“The fiction writer presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes, there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.”
Flannery O’Connor, who wrote some of the finest stories in the English language as well as two powerful novels, came from a wealthy family of old Georgia Catholics. Her father Edward died from the disease lupus in 1941, but her mother Regina continued to run the family farm.
As a young woman at Georgia Woman’s College in nearby Milledgeville, she wrote and drew and edited a literary magazine. After graduating with a social science degree in 1942, she won a fellowship at the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she got an MA in 1947, and then went to New York. Her friend Robert Fitzgerald described her then as “a shy Georgia girl, her face heart-shaped and pale and glum, with fine eyes that could stop frowning and open brilliantly upon everything.”
In late 1950, as she was writing her first novel Wise Blood, she began to feel a heaviness in her typing arms. On her way home to Georgia for Christmas, she fell very ill and was herself diagnosed with lupus, which is an auto-immune disease where the body forms antibodies to its own tissues. At Emory Hospital in Atlanta she had blood transfusions and cortisone injections, and improved enough to return home to the family farm with her mother, although she was expected to die within a few years. Soon after, Wise Blood was accepted for publication, coming out in 1952, although its grisly aspects alienated her relatives and neighbours, and its religious aspects alienated the literati.
As a result of the success of her first book, she won a Kenyon fellowship, and continued writing short stories and began her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away. Her disease continued to wax and wane, as the hormone treatments continued. In 1954 she wrote to the Fitzgeralds: “I am walking with a cane these days which gives me a great air of distinction…I now feel that it makes very little difference what you call it. As the niggers say, I have the misery.” The lupus, or the treatments for lupus, were causing her bones to degenerate, and she soon graduated to aluminium crutches.
However, with her mother’s support, and with the increasing success of her work, including her first volume of stories, A Good Man Is Hard To Find, she managed to achieve a stable way of life, and even travelled to speak and give readings around the United States. At home on the farm, she raised peafowl, ducks, geese and exotic birds. Her second novel was published in 1960, and her mobility improved when she was able to drive around her district. During these last thirteen years of her life, when she was living at the family farm, often house-bound, she also painted still-lifes and landscapes taken from her surroundings.
O’Connor’s fiction is usually set in a rural Southern setting, uses local dialect, and has grotesque elements, hence the label of “Southern Gothic”. She herself said “the stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism.” Wendy Lesser points out that “Sickness and dismemberment and ugliness and mental defectiveness and painful, irredeemable aging and its inevitable companion, death, are front and center in O’Connor’s view of the human condition.” Racial themes are also prominent in her stories. I have always found her work uncomfortable, enjoyable, and very memorable. There is also usually a strong strand of sardonic humour, which prevents it becoming overwhelmingly grim. As well as her novels and stories, she was a very active letter-writer.
In 1958, at the urging of relatives, she went on a trip to Lourdes with her mother, and then to Rome for an audience with Pope Pius XII. A devout Catholic, she nevertheless dreaded the possibility of a miracle. While her disease went into remission for several years, she was stabilized, rather than cured. Early in 1964, she underwent an abdominal operation, after which her lupus returned in force. She died in Milledgeville hospital on August 3 1964, of kidney failure.
NPR discussion of her correspondence
Another article about her letters, with photos
Wendy Lesser, Southern Discomfort