When it comes to violence, grotesque fiction, and a flair for irony, no Southern writer during the 20th century did it better than Flannery O’Connor, who is best known for the 1952 novel Wise Blood, the 1953 short story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and plenty of other contributions to Southern Gothic literature.
During her career, O'Connor, who was born on March 25, 1925, published two novels and 32 short stories, many of which dealt with themes of religion and the Southern way of life. While she left behind numerous important works and helped change the perception of Southern literature, she was also an intensely shy, albeit quirky, author who decided to buy a peafowl family on a whim and wrote 600 letters to her mother as a young adult (sometimes about her love of mayonnaise). However, she also held many problematic views on race, especially during the height of the Civil Rights movement. Here are seven facts you should know about Flannery O’Connor.
1. Flannery O’Connor originally wanted to be a professional cartoonist.
While Flannery O’Connor established herself as one of the most important authors of the 20th century, she originally set her sights on a career as an artist. She contributed witty cartoons to her high school and college publications, and according to Kelly Gerald, editor of Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons, O’Connor saw art as a formative medium for storytelling. In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, Gerald explained that, to O’Connor, "A story isn’t about telling the reader something. A story is about showing. What the fiction writer had to learn, to be successful, was how to become a graphic artist."
Gerald explained that O'Connor's love of drawing was eventually "absorbed" by her passion for writing, though later in life she would continue to paint.
2. Flannery O’Connor was intensely shy.
Paul Engle, director of the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop in 1945, once recalled that O’Connor was so shy that he had to read her work out loud for her during workshops, and one classmate wrote that she never volunteered her insight during discussions. One fellow writer famously described her as "some quiet, puritanical convent girl from the harsh provinces of Canada."
3. Flannery O’Connor was racist.
When we dive into the personal lives of writers from the past, we run the risk of finding bigotry and ignorance, and it's no different for O'Connor. The n-word was peppered throughout her letters with friends, and she scoffed at the idea of meeting James Baldwin in Georgia. In a 1964 letter to playwright Maryat Lee, O’Connor wrote, "About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind. Very ignorant but never silent."
In another letter to Lee, O'Connor wrote, "You know, I’m an integrationist on principle & a segregationist by taste anyway. I don’t like negroes. They all give me a pain and the more of them I see the less and less I like them. Particularly the new kind."
4. Flannery O’Connor had a deep love of mayonnaise.
During O’Connor’s stay in Iowa City, she wrote to her mother every day—and in a few of those letters, the subject at the top of her mind was a craving for mayonnaise, which was all but impossible to find near her school. According to the essay "A Good Mayonnaise is Hard to Find" by David A. Davis in The Southern Quarterly, O’Connor “used mayonnaise as her universal condiment on both sweet and savory.” Eventually, she got her mother to send a jar of her fatty, yellow-white obsession to her dorm—but it wasn't the homemade version she had requested. Instead, her mother opted for a standard jar from the store.
5. Flannery O’Connor lived longer than her doctors predicted.
O'Connor's doctors predicted that the then-25-year-old would only live five years after being diagnosed, in 1949, with systemic lupus erythematosus—the same disease that had taken her father’s life when she was a teenager. The symptoms, including chronic inflammation, forced her to move away from the friends she made in the Iowa workshop to return to her family's home in Georgia to live with her mother. Despite her declining health, O’Connor wasn’t deterred from continuing her work, completing her two novels and 32 short stories while battling the disease. She'd live another 14 years after her diagnosis, before passing away at age 39 on August 3, 1964.
6. Flannery O’Connor owned an assortment of birds.
At 5 years old, O'Connor had a pet chicken that she trained to walk backwards. The chicken gained so much local notoriety that it even became the subject of a Pathé newsreel that a young O'Connor appeared in. As an adult, O'Connor looked after geese, turkeys, mallard ducks, Japanese bantams, hens, and pheasants. And in the last years of her life, she had developed a deep admiration for peacocks: One estimate says she owned more than 100 peacocks at Andalusia, the Georgia estate where she lived from 1951 until her death in 1964. She wrote two essays about the experience and even sent discarded feathers to close friends.
7. Flannery O’Connor penned more than 100 book reviews.
During her career, O’Connor was always the avid reader. Even as lupus took a toll on her health, she continued to write reviews for the Catholic diocesan newspapers, The Bulletin and The Southern Cross. The sharp reviews not only examined novels, but the works of popular theologists. David A. King contends she wrote for The Bulletin audience in particular to, "develop not only their faith, but also their reason, their aesthetics, and their apologetics." All of her reviews are collected in 1983's The Presence of Grace and Other Reviews, edited by Carter W. Martin.