A literary voice silenced way too early.
Flannery O’Connor did not even live to see her 40th birthday; she died, in 1964, of lupus, the same inflammatory disease which had killed her father when she was a mere teenager and which all too soon began to cripple her as well. A graduate of the Iowa State University’s journalism and writing program, she had started to write her first stories, poems and other pieces when she was still in high school, and had submitted a collection of six short stories entitled “The Geranium” as her master’s thesis in university. (Most of the stories contained in that collection were published individually in various magazines and anthologies around the time of their inclusion in the thesis; the collection as a whole, however, was first published only posthumously in the National Book Award winning “Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor.”) Only a few years after having obtained her master’s degree, and after a prolonged residence at Yaddo artists’ colony in upstate New York, O’Connor began to spend time in hospitals and, in due course, was diagnosed with lupus. From that moment on, she focused on her writing even more than she had before – and the result were two novels, two short story collections, several stand-alone short stories, essays and other pieces of occasional prose, as well as a barrage of letters. The majority of that work product, including twenty-one previously unpublished letters, is reproduced in this collection published in the Library of America series; notably, the fiction part also includes, as one piece, O’Connor’s master’s thesis, “The Geranium: A Collection of Short Stories.”
A native of Georgia, Flannery O’Connor defined herself as much as a Catholic writer as a Southerner; and she commented on the impact that regional influences on the one hand and her religion on the other hand had had on her writing in the 1963 essays “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South” and “The Regional Writer.” Yet, while religion (and more specifically, Catholicism) certainly plays a big part in her writing, from the “Christian malgré lui,” as she herself characterized the hero of her first novel “Wise Blood” in the Author’s Note to book’s 1962 second edition, to the “odd folks out” and searching souls populating her short stories, and to her frequent biblical references, it would not do her writing justice to limit her to that realm, nor to that of “Southern” fiction. (No matter for which specific dramatic purpose a writer employed a Southern setting, he would still be considered to be writing about the South in general, and was thus left to get rid off the label of a “Southern writer … and all the misconceptions that go with it” as best he could, she quipped in her 1960 essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Rather, she added three years later in “The Regional Writer,” location matters to an author insofar as any author “operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet,” and it is up to him to find that precise spot and apply it to his writing.) Similarly, while her heroes are certainly not the kind of people you expect to meet on your daily errands (or do you?), it would shortchange them were we to succumb to the temptation of merely defining them as some particularly colorful examples of grotesque fiction. For one thing, “[t]o be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man,” as O’Connor noted in “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” More fundamentally, however, she saw her calling – and that of any Southern author treading the same ground as William Faulkner and trying not to have their “mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down” – as an attempt to reach below the surface of the human existence to that realm “which is the concern of prophets and poets,” and to strike a balance between realism on the one hand and vision, poetry and compassion on the other; to recognize the expectations of her readers without making herself their slave.
Thus, the famously unexpected endings of Flannery O’Connor’s narratives are more than merely weird plot twists, the encounter between the grandmother and The Misfit in the title story of her first published short story collection “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1955) is the result of a wrong turn in the road as much as that of a series of wrong choices, coincidences and essential miscommunications, and the title story of her second, posthumously published collection of short stories “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (1965) truly does indicate more than a physical proposition and indeed, a situation applicable to the entire world, as O’Connor wrote in a 1961 letter regarding the initial publication of the collection’s title story in New World Writing.
A six-time winner of the O. Henry Award for Short Fiction and winner of the posthumously awarded 1972 National Book Award for her Collected Short Stories, in her short career as a writer Flannery O’Connor left an indelible mark on American literature, far transcending the borders of her native South. We can only speculate what she would have contributed had illness and death not intervened – and in a time when, as O’Connor wrote so prophetically in “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” too many writers abandon vision and instead contend themselves with satisfying their readers’ more pedestrian expectations, her contributions would doubtless be invaluable. Alas, we are left with a body of work that fits neatly into this marvelously edited single-volume entry in the “Library of America” series – but the content of this one book alone is worth manifold that of the much ampler output of many a writer of recent years.
“In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.”
A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories
“Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people’s in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack.”
“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
Some Aspects of The Grotesque in Southern Fiction
“[A]nything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”