Biography of Flannery O'Connor, American Novelist, Short-Story Writer

Flannery O'Connor
American writer Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) with her book 'Wise Blood' 1952.

 APIC / Getty Images

Flannery O’Connor (March 25, 1925 – August 3, 1964) was an American writer. A diligent storyteller and editor, she fought publishers to retain artistic control over her work. Her writing portrayed Catholicism and the South with nuance and complexity lacking in many other public spheres.

Fast Facts: Flannery O'Connor

  • Full Name: Mary Flannery O'Connor
  • Known For: Writing Wise Blood, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and other popular stories
  • Born: March 25, 1925 in Savannah, Georgia
  • Parents: Regina Cline and Edward Francis O'Connor
  • Died: August 3, 1964 in Milledgeville, Georgia
  • Education:  Georgia State College for Women, Iowa Writers’ Workshop
  • Published Works: Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away
  • Awards and Honors: O. Henry Award (1953, 1964), The National Book Award
  • Spouse: none
  • Children: none
  • Notable Quote: “If you want to write well and live well at the same time, you better arrange to inherit money.” And “Mine is a comic art, but that does not detract from its seriousness.”

Early Life and Education

Mary Flannery O'Connor was born March 25, 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, the only daughter of Regina Cline and Edward Francis O'Connor. In 1931, she began attending St. Vincent’s Grammar School, but transferred to Sacred Heart Grammar School for Girls by the fifth grade. She got along quite well with the other students, even if she did spend a bit more time reading than playing. In 1938, the O'Connors moved to Atlanta for Edward’s work as a real estate appraiser, but after the school year ended, Regina and Flannery moved back to the Cline homestead in Milledgeville. They lived in the old Cline mansion with Flannery’s unmarried aunts, Mary and Katie. Edward came home on the weekends, but O'Connor seemed to adapt well to the move. 

In 1938, Flannery began attending the experimental Peabody High School, which O'Connor critiqued as too progressive, without a strong enough foundation in history and the classics. However, O'Connor made the best of it, and drew cartoons as the art editor for the school paper and designed lapel pins that were sold in local stores. 

In 1938, Edward was diagnosed with lupus and his health began to decline rather rapidly. Perhaps relatedly, O'Connor rejected Regina’s attempts to get her to learn ballet or show an interest in romance. After a rapid decline, Edward died in 1941. Later in life, O'Connor rarely spoke about her father, but she remarked that her success brought her special joy, since she felt she was fulfilling part of Edward’s legacy. 

Despite O'Connor's resistance to Peabody's structure, the school had close ties to the Georgia State College for Women, where she began studying in 1942 on an accelerated three-year course. Visual art remained an important part of O'Connor's creative output, and she published cartoons in all the college's major publications. 

O'Connor seemed to know that she had the potential for greatness, even though she expressed doubts as to her work ethic, writing in her journal, “I must do do do and yet there is the brick wall that I must kick over stone by stone. It is I who have built the wall and I who must tear it down...I must force my loose mind into its overalls and get going.”

Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home
Flannery O'Connor childhood home in Savannah, Georgia.  Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 / David Dugan

She graduated from Georgia College in 1945 with a degree in social science. O'Connor won a scholarship for graduate education and a spot in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, so she moved to Iowa City in 1945. She began attending daily Catholic Mass and introducing herself by her middle name, Flannery. During her first year of study in Iowa, O'Connor took advanced drawing courses to further her cartoon work. While she hoped to supplement her income by selling her humorous art to national magazines, submissions to The New Yorker and other publications were rejected, prompting her to focus her creative energy on writing. 

O'Connor enjoyed the serious study she undertook in Iowa. Her teacher, Paul Engle, believed that her Georgian accent would be incomprehensible, but he believed in her promise.

Early Work and Wise Blood

  • Wise Blood (1952)

In 1946, Accent accepted O'Connor's story "The Geranium," which became her first publication. The story would form the core of her thesis collection, which led to her successful MFA in 1947. Upon graduation, she received the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction award for her manuscript-in-progress Wise Blood, the first chapter of which was "The Train," another story in her thesis collection. She also received a fellowship to remain working in Iowa City after graduation. She enrolled in literature courses as a post-grad student and continued to publish stories in Mademoiselle and The Sewanee Review. She befriended Jean Wylder, Clyde Hoffman, Andrew Lytle, and Paul Griffith, among other professors and students.

In 1948, O'Connor accepted a fellowship to spend the summer at the Yaddo Foundation’s art colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. She sent a manuscript draft of Wise Blood to editor John Selby at Rinehart, but rejected his critiques, saying that her novel was not conventional and the only valid criticism must be “within the sphere of what I'm trying to do.” She remained at Yaddo until February 1949, when she relocated to New York City.

