The following essay appeared in the July, 2003 issue
of Ingram's Advance e-letter, as part of National
Book Award Classics, a monthly series of essays by Neil
Baldwin, highlighting past Winners of the National Book
A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories
Finalist for the 1956 National Book Award in Fiction
am sitting in a faded-white old wicker rocking chair
on my screened-in back porch overlooking the garden.
I take a sip of lemonade. The ceiling fan spins slowly,
soundlessly. Next to the brick steps leading down to
the grass, day lilies nod in a damp breeze passing through
from the nearby Watchung mountains after a quick, late-afternoon
shower. I turn the page, and come upon this sentence
from Flannery O'Connor's story, The River - "The
white Sunday sun followed at a little distance, climbing
fast through a scum of gray cloud
" What a
wonderful confluence of life and art, I think, and smile,
and allow myself to daydream yet again as I make my
way slowly in her book, marvelling at her style.
Coming to appreciate Mary Flannery O'Connor, the empathic
reader struggles to see past the sadness of her brief,
troubled life in order to honor the few well-wrought
works she left as her legacy to American literature.
She was born as an only child into a middle-class,
devoutly Roman Catholic family in Savannah, Georgia
in 1925, and spent her girlhood well aware of being
"different," even "freakish," not
only because of her religion, but also because she was
by nature shy and soft-spoken -- possessed, as she wryly
put it, "with a you leave me alone or I'll bite
family moved to her mother's birthplace, Milledgeville,
when Flannery was 12. They shared the sprawling house
with maiden aunts, uncles, boarders, uncles and cousins.
Her father died three years later after a long struggle
with lupus, and the O'Connors relocated again to her
mother's family farm in Andalucia, Georgia. There, Flannery
developed her literary skills, "to write as well
as I can, perhaps a little better." After graduating
from Georgia State College for Women, she was admitted
to the Iowa Writer's Workshop, and found tutelage with
founder Paul Engle, and with the distinguished critic
Allan Tate. From Iowa she continued with a stay at Yaddo,
the artists' colony in upstate New York, meeting Robert
Giroux, Robert Lowell, and Alfred Kazin.
After a short stint in New York City, Flannery was
willingly "adopted" by the poet and translator
Robert Fitzgerald and his wife, Sally, and lived on
their farm in rural Connecticut, where she continued
work on her first novel, Wise Blood, publishing
chapters in Mademoiselle, Sewanee Review,
and Partisan Review. And then, just as Flannery
O'Connor's writing life was peaking, she, too, was attacked
by the same insidious hereditary disease that claimed
her father. At twenty-five years of age, suffering from
the debilitating effects of lupus, she moved back to
the family dairy farm where her mother cared for her
during the final fourteen years of her short life.
was forced to use crutches and underwent repeated surgery;
she withdrew into her work, raised peacocks, and wrote
as if her life depended upon it, which in a way, by
now, it did. She won three O.Henry Awards, and a succession
of grants from the National Institute of Arts and Letters
and the Ford Foundation. The first true moment of wider
recognition came her way when A Good Man is Hard to
Find was nominated for the National Book Award in 1956.
This was followed by National Book Award nominations
in 1961, and posthumously in 1966, for The Violent
Bear It Away and Everything That Rises Must Converge
- and then a posthumous National Book Award victory
in 1972 for The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor.
"When you can assume that your audience holds
the same beliefs that you do," she wrote toward
the end of her life, "you can relax a little and
use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have
to assume that it does not, then you have to make your
vision apparent by shock - to the hard of hearing you
shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling
As a parochial school first grader, Mary Flannery O'Connor
taught a chicken with backward-facing feathers to walk
backwards. This odd feat was captured on film by Pathe
News and shown briefly in movie theatres in the early
1930's. I mention this odd anecdote because it brings
to light a gifted young woman who saw herself as an
outsider from her earliest years.
sense of being apart from the main stream permeates
her fiction - whether it be Hazel Mote in Wise Blood
who means to establish a Church of Truth Without Jesus;
or a man known as The Misfit in A Good Man Is Hard
to Find who confronts an entire family with a violent
fate; or the sad little boy Bevel in The River who
goes off with his baby-sitter for the day, and takes
on the name of a preacher who baptizes him; or the homicidal
Mr. Fortune who is determined to have his View of
the Woods at any cost; or the invalid in Good
Country People, Miss Joy Hopewell, in her misguided
sexual pursuit of Manley Pointer.
O'Connor's work is often (conveniently) characterized
as "Southern Gothic," in which sense she is
compared with Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty -for
that matter, one can see glimmers of the O'Connor touch
in the work of Joyce Carol Oates and Donna Tartt.
Such analogizing is helpful, but only takes us so far.
This Bible-Belt Roman Catholic often came across as
a staunch contrarian when speaking of the difficulties
of achieving her aesthetic ideals through her work.
She assessed the moral situation in the modern world
and found it replete with hypocrisy. She spoke of the
"shock," and the "hell" of her "Christ-haunted"
South, and looked proudly for solace to Kierkegaard,
T.S.Eliot, Jacques Maritain and Graham Greene - authors
with a similar strain of religious confusion in their
We are grateful for the blessing of Flannery O'Connor's
NOTE to this column: All three 1956 Winners of the National
Book Award - Ten North Frederick, by John O'Hara (Fiction);
An American in Italy, by Herbert Kubly (Nonfiction);
and The Shield of Achilles, by W.H.Auden (Poetry) are
currently out of print. We suggest you check them out
at your local library.
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Baldwin photo credit: Sandra Wavrick