Study Guide

Flannery O'Connor Biography

  • Biography

    Flannery O'Connor died in 1964 at the age of thirty-nine. 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. 

    Weird. There's a similar myth surrounding the employees of Shmoop. It's preposterous, of course. A rural farm? Please.

    We live in a rock cave with an old man named Shark Tooth. 

    Flannery however did spend the last third of her life on her mother's farm. She suffered from a debilitating form of lupus that made it difficult to care for herself, but even though she was farm-bound, she found ways to enjoy life. We're pretty sure you all know what we're talking about, but we'll spell it out, just in case...

    She raised chickens and peacocks for fun. 

    ...Oh, you thought we were going to talk about her writing? Well, too bad. It's peacock time.

    Flannery O'Connor's interest in peacocks started in 1952, when she purchased a peacock and peahen by mail. From then on, she...

    ...Okay, fine, we'll talk about her writing. It's not as fun as peacock farming, but whatever floats your boat.

    "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. she once said, sharply rebuking the idea that she deserved special treatment because of her illness.

    We think she deserved special treatment because she was one-of-a-kind. 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 quite like Flannery O'Connor, and there hasn't been anyone like her since.

    To be fair, that's not always a good thing. There's no one else like Shark Tooth, and that's probably for the best.

  • Childhood

    Mary Flannery O'Connor was born March 25th, 1925 in Savannah, Georgia. She was the only child of Regina Cline and Edward F. O'Connor. In 1938, the O'Connor family moved to Milledgeville, Georgia, a rural town in Baldwin County that was deeply proud of its roots. O'Connor once wrote that its unofficial motto was, "When in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville."

    Rumor has it he also said, "but man, was she super into chicken. Like, weirdly into chicken..."

  • Iowa

    O'Connor thrived at Iowa, befriending many of the other students, teachers, and poultry. Some of them, like Andrew Lytle, later the editor of the Sewanee Review, would become important advocates for her career. Her first published story, "The Geranium," appeared in Accent magazine in 1946. It was the title piece for the short story collection she submitted as her thesis. In 1947, O'Connor received a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa, and upon graduation, she was awarded the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award for an early version of what later became her first novel.

    Upon our graduation, we were awarded the prestigious You Spent Way Too Much Money At Taco Bell Award. 

    How do you like them apples, O'Connor?

    After graduation, O'Connor applied to Yaddo, the prestigious artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. She was accepted and moved to the colony in 1948. "She was a plain sort of young, unmarried girl, a little bit sickly," recalled the literary critic and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick, who was a resident at Yaddo at the same time as O'Connor. "She had a small-town Southern accent . . . She whined. She was amusing. She was so gifted, immensely gifted." 

    That's nice and all, but maybe don't include the "plain, sickly, and whiny" part next time you give a compliment, Elizabeth. 

    O'Connor was hard at work on her first novel, but in February of 1949, a New York Times article accused Agnes Smedley, a guest at Yaddo, of being a Communist spy. When they discovered that the program's director was also under investigation, O'Connor and the other artists in residence agreed that the director should step down. As a result of the controversy, O'Connor chose to leave Yaddo. She moved into a garage apartment attached to the Ridgefield, Connecticut home of her friends Robert and Sally Fitzgerald.

    O'Connor never planned to return to Georgia. Unfortunately, in late 1950, she was diagnosed with the same form of lupus that had killed her father. At the time, the only treatment was heavy dosages of steroid drugs, which often made her feel even worse than the lupus did. In 1951, O'Connor moved to Andalusia, her mother's farm in Milledgeville. It was where she spent the rest of her life. She later expressed gratitude that she'd been forced to come back to Andalusia, as she did her best writing there.

    No offense to your garage, Robert and Sally. We're sure it was lovely. 

  • Writer

    After leaving Connecticut, O'Connor settled into life at her mother's dairy farm, Andalusia. She wrote all morning and spent the rest of the day on correspondence and other activities, like tending to her chickens and peacocks.

    Old habits die hard.

    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. 

    Okay, so that all seems tame compared to the horrifying Human Centipede days we live in, but trust us...it was intense back then.

    The book 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." 

    We have a feeling the bon mot "don't kiss and tell" was invented because of this delightful over-sharer. 

    Seriously, dude. If you don't have anything nice to say, don't go into a detailed explanation of what it's like to mack on a living bone bag. 

    Toothy, skeletal kisses aside, O'Connor had many friends, correspondents, and birds, and was never wanting for company. She received another O. Henry Prize in 1963, was working on a third novel, and was constantly thinking up new ways to scare the snot out of T.S. Eliot. 

    We would've suggested donning a gorilla mask and leaping out of his closet when he least expected it...but that's just us. 

  • Death

    Flannery O'Connor's body gave out before her creativity did. 

    In 1964, she had an operation to remove a tumor caused by her lupus. It didn't go well, and her health declined rapidly over the course of a few months. After spending several days in a coma, Flannery O'Connor died on August 3rd, 1964 at the Baldwin County Hospital. She was thirty-nine years old. She was buried next to her father, who had died twenty-three years earlier of the same disease. 

    Before her final illness, O'Connor managed to complete a collection of short stories that was published after her death. Everything That Rises Must Converge contains some of her finest work. Never short on awards, she also received a third O. Henry Prize for the short story "Revelation," which had been published the previous spring. 

    In 1971, The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor was published. The posthumous anthology won the National Book Award. The loss of O'Connor at such an early age makes her work gleam all the more brightly. "What we lost when she died is bitter," said critic Walter Clemons in Newsweek. "What we have is astonishing: the stories burn brighter than ever, and strike deeper." 

    But it is perhaps her favorite companions who put it best: "bawk bawk bah-GAWK bawk bah-GAWK GAWK bawk bawk." 

    Brings a tear to your eye, doesn't it?

  • Family

    Father: Edward F. O'Connor (?–1941)
    Mother: Regina Cline O'Connor (c. 1896–1995)

  • Education

    Bachelor's degree, Georgia State College for Women (1941-1945)
    Masters of Fine Arts, University of Iowa (1945-1947)

  • Major Works

    Wise Blood (1952)
    A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955)
    The Violent Bear it Away (1960)
    Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965)
    The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor (1971)

  • Awards

    Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award (1947)
    Kenyon Review Fellowship (1953)
    Honoree, Best American Short Stories (1955)
    Georgia Writers Association Literary Achievement Award (1956)
    O. Henry Prize (1957)
    American Academy of Arts and Letters Grant (1957)
    Alumnae Achievement Award, Georgia State College for Women, (1957)
    Honoree, Best American Short Stories (1958)
    Ford Foundation Grant (1959)
    Georgia Writers Conference Literary Achievement Award (1962)
    Honorary Degree, Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, IN (1962)
    Honorary Degree, Smith College, Northampton, MA (1963)
    O. Henry Prize (1963)
    O. Henry Prize (1965)
    National Book Award (1972)
    Georgia Women of Achievement Honoree (1992)
    Georgia Writers Hall of Fame (2000)