The writer Flannery O'Connor died in 1964 at the age of 39. For years after her untimely death, the myth surrounding O'Connor was that she had been a shy, eccentric recluse confined to a rural farm in Georgia. That's not true. Flannery O'Connor did indeed spend the last third of her short life on her mother's farm, but only because she suffered from a debilitating form of lupus that made it difficult to care for herself. And yeah, she was a little odd. She raised chickens and peacocks for fun and said whatever was on her mind, regardless of how it sounded to others. But she wasn't a recluse. She stayed actively engaged with the world outside the farm, writing hundreds of letters to her many friends and associates. And her writing. Oh, her writing.
"Miss O'Connor's style is tight to choking and as direct and uncompounded as the order to a firing squad to shoot a man against a wall," wrote the New York Times when her first novel appeared to critical acclaim in 1952.4 Her stories were ruthless in their realistic detail and insistence that the reader pay attention – no matter how grotesque the action. Horrible things happen in Flannery O'Connor stories: grandmothers get shot; criminals steal prosthetic limbs. You don't want to watch, but you also can't look away.
Flannery O'Connor wrote like a person who did not have time to mess around. She certainly didn't. At the age of 25, she was diagnosed with the same form of lupus that had already killed her father. At the time, there was no effective treatment or cure. She lived another fourteen years, enduring painful and difficult medical procedures with her wry sense of self-deprecating humor. "My lupus has no business in literary considerations,"5 she once said, sharply rebuking the idea that she deserved special treatment because of her illness.
A Roman Catholic, Flannery O'Connor insisted that she was at heart a Christian writer, and that all of her stories were in one way or another related to the life of Christ. Their religious themes could be difficult for the average reader to spot. She detested Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, and her fellow Southern Gothics. She was uninterested in the Civil Rights Movement or politics. When she painted her self-portrait, she included her favorite peacock. There was no one else quite like Flannery O'Connor. And there hasn't been anyone like her since.