It’s August 3, 2011; and it was exactly forty-seven years ago today that my all-time favorite writer—Mary Flannery O’Connor—died of Lupus complications at the young age of 39. When this day approaches every year, I can’t help but take a moment to reflect upon the bizarre, uncommon woman whose authorial presence influences everything I write and even read. Sometimes when placed in puzzling or upsetting situations, I have wondered to myself, “What would Flannery O’Connor say about this? What would she do?” From what I know of her, she would say something morbid or shocking and above all, hilarious. She would reveal the hidden and immortal layer of things. And she would do it by bringing you to tears of joy, sorrow, or gratefulness. To be sure, Flannery will not take you on a leisurely walk in the park.
If you are not familiar with O’Connor or her work, consider your life the worse for it. I remember reading “Revelation” (one of her short works) for the first time and believing that it was the most perfect short story ever written—which is exactly how I still feel about it. In fact the last two paragraphs of that story may be the most perfectly-composed paragraphs I’ve ever read, as we see the same vision of heaven that Mrs. Turpin—the story’s arrogant and self-righteous protagonist—experiences:
There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.
The prose is beautifully aflame, and O’Connor’s vision of the heavenly pageant is more transcendent, graceful, and apocalyptic than any other. Beyond the grit and grotesqueness that have made her so distinctive, she still delights us with a nonpareil image of the supernatural grace that ordered her life and her universe.
Last year it was my great pleasure to visit both of Flannery’s childhood homes. I convinced my family to take a detour on our way to Savannah, Georgia, so that we could visit Andalusia—the home in Milledgeville where O’Connor did much of her writing and lived the last years of her short life.
Set back from the main drag in Milledgeville, and even further from the old downtown, Andalusia is a beautiful, quiet old farm with rolling trails and plenty of shade trees. One can imagine Flannery, even in her weakened state, taking a walk around the grounds and being inspired by the simple beauty of the place.
Inside the home visitors can see some of Flannery’s books, her crutches, and other items that furnished the home. Some of the books on display include her snarky marginalia.
Though they aren’t from the bloodline of the several peacocks O’Connor kept around the farm (in her essay “The King of the Birds” she reckons she had around forty altogether), Andalusia has a few of the beautiful creatures on the grounds to keep the spirit of the place alive. Of peafowl, O’Connor wrote: “I have never known a strutting peacock to budge a fraction of an inch for truck or tractor or automobile. It is up to the vehicle to get out of the way. No peafowl of mine has ever been run over, though one year one of them lost a foot in the mowing machine” (“The King of the Birds,” Mystery and Manners).
In a sentimental act common to readers, I couldn’t leave Milledgeville without paying homage to Flannery’s grave. After stopping by the Sacred Heart Catholic Church—where O’Connor attended mass most days—we found her stone along the edge of the nearby city graveyard beneath a shade-bearing tree. As I stood and reflected on the short life she had lived—and the eternal one she never lost sight of—I imagined her being a tour guide in heaven, showing her readers around the pearly gates with the most sarcastic and odd commentary eternity has ever seen.
To Mary Flannery, my friendliest of literary friends: thanks for the art you have given to the world, and to me. Like you, it is immortal.
PS — Go here for an audio recording of O’Connor reading her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” It’s even better in that Georgia voice.
PPS — Check out the Flannery O’Connor Conference I’m thinking about attending at Loyola University Chicago.