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Mary Flannery O'Connor was born on March 25, 1925, in Savannah, Georgia, to a prominent Roman Catholic family. In 1938 Flannery moved with her mother, Regina Cline O'Connor, to Regina's family home in Milledgeville after Flannery's father, Edward, was appointed a zone real-estate appraiser for the Federal Housing Administration in Atlanta. The move allowed him to visit his family on weekends. Shortly afterward, however, he became sick with lupus erythematosus, an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks its own tissues and organs. O'Connor's beloved father died when she was 15.
The trauma of her father's death resulted in her decision to remain in Milledgeville and attend Georgia State College for Women in an accelerated three-year program.
A gifted artist and cartoonist, O'Connor provided cartoons, fiction, and essays for the Corinthian, GSCW's literary magazine, displaying a preference for satire and comedy. As editor of the Corinthian, and as unofficial campus cartoonist, she drew cartoons for all the campus publications and even for the walls of the student lounge. Graduating from Georgia State College for Women in 1945, O'Connor was offered a journalism scholarship from the University of Iowa. In her first term of graduate school, she realized journalism was not her vocation and asked to be admitted to the creative writing program, now famous as the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
At the Workshop she became friends with important writers and critics who lectured or taught in the program, among them Robert Penn Warren (1905–89), John Crowe Ransom (1888–1974), Austin Warren (1899–1986), and Andrew Lytle (1902–95). Editor of the journal Sewanee Review, Lytle was one of O'Connor's earliest admirers and published several of her stories. Her first story, "The Geranium," was published in 1946 and was part of a collection of stories she wrote as her Master's thesis. As a graduate student, O'Connor continued to attend church and kept a prayer journal from 1946 to 1947.
In 1947 O'Connor won the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award for a portion of her first novel, Wise Blood and was accepted at Yaddo, an artists' retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York, where she became friends with poet Robert Lowell (1917–77). She lived for a short time in New York City, where she met Sally (1916–2000) and Robert Fitzgerald (1910–85), who became lifelong friends. She moved into their garage apartment in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where she boarded for nearly two years. Fitzgerald, a poet and critic, and his wife, Sally, also were devout Catholics. O'Connor went to Mass (Catholic service) every day, taking the drive with one of the Fitzgeralds, while the other stayed home to mind the children. The Fitzgeralds provided O'Connor with both the intellectual company and solitude she needed to write.
This stabilizing and productive time was interrupted in 1950, however, when O'Connor was stricken with lupus, the incurable, autoimmune disease her father died of. At that time treatment for the disease was crude, and the doctors put O'Connor on an experimental steroid drug and blood transfusions. She spent the winter and spring of her sickness in Emory Hospital in Atlanta. She was then forced to return to Milledgeville permanently, where her mother ran a dairy farm and made a home for them for the last 13 years of O'Connor's short life. On the farm, O'Connor and her mother famously kept peacocks, which for O'Connor were a symbol of Jesus Christ. She believed their tails were full of suns. After her death, Robert Fitzgerald became O'Connor's literary executor, and Sally Fitzgerald edited O'Connor's letters, published as The Habit of Being (1988).
Between bouts of sickness O'Connor continued to write, read widely, and correspond with friends. She produced two short novels, Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960), and two collections of short stories: A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge, published posthumously in 1965. Robert and Sally Fitzgerald edited a volume of O'Connor's essay and lectures, titled Mystery and Manners in 1969. In 1971 her publisher brought out a volume of her complete stories, which won a National Book Award in 1972. Additional posthumous volumes are The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews (1983) and A Prayer Journal (2013).
O'Connor's works seem incongruous to some critics because the author was profoundly religious, yet her works are darkly comic and brutal and feature surprising, unsettling acts of violence. Moreover, her characters are often unsympathetic or downright bad. O'Connor's answer to the critics was that violence "is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace." According to critic Melita Schaum, O'Connor often employs a "Lucifer-Trickster" character to bring her literary creations face to face with their sinfulness and unacknowledged hubris.
O'Connor put her Catholic faith at the center of her life and art. She believed she was living in a time during which consumerism, conformity, and homogenization were destroying spiritual possibilities and miring people in a materialistic desert. She famously called herself a 13th-century Catholic. Unlike some other modern Catholic writers, she believed wholeheartedly in the mysteries of the Church, such as the transubstantiation of the Eucharist, in which bread and wine are said to be transformed into the body and blood of Christ. When fellow Catholic writer Mary McCarthy (1912–89) opined the Eucharist was a symbol, O'Connor famously said, "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it." She wrote to one friend that "the Church is the one thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed." When she looked out at the world, she saw its sinfulness—even the sinfulness inside the Church. Yet, in her view, it was only the spiritual life lived through the body that gave people the possibility of accessing God's grace. She was a foe of secular humanism (belief that humans can be moral without God) and civil religion (implied religious values of a nation), saying that "dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality" and asserting that her stories were "watered and fed by Dogma."
O'Connor's stories are peopled with Protestant fundamentalists, many of them uneducated country people, and for the most part her characters' spiritual epiphanies are framed in the belief systems of Baptists or Methodists or some other Protestant sect. This choice comes from the affinity O'Connor feels with fundamentalists for whom religion is a living presence in their lives. She sympathizes with these uneducated and often racist people who read the Bible literally, believe the world was created in six days, and do not doubt that Satan exerts his malevolent power in the temporal realm. As a Southerner, she acknowledged the evils of racism but never apologized for them, and she made the claim that racism was a smaller part of a larger evil. She lived to see the early days of the fight against racial discrimination with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, about which she had ambiguous feelings, for she knew that dismantling the old "Southern way of life" would also mean dismantling aspects of Southern culture she believed were valuable.
Ill through much of her literary life, O'Connor continued to work on her last and arguably best collection of stories through her final sickness. She fell into a coma and died on August 3, 1964. Despite her short life, Flannery O'Connor is considered by some critics to be the best American short-story writer of the 20th century. Without a doubt, her stories are compelling, unsettling, startling, and memorable.
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