In New York, she began meeting with editors at Harcourt after Rinehart refused to give her an advance unless she took Selby’s criticisms. She befriended Robert and Sally Fitzgerald and moved into their garage-apartment in Connecticut in the fall. In 1950, O'Connor signed a contract with Harcourt, but began to suffer serious arthritic complications and fevers. In 1951, her lupus diagnosis was confirmed by doctors in Atlanta. 

O'Connor moved in with her mother on their dairy farm near Milledgeville, Andalusia. She lost all her hair, self-administered daily injections, and went on a salt-free diet, yet doctors warned Regina that Flannery may die. Throughout this debilitating time, O'Connor continued edits on Wise Blood. She began correspondence at Fitzgerald’s suggestion with the critic Caroline Gordon, and responded well to her edits.

In May 1952, Harcourt published Wise Blood to mixed critical reviews and dissatisfaction from many members of her community. Despite her poor health, O'Connor was not discouraged. She began painting bucolic scenes at Andalusia and raised peacocks. She published the story "A Late Encounter with the Enemy" in Harper’s Bazaar and was invited to apply for the Kenyon Review fellowship, which she won and quickly spent on books and blood transfusions.

Later Work and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

  • A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1954)
  • The Violent Bear it Away (1960)

In 1953, O'Connor began taking visitors at Andalusia, including Brainard Cheney. She quickly developed romantic feelings for the Harcourt textbook rep Erik Langkjaer. Her story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" was published in the anthology Modern Writing I.

Harcourt published A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories in 1954, to a surprising success and three fast printings. Harcourt signed a five-year contract for O'Connor’s next novel, but following editing struggles in the past, she retained a clause to leave if her editor did.

O'Connor's health continued to decline and she began using a cane, but she tried to remain active, giving lectures and interviews. In 1956, she began publishing book reviews in a Catholic Georgian paper, The Bulletin. She began a friendly correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop and, following a brief respite from her illness, in 1958 she traveled with her mother to see the Fitzgeralds in Italy. She visited holy sites in France and bathed in the sacred springs, she “prayed for [her] book, not [her] bones.” 

In 1959, she finished her draft of The Violent Bear It Away, which was published in 1960. Criticism was mixed, but O'Connor was furious that the New York Times review discussed her illness. She funneled her energy into a great number of short stories and correspondences, which she continued writing and editing after being admitted to the hospital in 1963. 

Literary Style and Themes

O'Connor was influenced by many different styles of writing and translation, including Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Penn Warren, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and William Faulkner. 

While she is often ascribed to the Southern Gothic tradition, she insisted that this was a poor assessment. As an anointed literary daughter of the South and dedicated Catholic, O'Connor's work was often reduced to statements about religion and the South. Yet in her lectures, interviews, and stories, O'Connor combatted national myths about Southern life and art by generating a South where Biblical sensibilities supported traditions of genteel manners and persistent storytelling, despite the risk to these traditions posed by industrialization. She repeatedly rejected universality in favor of the truth she developed through her regional identity and local understanding. She worked to inform readers about the world of her stories so that they would not only entertain, but educate as well. 

O'Connor defended the necessity of fiction and rejected repeated attempts by interviewers and agents to get her to summarize her work. For example, in a 1955 taped interview with Harvey Breit, there was a dramatic rendition of the opening of O'Connor’s story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own." Breit then asked O'Connor if she’d like to summarize the remainder of the story for the audience, to which she replied "No, I certainly would not."

Plaque at Flannery O'Connor's childhood home
Plaque at Flannery O'Connor's childhood home in Savannah, Georgia. Wikimedia Commons / 

Death

In December 1963, O'Connor was admitted to the Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta to treat anemia. She continued editing, as much as her failing strength allowed. Right after winning the O. Henry Award in July for her story "Revelation," O'Connor’s doctors found a tumor and excised it in an operation at Baldwin County Hospital. On August 3, O'Connor’s kidneys failed and she passed away.

Her last stories were then collected into Everything That Rises Must Converge by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and published posthumously in 1965. 

Legacy

Flannery O'Connor endures as one of America’s greatest short-story writers. Her work remains popular and critically successful. In 1971, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published a new collection of The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor, which went on to win the National Book Award in 1972. 

Scholarship on O'Connor's work continues. Georgia College now hosts the annual Flannery O'Connor Review, publishing scholarly articles on O'Connor’s work.

Sources

  • Bloom, Harold. Flannery O'Connor. Chelsea House Publishers, 1999.
  • “Flannery O'Connor Review.” Georgia College, 20 Feb. 2020, www.gcsu.edu/artsandsciences/english/flannery-oconnor-review.
  • “O'Connor at GSCW.” Research Guides at Georgia College, libguides.gcsu.edu/oconnor-bio/GSCW.