Flannery O'Connor: Writer
O'Connor's widowed mother, Regina, had established a successful dairy farm at Andalusia in the years since her husband's death. Flannery O'Connor settled into life on the farm. She developed a routine where she would write all morning and then spend the rest of the day on correspondence and other activities. She liked tending to her chickens and peacocks, even though her lupus eventually required the use of crutches.
In 1952, her novel Wise Blood was published. The book told the story of a spiritually bankrupt, veteran-turned-preacher Hazel Motes and a self-declared prophet named Enoch Emery. It was a parade of the grotesque, featuring a mummified corpse, a gorilla costume, and people blinded with lye. The book – and the obvious talent of its writer – shocked readers and critics. Wise Blood "introduces its author as a writer of power," the New York Times wrote. "There is in Flannery O'Connor a fierceness of literary gesture, an angriness of observation."9 O'Connor had officially arrived as one of America's most talented young writers.
O'Connor was able to support her writing career through numerous awards and fellowships. The year after Wise Blood's publication, she received the Kenyon Review fellowship. In 1955, she won the first of three O. Henry Prizes for outstanding short fiction. She also published a short story collection entitled A Good Man Is Hard to Find. If you've never read the title story of the collection, we won't spoil it for you. All we will say is that it is 6,500 of the most quietly terrifying words in American literature. Some readers were scared off by O'Connor's work. It was too much. It was too upsetting. T.S. Eliot said that he was "quite horrified" by O'Connor's stories. "She has certainly an uncanny talent of a high order but my nerves are just not strong enough to take much of a disturbance,"10 the poet stated. O'Connor was undeterred. Her characters, she said proudly, were "freaks and folks."11
In 1959, she was awarded a Ford Foundation grant and kept working. She published her second novel the following year. The title of The Violent Bear It Away was taken from a Bible verse in the book of Matthew, and the novel dealt explicitly in religious themes. O'Connor maintained that all of her work was Christian-oriented, but critics usually did not see or did not agree with her suggested interpretations of her work. "Miss O'Connor saw herself as 'a novelist with Christian concerns' who wrote her stories 'in relation to the redemption of Christ.' Many readers failed to see this relation, but they enjoyed her nevertheless," as her obituary put it.12
O'Connor often viewed her own work differently than others did. She balked at comparisons between her and Carson McCullers, a contemporary and fellow Southern Gothic writer. Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams made her "plumb sick," she said. And she didn't care much for Kafka, to whom she was also compared.13 She preferred to think of herself as literary kin to Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose Twice Told Tales and other Gothic stories mirrored her own view of the world.
Despite her illness, O'Connor traveled occasionally to lecture or read from her work. She didn't date. The only man known to have courted O'Connor (and to have bestowed her first kiss, when she was 29) said of the experience: "As our lips touched, I had a feeling that her mouth lacked resilience, as if she had no muscle tension in her mouth, a result being that my own lips touched her teeth rather than lips, and this gave me an unhappy feeling of a sort of memento mori, and so the kissing stopped. . . . I had a feeling of kissing a skeleton, and in that sense it was a shocking experience."14 Bad kisses notwithstanding, O'Connor had many friends and correspondents, exchanging roughly 300 letters with a single friend in nine years. She received another O. Henry Prize in 1963. She was working on a third novel. Her writing just kept getting better and better.