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, 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...
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