By Dr. Marshall Bruce Gentry
Mary Flannery O’Connor was born March 25, 1925, in Savannah, Georgia, the only child of Edward Francis and Regina Cline O’Connor. The O’Connors lived at 207 East Charlton St. across LaFayette Square from the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, where the family attended Mass. Starting in 1928, Flannery would visit Milledgeville occasionally. Her mother, Regina Cline O'Connor, came from a prominent family in Milledgeville: her father had been the mayor of Milledgeville for many years.
In 1938, the family moved to Atlanta where Edward O’Connor worked as a Federal Housing Authority real estate appraiser. In 1940, the O’Connors moved to Milledgeville to live in the Cline family home on Greene Street. Mr. O’Connor died of lupus in 1941, and Mrs. O’Connor and Flannery continued to live in the Milledgeville family home along with Flannery’s aunts. It is here that Flannery lived in a bedroom on the second floor while she completed Peabody High School in 1942 and continued her education at Georgia State College for Women (GSCW, now Georgia College & State University).
O’Connor attended GSCW during World War II under an accelerated three-year program and earned a BA in Social Science in 1945. While attending high school and college in Milledgeville, Flannery began her literary career by regularly contributing satirical creative writing and artwork to her school publications. She was editor of the literary magazine, the Corinthian, her senior year at GSCW. She also served on the yearbook and newspaper staffs.
When Flannery O’Connor left Milledgeville in 1945 to attend the State University of Iowa, she enrolled in the Writers’ Workshop conducted by Paul Engle. She published her first story, “The Geranium,” in the literary journal Accent, just one year after graduating from GSCW. Her thesis at Iowa was a collection of short stories entitled The Geranium, which contains the seed of her first novel. She received a Master of Fine Arts degree after two years but remained in Iowa for another year before going to Yaddo, an artist colony near Saratoga Springs, New York. Afterwards she lived in New York City, where she was introduced to poet Robert Fitzgerald and his wife Sally, with whom she lived for over a year in Ridgefield, Connecticut. They became close friends, and it was Sally Fitzgerald who became the guardian of Flannery’s work and her legacy. During this time Flannery was writing her first novel, Wise Blood. (John Huston read the novel in 1978; he had received a copy from Michael Fitzgerald, whose father was O'Connor's literary executor, Robert. Against all odds, Michael Fitzgerald secured the money for the production of a movie, and he and his brother, Benedict, wrote the screenplay.)
In late 1950 Flannery O’Connor began to exhibit symptoms of the disease that killed her father. Her condition forced Flannery to return to Milledgeville in 1951, but she continued working on revised drafts of the novel even in the hospital. Instead of returning to the family home in town, Flannery moved with her mother to the family farm, Andalusia, where Flannery lived until her death in 1964. While at Andalusia, Flannery O’Connor completed Wise Blood; her highly acclaimed collection of short stories A Good Man Is Hard to Find; The Violent Bear It Away; and the stories that would appear in her posthumous collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge. Among her awards are a Kenyon Fellowship in 1953, a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in 1957, and a Ford Foundation grant in 1959.
O’Connor certainly did not live a reclusive life after returning to Milledgeville although her vocation and her illness imposed some restrictions. Accompanied by her mother, Flannery made frequent visits into town for dining, social events, and attending religious services regularly at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. She also traveled throughout the United States for various speaking engagements. Nevertheless, during her productive years as a writer, she spent most of her time at Andalusia. There she routinely wrote each morning until noon and spent her afternoons and evenings tending to her domestic birds or entertaining visitors. The setting of Andalusia, a 500-acre dairy farm with ever-present peafowl, figures prominently in her fiction. If it is true that southern fiction is marked by a sense of place, then a major force in shaping Flannery O’Connor’s work is her local landscape. Andalusia provided for her not only a place to live and write, but also a functional landscape in which to set her fiction. She had thirteen productive writing years broken by intermittent hospital stays at Andalusia until she died on August 3, 1964.
In the years since O’Connor’s death, her fame has grown steadily, and collections of her essays, letters, and interviews have been published. The Complete Stories, edited by Robert Giroux, won the 1971 National Book Award for Fiction (and was recently voted the best book ever to win the National Book Award). In 1979, Sally Fitzgerald published her edition of a large collection of O’Connor’s letters, The Habit of Being, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award. Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works was published in 1988 as part of the Library of America series, the definitive collection of America’s greatest writers.