Mary Flannery O'Connor, the only child of Edward Francis O'Connor and Regina Cline O'Connor, was born in Savannah, Georgia, on March 25, 1925. When she was five years old, a Pathé newsreel featured her and a pet Bantam chicken possessed of the ability to walk both backward and forward. Some critics have suggested that this chicken was early evidence of her later interest in the grotesque which is so much a part of her fiction. Be that or not, it is evidence of her abiding passion for fowl, a passion later gratified by the multitude of ducks, geese, guineas, peafowl, and other assorted birds with which she was to populate her mother's dairy farm, Andalusia.
O'Connor attended St. Vincent's, a Catholic parochial school in Savannah, until 1938, when the family, as a result of her father's illness, moved to Milledgeville. There they took up residence in her mother's ancestral home, an antebellum brick house which had been constructed in the 1820s. It had served as a temporary governor's mansion when Milledgeville was the capital of Georgia, it had housed General Sherman when he marched through Milledgeville in November of 1864, and it had been purchased by the Cline family in 1886. In addition, it was the very house from which her maternal grandfather, Peter Cline, had served as mayor of Milledgeville for over twenty years.
It was this house and the sense of tradition which it evoked that led O'Connor to describe the parade of visitors through the house during the annual garden club pilgrimage of homes as "the public which trouped through in respectful solemnity to view the past. This was the past which happened to be in excellent working order and in which I lived." It was there that her father died in 1941 from the effects of lupus erythematosus, an incurable disease of metabolic origin which was later to claim O'Connor herself on August 3, 1964.
Since Milledgeville contained only a small Catholic population, one Catholic church and no parochial schools, Flannery attended Peabody High School, from which she graduated in 1942. She then enrolled in the Georgia State College for Women, later known as Georgia College, from which she graduated with a B.A. in social science in 1945. While there she served as editor of the literary quarterly, The Corinthian, and as art editor for The Colonnade, the student newspaper. The O'Connor collection in the Ina Dillard Russel Library at Georgia College contains a number of cartoons which Flannery produced during these years, showing that even as an undergraduate, she had cultivated an interest in art and was possessed of that wry sense of humor so characteristic of her writing style.
Following graduation, she received a scholarship from and enrolled in the Writers Workshop at the State University of Iowa, receiving a Master of Fine Arts degree from that institution in 1947. On the strength of having her first story, "The Geranium," published in Accent magazine in 1946 and having won the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award in 1947, O'Connor was recommended for a place at Yaddo, a writers colony located in Saratoga Springs, New York. She remained there only a few months, however, leaving along with all the other writers in residence because of an FBI investigation into the long-term stay of a well-known journalist alleged to be a Communist party member and the negative publicity which was generated because of that investigation.
O'Connor enjoyed the routine at Yaddo, but she would not compromise her conscience. In a letter written to John Shelby, her personal contact at Rinehart, she says, "I am amenable to criticism but only within the sphere of what I am trying to do. I will not be persuaded to do otherwise." It was during this period that O'Connor first met Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, who were to become lifelong friends and, following her death, O'Connor's literary executors.
It was to the Fitzgerald home in Connecticut that O'Connor was to go as a paying guest on September 1, 1949, following a brief stay in Milledgeville, and it was there that she was to spend the majority of her time until December of 1950, when, on her way home for the Christmas holidays, she became severely ill. Admitted to a hospital in Atlanta, her illness was diagnosed as lupus, and the doctors offered her mother little hope that Flannery would recover. Blood transfusions and massive doses of ACTH, at that time an experimental drug, produced a remission of the disease. Following her release from the hospital in 1959, she moved to Andalusia, the dairy farm which her mother had inherited from a brother and which was located near Milledgeville.
Aside from occasional lecture trips to colleges and universities, an occasional trip to visit friends, a trip to Lourdes and an audience with the Pope in 1958, and trips to Notre Dame in 1962 and to Smith College in 1963 to receive honorary Doctor of Letters degrees, O'Connor spent most of the remainder of her life in and around Milledgeville. Her mobility was greatly reduced by the ravages of her disease and/or by the high doses of ACTH which she took to hold the disease in check until finally she was forced to move about on crutches.
Watched over by her mother, O'Connor usually spent the morning hours at her writing while her afternoons were occupied by painting, reading, tending her flocks of peacocks, geese, and chickens, and carrying on a voluminous correspondence with friends and increasingly large numbers of individuals who wrote her concerning her stories.
A large selection of O'Connor's letters, collected and edited by Sally Fitzgerald, reveals much about O'Connor's work habits, possible sources of inspiration for her stories, her concern for her fellow human beings, and her sense of humor. It is here, for example, that one learns that Mrs. Shortley's concern with the Guizac's foreignness in "The Displaced Person" has its origins in a question asked by the wife of Mrs. O'Connor's hired dairyman on the occasion of the arrival of a refugee family to work on the O'Connor farm — "Do you think they'll know what colors even is?"
Numerous other letters also recount the trials of the black couple employed on the farm, as well as reveal O'Connor's rather off-beat sense of humor. To a friend, she writes about the burro that she gave her mother, along with the note, "For the woman who has everything." At another time, O'Connor recounts her response to the little old lady who had written to complain that one of O'Connor's stories was not to her taste; O'Connor replied, "You weren't supposed to eat it."
In February 1964, O'Connor underwent surgery for a benign tumor, and this surgery reactivated the lupus from which she died on August 3, 1964.