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1960), were published during her lifetime. Her third collection of short stories, Everything that Rises Must Converge, appeared posthumously in 1965. Then, in 1971, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux published The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor. Flannery’s lifetime friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald collected her lectures, talks, essays, and articles in a book called Mystery and Manners, published in 1969. Sally Fitzgerald published a selection of O’Connor’s letters in The Habit of Being (1979).

Flannery O’Connor’s most extensive correspondent was Betty Hester. Between 1955 and 1964, Hester and O'Connor exchanged nearly 300 letters, some of which are published in The Habit of Being. Hester, a very private and reclusive woman, asked that her identity be kept secret in the published letters. Thus, she appears as “A”. Hester first wrote Flannery O’Connor in July 1955, when O’Connor was working on her second novel, The Violent Bear it Away. Eager to exchange thoughts and ideas with someone of equal intellectual caliber, O’Connor wrote back, "I would like to know who this is who understands my stories." O’Connor felt that she and Hester shared a spiritual kinship and later O’Connor would become Hester’s confirmation sponsor in the Catholic Church. Hester left the Church in 1958 and turned to agnosticism. This news was a grave disappointment for O’Connor, who had engaged Hester in theological dialogue and tried to sustain her friend’s faith. Hester gave her letters to Emory University in 1987, on the condition that they be sealed for twenty years. They were released to the public on May 12, 2007. Betty Hester died by way of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in December 1998, at the age of 75.

Iowa Avenue Literary Walk Plaque

Fannery O’Connor’s Plaque on the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk reads: "Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them.[fn]O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. Occasional Prose selected & edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York – Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969: p. 84[/fn]

This quote is from a talk that O'Connor delivered on the topic of the nature and aim of fiction, in which she expressed her strong feelings against the notion that writing can be taught. She believed good fiction could be understood by the type of mind that “is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.” And she did not hesitate to claim that she wrote because she was good at it. Based on her own experience, she can be trusted that writing classes only can teach you the limits and possibilities of words and “the respect due to them.” Finally, she makes the great point that any writer can have enough information about life from their childhood years, which can last them the rest of their days. A writer’s business is not about being merged in experience but contemplating experience. And this contemplation, coupled with the gift to tell stories, is what makes a good writer write good fiction.

Flannery O'Connor in Iowa City

 

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor lived consecutively at two addresses in Iowa City: during her graduate years, 1945-47, she was at Currier House on 32 East Bloomington Street, a dorm for women, where she shared a room with two other students; in her post-graduate year, she rented a room in a house on 115 East Bloomington Street. These houses do not exist today. On the former’s place stands the building of the University of Iowa’s Belin-Blank Honors Center and the latter’s address is an empty lot.

O’Connor’s life in Iowa City is narrated in detail in the recently published biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor by Brad Gooch[fn]Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor. New York – Little, Brown and Co, 2009[/fn].

Gooch was able to paint O'Connor’s character and state-of-mind with a few fine strokes:

 

Sitting in his office early in the fall of 1945, Paul Engle […] heard a gentle knock at the door. After he shouted an invitation to enter, a shy, young woman appeared and walked over to his desk without, at first, saying a word. […] When she finally spoke, her Georgia dialect sounded so thick to his midwestern ear that he […] handed her a pad to write what she had said. So in schoolgirl script, she put down three short lines: "My name is Flannery O'Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writers' Workshop?"

 

[…] no amount of prairie-flower bohemianism, or postwar euphoria, could assuage O'Connor's first reaction to her new surroundings: homesickness. Far from her extended family, and raking a dialect routinely treated as a foreign language, she experienced an acute ache. As she later wrote to her friend Maryat Lee, of "The Geranium," her first published Iowa story, "I did know what it meant to be homesick." At Currier House, she lived with a couple of rumba-loving suitemates who cranked up volume on the record player. While remaining friendly toward them, she soon relished their weekend departures. Every day, she wrote a letter to her mother, who wrote back daily replies, as well forwarding the weekly Milledgeville newspaper. Her home away from home did not turn out to be Currier house. […] Instead she found the antidote for her homesickness two blocks away at St. Mary's Catholic Church, on East Jefferson Street.

 

The young writer liked to keep things plain: no curtains on the windows; a bare bulb hanging by a long cord from the center of the ceiling. When she was alone, she would pull down the shades and sit at her typewriter with a pile of yellow paper, writing and rewriting. When Barbara asked Flannery why she worked obsessively at her writing, she replied that she "had to."

However, according to one of her roommates,

 

“She was very serious about her mission in life, and had a sort of sense of destiny," says Barbara Hamilton. "She knew she was a great writer. She told me so many times. If I would have heard that from other people, I would have laughed up my sleeve, but not with her. We both agreed that she might never be recognized, but that wasn't the point. The point was to do what she thought she was meant to do."

(Reprinted with permission from Little, Brown and Co, 2009)

Paul Engle’s private account of O’Connor’s admission to the Workshop matches Gooch’s description. O’Connor and Engle maintained a warn relationship throughout her life, testimony of which is the following letter she wrote to him in 1955:

 

Milledgeville
14 February 55

Dear Paul,

I must thank you and Mike for the kind words you put in the O. Henry collection about my stories. I have been trying to get it across to my kin folks for years that when I go in my room every day and shut the door, I am not going to sleep in the chair but am busy on a Body of Work. I certainly do admire the phrase, Body of Work, and very much obliged to you for using it. Because I got in the O. Henry collection, everybody is thinking I must be as good a writer as O. Henry, so the Atlanta Branch of the Penwomen have asked me to breakfast next week to be introduced to the club. I will be introduced 16th on the program like General Tennessee Flintrock Sash. The two main features are to be Mr. Max Hyman (a Georgia boy) and your old friend, Long John Selby. I don’t know what kind of cold eye Long John will cast on me. In March I am going to Greensboro to be on a panel at the arts conference. I figure the company will be more high-toned there; however, I go wherever I am invited so as to see how the other half lives. I even lectured to the Milledgeville Book Club where one lady told me that the kind of book she liked best was books about Indians.

