Mary Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, on March 25, 1925, the only child of Edward Flannery and Regina Cline O’Connor. Both her parents were Roman Catholics from active Catholic families, a religious heritage that had a deep effect on her thinking and writing. As a child, she attended parochial school and early developed an interest in domestic birds and poultry. In her later writings she recalled that, when she was five, a newsreel company came to film her pet bantam chicken, which could walk both forward and backward. Years later, in a high school home economics class, she responded to an assignment to make a child’s garment by creating a white piqué coat for a pet chicken. Also during her early years, O’Connor began to develop a talent for drawing and cartooning, an interest which remained with her through her life.
In 1938, her father was diagnosed as having disseminated lupus, a progressive disease in which the body forms antibodies to its own tissues. With that, the family moved from Savannah to Milledgeville, Georgia, where Regina O’Connor’s father had been mayor. Edward O’Connor died in February of 1941, and Flannery remained in Milledgeville for most of the rest of her life, with time away only during her brief period of healthy adulthood between 1945 and 1950.
In 1942, O’Connor entered Georgia State College for Women (now Women’s College of Georgia) in Milledgeville. She graduated with an A.B. degree in English and social sciences in 1945. During her college years, her interests were divided between fiction writing and cartooning. She did both, along with editing, for college publications. After her graduation, she decided to attend the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she had been awarded a fellowship on the basis of some of her stories, which one of her teachers had submitted to the workshop. It was about this time that she began to drop “Mary” and to use “Flannery” alone as a writing name.
The Writers’ Workshop, founded by Paul Engle, was the most prestigious program of its kind when O’Connor was a student there, and she learned much from the experience. One biographer, Harold Fickett, records her willingness to accept criticism from the workshop and her willingness to rewrite work in accord with her teachers’ suggestions. This sort of docility probably did not come easily to O’Connor, who was a person of strong convictions and a willingness to stand up for them. During her time at Iowa, she began to publish stories; her first publication was “The Geranium” in Accent in 1946. That story was one of the six of her thesis collection for the M.F.A. degree, which she received in 1947. She stayed on at Iowa for an additional year, teaching and writing the beginnings of her first novel, Wise Blood (1952). Her start on that book earned her the Rinehart-Iowa Prize for a first novel.
O’Connor spent much of 1948 at Yaddo, an artists’ colony at Saratoga Springs, New York, where she continued to work on Wise Blood and where she formed some literary friendships, particularly with the poet Robert Lowell, who introduced her to editor Robert Giroux, who would later publish her work. Through him she made the lifelong friendship of poet and teacher Robert Fitzgerald and his wife, Sally. They, too, were Catholic, and when O’Connor decided to leave Yaddo, after a short stay in New York, she arranged to board with the Fitzgerald family at their home in Ridgefield, Connecticut. O’Connor found that a happy time during which, as Harold Fickett records, after Mass, she spent her mornings writing,...
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her afternoons writing letters (including a daily letter to her mother), and her evenings with the Fitzgeralds.
At Christmas, 1950, on the train home to Milledgeville, O’Connor suffered her first attack of lupus. The drug ACTH finally brought the disease under control, but hers had been a serious attack, and her recovery was slow. She was very weak and debilitated for months. Her slow recovery led her to give up her plans to return to the North; for the rest of her life she lived with her mother on her dairy farm, Andalusia, near Milledgeville.
O’Connor’s relationship with her mother is reflected in many of her letters, which convey the pair’s deep affection and her mother’s selfless care-giving, as well as the inevitable stresses which accompanied their living together. For the most part, O’Connor’s references to those stresses are indirect and offered with ironic humor (sometimes in a mock-backwoods style) which suggests that even when O’Connor was irritated with her mother’s occasional insensitivity to her literary work, she was always certain of her mother’s devotion to her and always returned that love, while expressing it in her own style. She once gave her mother a donkey for Mother’s Day, saying it was the gift for a mother who had everything.
Through much of the rest of her life, O’Connor followed a standard routine of writing in the morning, riding into Milledgeville for lunch, reading, painting, and caring for her large flock of peafowl and other birds in the afternoons and evenings. After about 1955, she had to use aluminum crutches because the ACTH had weakened her bones so that they would not support her weight. Nevertheless, as her literary reputation increased, she accepted as many lecture invitations as she could. Some of her addresses have been published as Mystery and Manners (1969).
Only once did O’Connor travel abroad, in 1958, when her mother persuaded her to travel to Lourdes, France, in the hope of a miraculous cure for her lupus. The trip was an arduous one, and O’Connor undertook it mostly to please her mother. After the trip, she wrote to a friend, “Now for the rest of my life I can forget about going to Europe, having went.” Her mother’s dreamed-of cure did not occur.
During her years at Andalusia, O’Connor wrote and published a collection of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955), and a second novel, The Violent Bear It Away (1960). At her death, she had just completed a second collection of stories, published posthumously as Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965). She also carried on a voluminous correspondence with other writers, publishers, friends, and readers, some of which is collected in The Habit of Being: Letters (1979), edited by her friend Sally Fitzgerald. O’Connor’s letters testify to her lively sense of humor (often self-deprecating) and to her interest in the opinions, reading habits, and spiritual states of the people she loved.
In 1964, O’Connor had surgery for the removal of a fibroid tumor. The surgery was successful, but it reactivated her lupus, and her condition deteriorated as she fought to finish her second collection of stories. She died in Milledgeville on August 3, 1964, at the age of thirty-nine.
Mary Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, on March 25, 1925, to Catholic parents. She attended Catholic grammar and high school and later Georgia College. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa in 1947. In 1951, she was diagnosed with lupus, the disease that had killed her father. In spite of great pain and discomfort, O’Connor wrote two novels and thirty-two short stories, winning awards and acclaim, before eventually dying of lupus at the age of thirty-nine. Her major collections of short stories include The Life You Save May Be Your Own, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Everything Rises Must Converge.
O’Connor remained a devout Catholic throughout her life, which, together with the constant awareness of her own impending death, affected the themes of her stories, many of which address death, salvation, and grace, as well as violence and evil as forces for good. However, O’Connor’s stories often offer a wry wit too, which she uses in satirizing characters that think they know a great deal but still cannot recognize a truth obvious to persons with less intellect or education. She was not above self-deprecation, either, once recalling that as a child she was in the local newspapers when a chicken she owned walked backwards. She later said in an interview, “That was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me. It’s all been downhill from there.”