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No. 3196:
Flannery O'Connor

by Andy Boyd

Today, dirtied feathers. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

She had a special fondness for peafowl - the cocks strutting, the hens largely ignoring the males' flamboyant display of feathers. Oh, there'd been ducks, geese, pheasants and turkeys. And she'd raised them by the flock, gaggle, nide, and rafter. But she gravitated toward peafowl, with more than forty roaming her farm. At least that's what she told people, though by her own admission she'd stopped counting.

Flannery O'Connor and peacock

Flannery O'Connor and peacock
  Photo Credit: Flickr

Celebrated author Flannery O'Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925, where both the era and locale would shape her writing, as would her Catholic upbringing. Attended to by a devoted mother, O'Connor kept to herself as a child, in later years describing herself as "a pigeon-toed, only child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I'll-bite-you complex."

O'Connor attended the Georgia State College for Women, where in addition to editing the school's literary magazine she proved a prolific cartoonist. She went on to study journalism at the University of Iowa, but soon realized journalism wasn't her calling and sought to enter the school's prestigious creative writing program. According to the program's director, when the two first met, her Georgian accent was so pronounced he couldn't understand what she said, and he embarrassedly asked her to carry on the conversation by writing down her words. 

O'Connor's work ethic, intelligence, and her innate writing ability quickly caught the attention of her professors and propelled her into a circle of successful writers and agents. Early critics of her writing faulted it for being grotesque - strange people in disturbing situations with troubling consequences. Yet, the grotesque was always important to the narrative. When a boy drowns in a river, returning to the site where he'd been baptized by a backwater preacher, we're left to ponder all that led to the tragedy. Such were the conjurings of an unassuming Catholic girl - a fact many readers couldn't seem to accept.

Baptism by immersion in the Mississippi River, May 29, 1938: ankle-deep in water

Baptism by immersion in the Mississippi River, May 29, 1938: ankle-deep in water
  Photo Credit: Picryl

O'Connor's work isn't easily pigeonholed, though for me the world from which her creations spread forth can be glimpsed in a reminiscence from her childhood. Looking back to the time she learned of guardian angels from the nuns where she attended school, O'Connor wrote "I developed something the Freudians have not yet named - Antiangel aggression ... 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 ... My dislike of him was poisonous. I'm sure I even kicked at him and landed on the floor. You couldn't hurt an angel but I would have been happy to know I dirtied his feathers."

Guardian Angel - Andrea Pozzo
Guardian Angel - Andrea Pozzo   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

O'Connor remained a devout Catholic until her death from lupus at the age of only thirty-nine. The last fourteen years of her life were spent on the family farm in central Georgia, where she wrote, attended daily mass, and took joy in her peafowl - peafowl, she once noted, with feathers dirtied from their crater-size dusting holes.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Sarah Gordon. Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964). From the New Georgia Encyclopedia website: Click here. Accessed November 13, 2018.

Flannery O'Connor. "Living With a Peacock." Holiday Magazine, September, 1961. See also: Click here. Accessed November 13, 2018.

Flannery O'Connor: American Writer. From the Encyclopedia Britannica website: Click here. Accessed November 13, 2018.

Jonathan Rogers. The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O'Connor. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2012.