Crying in the Wilderness
The life and work of Flannery O'Connor
By Stanley Booth

From Gadfly December 1998


O Israel, thy prophets are like foxes in the desert.
Ezekiel 13:4

On a bright Savannah day in 1931, in the back yard of a narrow three-story house that looks across Lafayette Square to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, a Pathé News cinematographer films a five-year-old with "an expression of dignified ferocity" displaying her claim to fame: a frizzled chicken she has trained to walk backwards. Years later the bird wrangler, Miss Mary Flannery O'Connor, would call it "an experience that marked me for life." As a first grader, she had become a public figure, one who would someday be a Standard Author in the Library of America, her work compared with that of Sophocles.

The symbolism of the scene is appealing to the biographer, because the two presences, exotic fowls and the Catholic Church, would be with Flannery, as she preferred to be called, till her dying day. An additional irony lies in the three proscriptions that existed when Savannah was founded: the Georgia colony was to contain no rum, slaves or Catholics. It is ironic, I mean, that a Catholic, especially one who believed, and said in public, "the average Catholic reader is a Militant Moron," should become the state's greatest writer.

Flannery attended St. Vincent's Grammar School at the Cathedral, transferring in 1936 to Sacred Heart School on Bull Street. With her parents, Edward Francis and Regina Cline O'Connor, she worshiped at the Cathedral. Her father owned the Dixie Realty and Construction Companies, but during the Depression his businesses foundered, and in 1938 he went to work as an appraiser in Atlanta for the Federal Housing Authority. Before long he was stricken with lupus erythematosus and forced to retire. Lupus is Latin for wolf, and refers also to a pike, a pointed metal tool or weapon. Systemic lupus erythematosus is incurable, causing prolonged fever and skin eruptions and attacking the body's tissues, bone marrow and blood. Flannery's father died on the first day of February 1941. Flannery turned sixteen on March 25. By then the family was living in Regina's ancestral abode of Milledgeville, the antebellum capital of Georgia.

Flannery's great-grandfather, Hugh Donnelly Treanor, was the first Catholic resident of Milledgeville. "Mass was first said here in my great-grandfather's hotel room, later in his home on the piano," Flannery wrote. Treanor donated the land on which Sacred Heart Catholic Church now stands.

There being no Catholic school in Milledgeville, Flannery attended Peabody High School, an experimental school run by the Education Department of Georgia State College for Women (now Georgia College). "The only good things I read when I was a child were the Greek and Roman myths which I got out of a set of child's encyclopedia called The Book of Knowledge. The rest of what I read was Slop with a capital S. The Slop period was followed by the Edgar Allan Poe period which lasted for years and consisted chiefly in a volume called The Humerous [sic] Tales of E.A. Poe," Flannery told a friend, adding, "I went to a progressive high school where one did not read unless one wished to; I did not wish to (except The Humerous Tales etc.)." Flannery remained all her life "a very innocent speller," believing for example that the word cheese contained a z. In one letter she tried four times to spell the word treatise without success.

After her graduation from GSCW in 1945, Flannery studied at Iowa State University's School for Writers. The director, Paul Engle, was at first unable to understand a word of her Georgia drawl and asked her to write down what she wanted to say. When the time came to read her stories aloud in class, Engle did it himself. "I didn't start to read until I went to Graduate School and then I began to read and write at the same time," Flannery said. "When I went to Iowa I had never heard of Faulkner, Kafka, Joyce, much less read them."

She received a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1947. For the next three years she lived at the writer's colony called Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, in New York City, and in Connecticut with her friends Robert and Sally Fitzgerald. In December 1950 failing health forced her to return to Georgia, where she was sure she could never work. There she would write two novels, two books of short stories, many essays and lectures, and thousands of pages of letters to friends and literary colleagues.

The teachers at St. Vincent's, Sisters of Mercy from Ireland, informed Flannery that she had a guardian angel who never left her side even for a moment. "From 8 to 12 years it was my habit to seclude myself in a locked room every so often and with a fierce (and evil) face, whirl around in a circle with my fists knotted, socking the angel," she told a friend. "My dislike of him was poisonous."

Nevertheless, she grew up to be a devout and orthodox Catholic. "I am no vague believer," she said, and it must be true that not even the authors of the books in the Bible can have had a greater sense of mission. This was her primary gift and burden. It is as the Marxists used to say "no accident" that one of her best-known characters is called the Misfit, because that's how Flannery saw herself in the literary world. "I have found that anything 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," she wrote. "Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one."

When muckraker Philip Wylie described Catholic writers as "brain-washed," Flannery responded by saying, "The Catholic sacramental view of life is one that sustains and supports at every turn the vision that the storyteller must have if he is going to write fiction of any depth."

