I'm Shirley Griffith.
And I'm Ray Freeman with the VOA Special English program,
People in America. Today, we tell about writer Flannery O’Connor.
Late in her life someone asked the American writer
Flannery O’Connor why she wrote. She said, "Because I am good at it.
She was good. Yet, she was not always as good a writer as
she became. She improved because she listened to others. She changed her
stories. She re-wrote them, then re-wrote them again, always working to improve
what she was creating.
Flannery had always wanted to be a writer. After she
graduated from Georgia State College for women, she asked to be accepted at a
writing program at the State University of Iowa. The head of the school found
it difficult to understand her southern speech. He asked her to write what she
wanted. Then he asked to see some examples of her work.
He saw immediately that the writing was full of
imagination and bright with knowledge, like Flannery O’Connor herself.
Mary Flannery O’Connor was born March twenty-fifth,
nineteen twenty-five, in the southern city of Savannah, Georgia.
The year she was born, her father developed a rare
disease called lupus. He died of the disease in nineteen forty-one. By that
time the family was living in the small southern town of Milledgeville,
Georgia, in a house owned by Flannery's mother.
Life in a small town in the American South was what
O’Connor knew best. Yet she said, "If you know who you are, you can go
Many people in the town of Milledgeville thought she was
different from other girls. She was kind to everyone, but she seemed to stand
to one side of what was happening, as if she wanted to see it better. Her mother
was her example. Her mother said, "I was brought up to be nice to everyone
and not to tell my business to anyone. "
Flannery also did not talk about herself. But in her
writing a silent and distant anger explodes from the quiet surface of her stories.
Some see her as a Roman Catholic religious writer. They see her anger as the
search to save her moral being through her belief in Jesus Christ.
Others do not deny her Roman Catholic religious beliefs. Yet they see her not
writing about things, but presenting the things themselves.
When she left the writing program at Iowa State
University she was invited to join a group of writers at the Yaddo writers'
colony. Yaddo is at Saratoga Springs in New York state. It provides a small
group of writers with a home and a place to work for a short time.
The following year, nineteen forty-nine, she moved to New
York City. She soon left the city and lived with her friend Robert Fitzgerald
and his family in the northeastern state of Connecticut. Fitzgerald says
O’Connor needed to be alone to work during the day. And she needed her friends
to talk to when her work was done.
While writing her first novel, “Wise Blood”, she was
stricken with the disease lupus that had killed her father. The treatment for
lupus weakened her. She moved back to Georgia and lived the rest of her life
with her mother on a farm outside Milledgeville. O’Connor was still able
to write, travel, and give speeches.
“Wise Blood” appeared in nineteen fifty-two. Both it and
O’Connor's second novel, “The Violent Bear it Away,” are about a young man
growing up. In both books the young men are unwilling to accept the work they
were most fit to do.
Like all of Flannery O’Connor's writing, the book is
filled with humor, even when her meaning is serious. It shows the mix of a
traditional world with a modern world. It also shows a battle of ideas
expressed in the simple, country talk that O’Connor knew very well.
In “Wise Blood”, a young man, Hazel Motes, leaves the
Army but finds his home town empty. He flees to a city, looking for "a
place to be.” On the train, he announces that he does not believe in Jesus
Christ. He says, "I wouldn't even if he existed. Even if he was on this
His moving to the city is an attempt to move away from
the natural world and become a thing, a machine. He decides that all he can
know is what he can touch and see.
In the end, however, he destroys his physical sight so
that he may truly see, because he says that when he had eyes he was blind.
Critics say his action seems to show that he is no longer willing to deny the
existence of Jesus but now is willing to follow him into the dark.
The novel received high praise from critics. It did not
become popular with the public, however.
O’Connor's second novel, “The Violent Bear it Away,” was
published in nineteen sixty. Like “Wise Blood,” it is a story about a young man
learning to deal with life.
The book opens with the young man, Francis Marion Tarwater,
refusing to do the two things his grandfather had ordered him to do. These are
to bury the old man deep in the ground, and to bring religion to his uncle's
mentally sick child.
Instead, Tarwater burns the house where his grandfather
died and lets the mentally sick child drown during a religious ceremony.
Critics say Tarwater's violence comes from his attempt to
find truth by denying religion. In the end, however, he accepts that he has
been touched by a deeper force, the force of the word of God, and he must
accept that word.
Both of O’Connor's novels explore the long moment of fear
when a young man must choose between the difficulties of growing up and the
safe world of a child.
Flannery O’Connor is at least as well known for her
stories as for her novels. Her first book of stories, “A Good Man is Hard to
Find,” appeared in nineteen fifty-five. In it she deals with many of the ideas
she wrote about in “Wise Blood,” such as the search for Jesus Christ.
In many of the stories there is a conflict between the
world of the spirit and the world of the body. In the story, "The Life You
Save May Be Your Own," a traveling workman with only one arm comes to a
farm. He claims to be more concerned with things of the spirit than with
The woman who owns the farm offers to let him marry her
deaf daughter. He finally agrees when the mother gives him the farm, her car,
and seventeen dollars for the wedding trip. He says, "Lady, a man is
divided into two parts, body and spirit. . . The body, lady, is like a house: it don't go anywhere; but the
spirit, lady, is like a automobile, always on the move. . . "
He marries the daughter and drives off with her. When
they stop to eat, the man leaves her and drives off toward the city. On the way
he stops and gives a ride to a wandering boy.
We learn that when the one-armed man was a child, his
mother left him. Critics say that when he helps the boy, he is helping himself.
In nineteen sixty-four, O’Connor was operated on for a
stomach disease. One result of this operation was the return of lupus, the
disease that killed her father. On August third, nineteen sixty-four, Flannery
O’Connor died. She was thirty-nine years old.
Near the end of her life she said, "I'm a born
Catholic, and death has always been brother to my imagination. "
The next year, in nineteen sixty-five, her final
collection of stories, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” appeared. In it
she speaks of the cruelty of disease and the deeper cruelty that exists between
children. In these stories, grown children are in a
struggle with parents they neither love nor leave. Many of the children feel
guilty about hating the mothers who, the children feel, have destroyed them
through love. The children want to rebel violently, but they fear losing
their mothers' protection.
In nineteen seventy-one, O’Connor's “Collected Stories”
was published. The book contains most of what she wrote. It has all the stories
of her earlier collections. It also has early versions of both novels that were
first published as stories. And it has parts of an uncompleted novel and
an unpublished story.
In nineteen seventy-two this last book won the American
book industry's highest prize, The National Book Award. As one critic noted,
Flannery O’Connor did not live long, but she lived deeply, and wrote
This Special English program was written by Richard
Thorman. I'm Shirley Griffith.
And I'm Ray Freeman. Join us again next week for another
People in America program on the Voice of America.