Why should you read Flannery O’Connor? - Iseult Gillespie
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O’Connor was born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, and described herself as a surly child with a “leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you complex.” She attended the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and published her first novel Wise Blood in 1952. She was also an avid cartoonist – see and read about some of her original drawings here, which indicate her excellent knack for characters.
O’Connor’s stinging language and weird humor is evident not just from her fiction and essays, but her letters to literary friends. However, she mainly kept in-person company with her beloved birds. She had a fondness for fowls since she was 5, when she discovered one of her chickens could walk backwards. Later, her collection expanded to include several mail-ordered peacocks. Read her account of “Living with A Peacock” here. As she writes in that ode to her favourite animals, “I intend to stand firm and let the peacocks multiply, for I am sure that, in the end, the last word will be theirs.”
When she was 25, O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus. Although she travelled to give public lectures, she mostly spent her remaining years writing in near-isolation on the family farm in rural Georgia. In many ways O’Connor’s life seems to echo that of her characters, which are marked by illness or seclusion. She remains one of the most notable writers to depict different types of disability in literature, and spoke publicly about her own condition. Read a beautifully written response to this personal material here.
But injury and illness have a touch of the unreal in her fiction: there’s the man with an ulcer sprouting where a cow kicked him, the woman hypnotized by a bloody car accident, and the wounded veteran who befriends a manic zookeeper. These are all examples of the grotesque, which shines a light on the more incongruous aspects of life.
Her mastery of the grotesque led critics to classify O’Connor as a Southern Gothic writer. This refers to offbeat writing that explores insularity and superstition in the American South. Her depictions of life in the South are also influenced by racial politics –see this article on her much-debated racial politics, and the political context she wrote in. For an exploration of spirituality and the South in O’Connor’s work, see this review and the books it references.
Interestingly, O’Connor maintained that she used the grotesque not to make daily life ridiculous or deliberately frightening, but to consider people’s inner worlds in all their complexity. She wrote, “whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are able to recognize one.” For more on the grotesque in Southern Gothic, read O’Connor’s own biting essay on the topic here. You can also hear her read her own work by visiting this page.
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