Depth was one quality her work certainly possessed, but many readers were unprepared for its combination of humor and violence. In the milieu of the fifties and sixties her work appeared to some profoundly disturbing in much the same fashion that the films of Quentin Tarantino would in the nineties. However, Flannery's personal conventionality made her work seem even more shocking. Evelyn Waugh's blurb on the dust jacket of her first novel, Wise Blood, read, "If this is really the unaided work of a young lady, it is a remarkable product." To which the "vastly insulted" Regina responded, "Who is this Evalin Wow? Does he suppose you're not a lady?"

Even a Catholic novelist of surpassing greatness like Waugh was unsure what to make of Flannery; it's not surprising that such secular journals as the New Yorker, the Nation and Time would find her, as they did, unpleasantly baffling. "One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian," she wrote, "is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation, that is, nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who think God is dead."

When Flannery's father died, her mother asked the doctor whether lupus was hereditary and was assured that he had never known two cases to occur in one family. Flannery's illness, like her father's, was initially misdiagnosed as arthritis, but was soon discovered to be lupus. Fortunately, by the time she contracted the disease, techniques for controlling it had been developed.

The year her father died, Flannery's uncle, Dr. Bernard Cline, had purchased a 1500-acre farm called Andalusia, about four miles outside Milledgeville. She and her mother moved there in 1951, and with hired help, Regina started a dairy. Much to Flannery's surprise, once her disease was quiescent, she began writing again. On the farm she was also able to indulge her penchant for birds, acquiring chickens, ducks, geese, pheasants, swans, and, most significantly, peacocks. At one point her peacocks numbered forty. She wrote to a friend that the eyes in a peacock's tail "stand for the eyes of the Church," but that was incidental, lagniappe; the truth is, she just loved strange birds, the stranger the better. Her books were filled with odd ducks, most of them human.

The novel Wise Blood, published in 1952, concerns a tormented backwoods prophet named Hazel Motes who blinds and punishes himself in other ways but in the end achieves the victory he seeks. Flannery spoke of the South as being "Christ-haunted." Certainly many of her characters were. Her radical vision, identical to that of the Church, was that no one is past saving. Flannery's protagonist, her reasonable man, was not "the legal one" but "God's reasonable man, the prototype of whom must be Abraham, willing to sacrifice his son and thereby show that he is in the image of God Who sacrifices His Son. All H. Motes had to sacrifice was his sight but ... he was a mystic and he did it."

In a materialist, utilitarian world, many readers found such things incomprehensible. History, Flannery believed, made this inevitable: "Since the eighteenth century, the popular spirit of each succeeding age has tended more and more to the view that the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man, a belief that is still going strong even though this is the first generation to face total extinction because of these advances." Such a statement must be seen in the light of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and other contemporary horrors. If she were still alive, Flannery might say that it should also be seen in relation to the continuing annual starvation of at least six million children, while each year billions are spent on bombers, nuclear submarines, battleships and sheer misguided waste.

The funny thing is, there are those who, never having had a fatal disease, never having had their hair fall out from anything but natural causes, consider Flannery's point of view somehow sentimental. Hardly anything could be further from the truth. Christianity, in her view, was not for sissies, not unless they were ready for change. "All human nature vigorously resists grace," she wrote, "because grace changes us and the change is painful."

This truth is shown in the title story of A Good Man Is Hard to Find, her first short-story collection, published in 1955. The story climaxes with an encounter between a foolish old woman and a violent escaped criminal. The woman, in a moment of clarity, reaches out to the criminal, who is known as the Misfit, with love, and he, recoiling in horror, shoots her. Various interpreters of the story have seen the woman as a witch and the Misfit as the Devil. "I prefer to think," Flannery said, "that however unlikely this may seem, the old lady's gesture, like the mustard-seed, will grow to be a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit's heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become." Traditional Christianity teaches that everyone is called to be a saint and a prophet, but few there are who go around spreading this doctrine these days.

Flannery's passionate faith led some, even among her friends, to assume that she was immune to such human proclivities as the desire for romantic love. This was not the case. In 1953 she met Erik Langkjaer, a Danish-born textbook representative from Harcourt, Brace, fell in love with him, and was heartbroken by his decision the next year to return to Denmark, where he married another woman. Flannery wanted a normal, healthy life; she wanted to love and be loved, but that was not to be.

The initial treatment for her illness was a salt-free diet, blood transfusions, and injections of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). By the end of 1954, persistent hip pain, thought at first to be caused by rheumatism, forced Flannery to walk with a cane. Though she switched from ACTH to a new drug called Meticorten, the condition became worse, and in the fall of 1955 she began using aluminum crutches. "They change the whole tempo of everything," she told a friend. "I no longer am going to cross the room without making a major decision to do it."

