Flannery O’Connor, born March 25, 1925, is a fascinating figure. Well-known for her dark fiction and shocking stories, her life was short and eventful. She was born in Savannah, Georgia, with large and well-known Georgian families on both her father’s and her mother’s side. She lived in Savannah until she was fourteen when, in 1938, her family moved to Midgeville.
There, she continued her studies at Georgia College and State University. It wasn’t long before her talent as a writer and storyteller was recognized, and she became editor of the Corinthian, the college’s literary magazine. Even as editor she would regularly contribute fiction, cartoons, and even poems, showing her dynamic range. She began to increase the speed of her learning process, joining a track at the college that had her graduating in three years. She majored in social sciences, with multiple classes in English.
At the age of fifteen she suffered a blow with the death of her father. Her father died of the same disease (systemic lupus erythematosus) that she would eventually die from at age 39.
She eventually received a scholarship to study Journalism at the University of Iowa. Soon after arriving, however, she jumped ship and entered the Master’s program in Creative Writing. The course was taught by Paul Engle, who recalls the first time she asked to enter the program. When she entered his office, he was unable to understand her Southern accent. Engle eventually had to ask her to write down her message. She wrote, simply, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writer’s Workshop?”
O’Connor was shy, but obviously talented. Her classmates and Engle spoke of her willingness to take any criticism, constantly ready to rework her stories, even if it meant starting all over again.
Her first novel, Wise Blood, was confusing to critics. While some enjoyed it, others were completely stumped, unable to discern its meaning. Her later publication, in 1955, of a short-story collection entitled “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” seemed to clarify her intent to critics. Her dark themes, and constant conviction that humanity was lost and in need of a savior was evident in the stories.
While, of course, opinions differ on what each of her stories mean, what it seems most people can agree upon is that her works are dark. On occasion O’Connor would be attacked on this point–challenged as to why she made her stories so dark. Her response was brilliant: “To the hard of hearing, [Christian writers] shout, and for the… almost-blind [they] draw large and startling figures.”
Flannery O’Connor passed away at the age of 39 after a coma that spanned several days. She died after publishing another short story collection, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” and a second novel, “The Violent Bear It Away.” Her stories have lived on, recognized as important works of Southern Fiction. Despite their age, they ring true, perhaps because O’Connor’s drive to write was, at least in part, in order to tell people of their brokenness. Her stories are violent, shocking, and sometimes even offensive. But primarily, it seem she included all of that, not frivolously, but purposefully. It seems she tried to tell the truth about people. And, from what her stories tell us, she apparently didn’t think that truth was pretty.
Check back soon for the first post in my read through of all of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. We’ll be starting with “The Geranium.”