As I have now finished reading Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch, I have reached several conclusions about my all-time favorite author. First, Flannery O’Connor died much too soon, depriving us of so much more that she could have written. At the end of her life, at age thirty-nine, she was maturing and writing her best work. Several stories in the last few years of her life won the coveted O. Henry Award, including “Everything that Rises Must Converge” and “Revelation.” Also, I discovered that O’Connor was very much a product of the American South, and held many views common in that area of the country, though she was also more liberal than the majority. She was definitely a devout Catholic, which shows in all of her work. Last, I learned that O’Connor had much insecurity, though recognized that she had much to offer the world through her writing.
Her first two books were Wise Blood, a novel, and A Good Man Is Hard to Find, a collection of short stories. She went on to write and publish a second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, which caused much controversy at least in part due to a homosexual rape scene. Her last set of short stories, though, won her great acclaim and put her on the map. Her story “Greenleaf” was her first to win the O. Henry Award, and she created “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “Revelation” (the story that was the first of hers I had read), and one of my favorites, “Parker’s Back,” about a tattooed man who, in trying to impress his Protestant wife, had a Byzantine image of Christ tattooed on his back. Parker’s wife, disgusted by the tattoo, beats Parker across his back, raising welts on Christ’s face. O’Connor also rewrote her first successful story, “The Geranium” as “Judgment Day,” a far superior story which became a milestone for how far she had come as a writer. O’Connor planned a second short story collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, and spent her last days on Earth writing and revising what became her best stories. The book was published during the spring of 1965, about nine months after her death. The Collected Stories, a republication of O’Connor’s stories, from “The Geranium” to “Judgment Day,” won the National Book Award in 1972.
O’Connor was in and out of the hospital, beginning in November, 1963, around the time of Kennedy’s assassination, through August of 1964. Her blood count dropped due to a cyst, and doctors wanted to do a hysterectomy. Such an operation, though, put O’Connor at risk for a flare-up of lupus. Since her diagnosis of lupus in 1951, she had been in remission, but she grew weaker due to her low blood count and could barely hit the keys of her typewriter. To prepare for surgery, O’Connor was loaded with cortisone, and for up to two weeks following surgery, O’Connor seemed to pull through well. After two weeks, though, her lupus was back, and she had to be on steroids again. Ultimately, she would not survive, and was in and out of the hospital for blood transfusions and other treatment. At one point, she spent over a month in the hospital. She kept a notebook under her pillow and scratched out stories in a shaky hand. This was how she completed “Parker’s Back.” Finally, doctors sent her home for good, knowing that further stay in the hospital would not do any good. O’Connor, aware she was dying, conserved her strength for short spells at an electric typewriter near her bed, and managed to finish all story revisions before she was rushed to the hospital for the final time. She passed away early in the morning on August 3, 1964.
Flannery O’Connor, a product of the Deep South, used the ‘n’ word in private, though she did believe that all people are God’s children and deserve respect. Many of her stories, especially her later stories, have a desegregationist viewpoint, with a young man who sits next to an African-American on a bus, much to his old fashioned mother’s disapproval. In “Revelation,” Mrs. Turpin has a vision of a long line of people entering heaven, and African-Americans were entering first, and wealthy white people, like herself, were in the rear. One of the monks who had met O’Connor once remarked that she was a cultural racist, as she often went along with the culture around her. She did want equality for all, but perhaps she recognized that such progress would take time. She once refused to meet author James Baldwin if he visited her in Georgia, though she said that she had no problem meeting him in New York.
There is some evidence as to O’Connor’s view of homosexuality. Her homosexual character in The Violent Bear It Away plays on stereotypes, which would tend to indicate her unfamiliarity with open homosexuality. One close friend, Betty Hester, confessed to O’Connor a “dark secret,” that she had had an affair with a woman. O’Connor, in her letters to Hester, declares acceptance of her friend, that such knowledge changes nothing. Hester later admitted that she was in love with Flannery, who appreciated the sentiment, but did not return that love. Betty Hester attended O’Connor’s funeral, and members of the family saw her sobbing and shaking uncontrollably. Hester, later in life, committed suicide.
Since her diagnosis with lupus, O’Connor purchased peacocks and peahens, raising them at Andalusia. She had a life-long fascination with birds. A close friend once remarked that O’Connor had made her character, Mary Grace, from “Revelation” ugly because she loved Mary Grace so much. Peacocks are also homely, looking awkward as they goose-step around, eating Regina O’Connor’s flowers. Perhaps she identified with the birds, as she herself felt awkward in life, shy and withdrawing in person, but on the written page, she showed her glory and wit, much like the peacock when he spreads his long tail, revealing something that looks like a map of the universe.