When it began to appear that Flannery would have to remain on crutches, her Savannah aunt Mrs. Raphael Semmes offered to send her to Lourdes. She and Regina went there in the Spring of 1958. "Lourdes was not as bad as I expected," she said on her return. Though she had insisted that "I am going as a pilgrim, not a patient. I will not be taking any bath," she took the bath. Even so, she said, "I prayed for my book, not my bones." Her aunt died in late November, but not before Flannery was able to tell her that an x-ray taken in mid-month showed recalcification in Flannery's hips that allowed her to walk without crutches indoors. "Maybe this is Lourdes," Flannery said.

The book for which she prayed, The Violent Bear It Away, was published in January of 1960. It concerned another backwoods prophet, this one named Francis Marion Tarwater. "I have the feeling," she said shortly after the novel came out, "that while many people will read this book in some fashion or other, only a few will really read it, or see anything in it. The reviews prove this, even the favorable ones. The favorable ones are sometimes the worst."

The improvement in her health did not endure. Discovering near the end of the year that the disintegration in her bones was due to the steroid drugs used to restrain the lupus, Flannery's doctors reduced her dosage. Still the problem continued. Over the next two years, Flannery proposed implant or bone-graft surgery for her hips, but the danger of stirring up the lupus ruled it out. Because her energy was severely limited, Flannery bought an electric typewriter, then found herself unable to use it for anything except copying what she'd already written. "You can't compose on it because it don't wait for you," she said. Working on the stories that would appear in Everything That Rises Must Converge, Flannery likened turning from a novel to short stories to having "just left a dark wood to be set upon by wolves."

Diagnosed with severe anemia in 1963, Flannery started taking iron treatments, and x-rays showed her hip bones improving. In February of 1964, the cause of her anemia was discovered to be a fibroid tumor; in spite of the danger of reactivating the lupus, the tumor had to be removed. Though she had been given large doses of cortisone as a preventive measure, the lupus did awake and start to devour her. In May, before going to Peidmont Hospital in Atlanta, she signed a contract for Everything That Rises. In the hospital she hid her stories under her pillow so she would not be forbidden to work on them. On July 7, back at home, she requested and received the Sacrament of the Sick, which used to be called Extreme Unction. At the end of July she entered Baldwin County Hospital in Milledgeville. She slipped into a coma on August 2, died of kidney failure a little past midnight of August 3, and was buried August 4 beside her father in Memory Hill Cemetery following a Requiem Mass at Sacred Heart Church.

Unlike most of her contemporaries, Flannery saw the work of the fiction writer as a kind of prophecy. After her death, Thomas Merton said, "...when I read Flannery I don't think of Hemingway, or Katherine Anne Porter, or Sartre, but rather of someone like Sophocles."

In April of 1960, Flannery had received a letter from the Sister Superior of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta asking her to write a book about a little girl who had died of cancer after being with the sisters for the last nine of her twelve years of life. Flannery declined to write the book, feeling that the sisters should do it themselves, but offered to help edit the book and get it published. It was typical of her that she bet the sisters a pair of peacocks that publication day for the book would never come. Farrar, Straus accepted the book in January of 1961. Flannery forked over the peacocks, and the sisters reciprocated by giving her a television set. Flannery unexpectedly discovered she enjoyed watching such things as commercials and the films of W.C. Fields. "I think I might have written a picture that would be good for him," she said. "My talent lies in a kind of intellectual vaudeville."

After visiting Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Georgia, in 1959, Flannery had determined to give them some peacocks "when they get ready for them." Upon her death the peacocks were divided between the monastery, the cancer home, and Stone Mountain Park near Atlanta. The ones at the cancer home were later given to the monastery. Predators killed the ones at Stone Mountain. In the early 1980s the ones at the monastery were given to a Mr. and Mrs. Frank Reindl of Lake Lorelei, Ohio. The last of the peacocks were eaten by foxes.

Less than three weeks before she died, Flannery sent the following to a friend, saying, "It's a prayer I've said every day for many years."

Prayer to Saint Raphael

O Raphael, lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us: Raphael, Angel of happy meeting, lead us by the hand toward those we are looking for. May all our movements be guided by your Light and transfigured with your joy.

Angel, guide of Tobias, lay the request we now address to you at the feet of Him on whose unveiled Face you are privileged to gaze. Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of life, we feel the need of calling you and of pleading for the protection of your wings, so that we may not be as strangers in the province of joy, all ignorant of the concerns of our country. Remember the weak, you who are strong, you whose home lies beyond the region of thunder, in a land that is always peaceful, always serene and bright with the resplendent glory of God.