Mary Flannery O'Connor was born on March 25, 1925 in Savannah
, Georgia. Her childhood home was preserved and currently serves as a museum honoring O'Connor's contributions to Southern culture and Southern literature. She attended Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College
), graduating in 1945, and the State University of Iowa
Writer's Workshop, earning her M.F.A in 1947.
The six stories in O'Connor's thesis - including "The Geranium," "The Turkey," and "Wildcat," incorporate themes which would run through O'Connor's work for the rest of her life. "The Geranium" addresses the problem of racial integration; "The Turkey" records a child's internal moral struggle; the protagonist in "Wildcat," like many of O'Connor's characters, faces the knowledge of his imminent death.
O'Connor's father died of lupus when she was thirteen, and at 21 (shortly after her first publication), she too was stricken with the illness. This shortened her life expectancy considerably and rendered her unable to walk without crutches. It is not surprising then that death is an imminent reality (and a test of moral courage) for many of O'Connor's characters. The most telling one-liner comes from the widely anthologized "A Good Man is Hard to Find": "'She would of been a good woman,' The Misfit said, 'if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.'"
Having lived in the north for several years - first Iowa and then Yaddo, a writers' commune in Saratoga Springs, New York (where she met and befriended Robert Lowell) - O'Connor came home to live with her mother on a farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. To the best of my knowledge this home too is preserved and still flocked with peacocks, which O'Connor collected. At five she had taught one of the chickens on her family's estate to walk backwards, earning for the chicken 15 minutes of fame (a Yankee photographer came down to film the chicken's feat for a newsreel). This event also fueled O'Connor's lifelong interest in poultry and the grotesque in American life; the birds that interested her most were the ones with oddball talents or disabilities - the eccentrics.
O'Connor is often compared to Franz Kafka, though I am delighted to report that during her life, a German publisher asked permission to drop a few of her stories from one of her collections, as he considered them too dark for Germanic sensibilities. To that she responded, "I didn't think I was that vicious."
Throughout the 1950s, until her death in 1964 at the age of 39, O'Connor churned out two novels (Wise Blood, the story of an evangelist for the Church of Christ Without Christ, and The Violent Bear It Away, about a preacher-slash-moonshiner) and two acclaimed short story collections (A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge).
Her best work is imbued both with moral tension and a sense of darkness and mystery. Southern race relations loom large in her work; so does Southern faith. Though her work is thematically Christian, it is not didactic or Touched By An Angel enough to be included in evangelical bookstores. In Wise Blood, for instance, the reader is presented with a flurry of religious images, all of which we associate with the rural South. But the images are inverted: The street-corner evangelist urges passersby to reject Christ (and his rejection of Christ is borne of spite rather than a lack of faith). As a Roman Catholic in the mostly-Protestant South, O'Connor is every bit the outsider, assumedly just as mystified by these images as, say, the urban skeptics in her readership. Her characters are never entirely sympathetic, nor beautiful; many are the type you would cross the street to avoid. They do, however, make for damn good reading.
In 2000, an English teacher named Antonio Orteza placed O'Connor's story "The Artificial Nigger" on a summer reading list for his students at Opelousas Catholic High School in Opelousas, Louisiana. Some parents found the title offensive, and complained to a priest at one of the supporting parishes. The priest, Father Malcolm O'Leary, did not bother to read the story or research O'Connor's well-documented positions on racism or Catholicism. Instead, he took the complaint to Bishop Edward J. O'Donnell, who banned the reading of O'Connor at schools in his diocese. The irony - that a southern, Catholic, anti-racist writer should be excluded from southern Catholic schools on the grounds of racism - is painful.
A bibliography of O'Connor's work, as complete as can be:
Wise Blood, 1952
A Good Man Is Hard To Find, 1955; published in England as The Artificial Nigger, 1957
The Violent Bear It Away, 1960
A Memoir of Mary Ann (Editor and author of introduction), 1962; published in England as Death of a Child, 1961
Three by Flannery O'Connor, 1964 (contains Wise Blood, Everything That Rises Must Converge, and The Violent Bear It Away
Everything That Rises Must Converge, 1965
Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose; Edited by Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald, 1969
The Complete Short Stories, 1971 (contains stories from both collections, three which were the genesis for Wise Blood, and stories from O'Connor's MFA thesis)
The Habit of Being: Letters; Edited by Sally Fitzgerald, 1979
The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews; Edited by Carter W. Martin, 1983
Collected Works (contains Wise Blood, A Good Man Is Hard To Find, The Violent Bear It Away, and Everything That Rises Must Converge); edited by Sally Fitzgerald, 1988.
Intro to The Complete Stories, written by Robert Giroux, 1971