The best and many thanks,

[signed] Flannery

 


 

Brad Gooch spoke with CNN about his experience researching his biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor.

CNN: When did you first discover Flannery O'Connor?
Brad Gooch: I first read her stories in my 20s and loved them, and then a little later, the [collected] letters came up, The Habit of Being. And I'd had a few hunches about her from reading the stories, which were a little mysterious. ... And then when I read the letters, a lot of those hunches seemed true. ... Trying to put the life of this woman together with the stories became as interesting as the stories to me.

CNN: She wasn't always known as Flannery O'Connor.
Gooch: Her name was Mary Flannery O'Connor, and her mother and everyone in Milledgeville (Georgia), where she lived most of her life, continued to call her Mary Flannery. But when she went to Iowa City -- the Iowa Writers' Workshop -- early on, she decided she wanted to be a writer, and she decided on the name Flannery. She later said, "Who would want to buy these stories of an Irish washerwoman named Mary O'Connor?" Partly, I think she wanted to lose the Southern-ness of "Mary Flannery." ... Also, Flannery was a gender-neutral name. ... Her initial rejection letters were actually addressed to "Mr. Flannery O'Connor," and I think she kind of liked that neutrality.

CNN: What did you find most remarkable about her?
Gooch: I think the discipline of her writing becomes ... almost inspiring. She developed lupus when she was 25, she lived until she was 39. And in that period, she kept up this regimen that she had begun at the Iowa Writers' Workshop of writing every morning for three hours, even if it meant sitting in front of a blank page. ... [Near the end of her life] she was editing her final stories and hiding them under the pillow in the hospital from the doctors so that she could go on. She was still working on her last story after she had last rites. ... All of that is a sort of [a] level of commitment that is startling and unmatched.

CNN: Her stories are often funny, yet disturbing.
Gooch: Her style goes under these names, like grotesque or gothic, but she was really crossing these two wires of humor and almost this kind of dark theological writing that had never been put together before. ... [In "A Good Man is Hard to Find"] a family on vacation ... meets someone named the Misfit, this ex-con in the woods. ... And he winds up shooting the entire family while spouting existentialist, nihilist philosophy. And in that story, there's always a point where you keep laughing past this line, and suddenly someone's being shot and you're laughing and then [readers] get very uncomfortable. They can't tell whether this is supposed to be funny or not, and I think that O'Connor definitely works in that territory, where you can't tell if she's being funny or tragic.

CNN: The titles of her stories and novels are so wonderful -- "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," "Everything That Rises Must Converge," "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," "The Violent Bear It Away."
Gooch: "A Good Man is Hard to Find" was a Bessie Smith song; "Everything That Rises Must Converge" she got from Teilhard de Chardin, a favorite Catholic theologian of hers. You see in a way how sophisticated she was in her approach to her writing. I think sometimes when people read the stories, they confuse O'Connor with the character in her story, and they think she is some Grandma-Moses-crazy-folk-artist, but actually she was an incredibly educated artist who had read everything, including a lot of theology. ... The titles ... are attracting and punchy, but you also see that she's working kind of consciously with these reverberating references.

Biography

In December 1950, on her way home to Milledgeville for Christmas, O’Connor became seriously ill on the train and was hospitalized on her arrival in Atlanta. She was diagnosed as having lupus, the same illness that had killed her father nine years earlier. After several months, during which time O'Connor was in and out of the hospital, she and her mother moved to Andalusia, a dairy farm four miles from Milledgeville that Mrs. O'Connor had recently inherited and that she ran with the help of tenants. Dairy farms, the capable and efficient women who run them, and their tenant help figure largely in O'Connor's later stories. O'Connor spent the remaining 14 years of her life at Andalusia, writing and raising various kinds of fowl, including peacocks.

O'Connor, who took her Catholicism as seriously as she did her writing, called her short stories, “stories about original sin.” She described her work in general as being about the action of grace in the world, about those moments in which grace, usually in the form of violence, descends on her comically complacent characters, sometimes opening their eyes to an appalling realization, sometimes killing them. O'Connor felt that a violent shock was necessary to bring both her characters and her modern secular audience to an awareness of the powerful reality of the realm of transcendent mystery. Although a softening of the bone in her hip caused her to have to use crutches, O'Connor frequently accepted invitations to speak at colleges and writers' conferences in the latter half of the 1950s and early 1960s.

O'Connor had to have abdominal surgery in the spring of 1964. Her lupus reacted to the stress of the surgery and could not be controlled by drugs. In July she suffered kidney failure, and she died in the Milledgeville Hospital on August 3, 1964.

It’s quite ironic that she had once written: “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.”[fn]O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being. Letters edited and with an introduction by Sally Fitzgerald. New York – Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1979. To “A,” July 5, 1958: 290-91[/fn]

Text by: Zlatko Anguelov

United States