Flannery O’Connor is most often remembered as an author of Southern gothic fiction, including the infamous story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the terror of many a grade school student. Her kooky characters and devout Catholic faith make her the bon vivant of Southern letters. Her bespectacled visage and toothy grin staring back at us from her author photo points to a devilish disposition that faced life’s struggles with an incredible sense of humor.
Aside from her literary genius, we’d love to have Flannery O’Connor in our corner, as the friend who could keep us laughing no matter how dire the situation.
When Flannery was just six years old, Pathé news came to cover little “Mary” O’Connor and her trained chicken—a chicken she had taught to walk backwards on her family farm. Of her first brush with celebrity, O’Connor later said: “When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathé News. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been an anticlimax.” (You can see the original Pathé news video from 1932 here.)
Though she graduated from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, lived in NYC, and spent a summer at Yaddo, an artist’s colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, Flannery was at heart a small town Georgia girl.
When her father was diagnosed with lupus, the family moved to a farm called Andalusia in Milledgeville, Georgia. Flannery would return to live at Andalusia when she was diagnosed with the same disease in 1951. Though the doctors told her she would only live another five years, she managed another 14. Andalusia is now a museum; you can visit Flannery’s home and see where she wrote every day and raised prize peacocks.
Flannery’s scalding wit is ever present in her letters. She was a devoted pen-pal, and did not mince words. In this letter from February 17, 1949, she writes to a former writing teacher about an agent’s recent rejection of her manuscript of her first novel, Wise Blood:
The criticism is vague and really tells me nothing except that they don’t like it. I feel the objections they raise are connected with its virtues, and the thought of working with them specifically to correct these lacks they mention is repulsive to me. The letter is addressed to a slightly dim-witted Camp-fire Girl, and I cannot look with composure on getting a lifetime of others like them.
Here, Flannery manages to throw quite a bit of shade while recounting her health issues in this letter to her friend, poet Robert Lowell, and his wife, writer Elizabeth Hardwick:
Dear Elizabeth and Cal: I won’t see you again as I have to go to the hospital Friday and have kidney hung on a rib. I will be there a month and at home a month. This was none of my plan. I hope if you go to Iowa you won’t make the mistake of trusting [name redacted], I said I liked him but I don’t. Please write me a card while I am in the hospital. I won’t be able to do anything there but dislike the nurses.”
And, despite early success, she kept humble. In writing to her friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald of her latest manuscript: “Enclosed is Opus Nauseous No. 1. I had to read it over after it came from the typist’s and that was like spending the day eating a horse blanket.”
Many of Flannery’s letters were addressed to a simple initial, the letter A—it was not until many years later that the identity of her most dedicated correspondent was revealed. The woman’s name was Betty Hester, a file clerk who lived in Atlanta. Early in their correspondence, Hester asked O’Connor to keep her identity private, hence “A,” for anonymous. Her first letter to O’Connor asked, “These stories are about God, aren’t they?” Over the rest of O’Connor’s life, they would exchange over 300 letters. No one knew the identity of “A,” until Hester committed suicide in 1998.
Flannery lived at Andalusia until her death in 1964—but she did not live there alone. She was incredibly close to her mother, Regina. Some of the funniest moments in Flannery’s letters concern her mother. “Mrs. Watts Harcourt sent my book to [the English novelist Evelyn] Waugh and his comment was: ‘If this is really the unaided work of a young lady, it is a remarkable product.’ My mother was vastly insulted. She put the emphasis on if and lady. Does he suppose you’re not a lady? she says. WHO is he?”
Flannery was a devout Catholic, and much of her published work details issues of faith and spirituality. She would go on to write over 100 book reviews for two Catholic newspapers in Georgia, The Bulletin and The Southern Cross. As a young woman and aspiring writer she kept a prayer journal while she was away from home studying at the University of Iowa. A collection of these diary entries was published in 2013.
Aside from Flannery’s devotion to God, her ambition to be a writer is keenly felt: “Please help me dear God to be a good writer and to get something else accepted,” she writes. “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story.”
Following an operation, Flannery’s health began to fail in June 1964. Determined to finish her second collection of short fiction, Everything Rises Must Converge, she took to hiding her manuscript pages under her pillow at the hospital so the nurses wouldn’t forbid her from working. Sadly, her health did not improve, and she slipped into a coma and died of kidney failure, as a result from complications from lupus, on August 3, 1964. She was just 39 years old. Following a low Requiem Mass at her local Sacred Heart Church in Milledgeville, she was buried next to her father in the Memory Hill Cemetery.
Flannery O'Connor Books
The Complete Stories, 1971
Wise Blood, 1952
The Violent Bear it Away, 1960
Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, by Brad Gooch, 2009
A Prayer Journal, 2013
Featured photo via cover of Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, by Brad Kooch