Flannery O'Connor

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Flannery O’Connor’s Snapshot of the South
By Kelli Nottingham

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She lived only 39 years, but Flannery O’Connor changed the face of American literature, and Southern writing in particular. Her writing contains an earthy, humble approach to life, often focusing on displaced and lonely individuals.

O’Connor was born in Savannah on March 25, 1925 and lived here until age twelve. She was educated at St. Vincent's Grammar School and Sacred Heart Parochial School, and her family regularly attended Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. At age twelve, her family moved to Milledgeville, Georgia. She was a well educated woman, attending the Georgia State College for Women and the University of Iowa, where she learned to hone her writing skills into the poignant prose she gave the world. Her life was cut short, as was her father's, by lupus, and she was buried in Milledgeville, beside her family.

Her deep connection to the traditions and lifestyle of the South pervades her writing, and her perspective touches particularly on the society she saw growing up. Her characters delve deeply into poignant issues such as class struggles, racism, and feelings of loneliness and obsolescence in old age. Her views present a snapshot in time; a time when modern civil rights were just coming to the fore, and when racism and societal stratifications ran deep.

In her story “The Geranium,” written early in her career, O’Connor explored the lonely world of an elderly Southern white man who moves in with his daughter’s family in New York City. He discovers his role in rural southern society does not translate well into urban New York, and finds himself confined to their small apartment. His fear of racial integration and the incivility of the big city force him to realize his inability to cope with modernity and his diminished importance in the quickening speed of urban life.

Although surrounded by the throbbing population of the massive metropolis, the man finds himself lonely, depressed, and measuring his life by the schedule of the residents of the apartment in the building opposite his window. Each day they place their geranium flower precariously on the window ledge, and the old man watches and worries for the plant. His concern for the volatile existence of his neighbor’s geranium and his powerless distress at its destruction mirror his own sense of helplessness and dependency.

In “The Barber,” O’Connor channeled what may have been some of her own frustration as an educated, modern person in a community of fiercely opinionated, close-minded individuals. As in “The Geranium,” she tackles the issue of racism through the main character, a white, liberal professor who argues issues of politics and race with his barber. The professor’s anger boils over as the shop assistant, a young black man, seemingly agrees with the barber’s segregationist views. The professor’s frustration mounts and he finds himself unable to rationally argue with the barber, resulting in a violent outburst.

While her desire to shed light upon the social issues of her time permeated much of her work, O’Connor dealt with lighter-hearted topics as well, as illustrated by her story “The King of the Birds.” In this picturesque anecdote, she depicts her personal experiences raising pet peacocks. Her love of birds resonated throughout her lifetime, and was famously illustrated by a twelve-year old O’Connor teaching her pet chicken to walk backwards.

Her writing career, like her life, was short, and her canon of work is brief. However, Flannery O’Connor provided a detailed and often poignant snapshot of southern life. Whether stark and disturbing or lighthearted and quirky, her tales combine a bittersweet feeling of melancholy for a slower, more relaxed past with the discord of the social issues of her times. Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home, located at 207 E. Charlton Street on Lafayette Square, is open for visitors for no charge on Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 4 pm. Other times are available by appointment. Call 233-6014 for more information.

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