FLANNERY O’CONNOR After the chicken. Before the lupus.
  • FLANNERY O’CONNOR After the chicken. Before the lupus.

Flannery O'Connor's first brush with fame came when she was 5 and the Pathé News people—who made the brief, often humorous human-interest clips that movie houses ran in the 1930s between the news and the feature—came to film a short of her. Mary (not Flannery yet) was chosen because she was famous locally for having trained her pet chicken to walk backward. The movie crew came to the farm in rural Georgia where O'Connor lived with her parents to film. The chicken is the star, but O'Connor is in the video, too. She later said she was there "to assist the chicken"; mostly she just stood there looking somber. Big-city moviegoers might have seen her as an earnest country rube, but even as a child, O'Conner was ironic: She knew how to stand just so in that video, how to present a stony serious face instead of a smirk; she knew the value of presenting oneself as a quirky but lovable caricature.

After her father died of lupus, a disease she would get later in her life, O'Connor's mother urged her to work on the high school paper. O'Connor consoled herself and entertained others with cartoons. Her Thurber-esque females do schoolgirl things like wait for holidays, grouse about studying, waddle together in fat-one-skinny-one Laurel and Hardy–like buddy pairs (Oliver Hardy was the first famous person from O'Connor's small hometown), or sit alone eying, through big glasses, couples at a dance. Cartooning, as Kelly Gerald suggests in the terrific essay in Fantagraphics' handsome Flannery O'Connor: The Cartoons, demonstrated O'Connor's ability to satirize gestures that perfectly capture a character's self-importance, cluelessness, ridiculousness. You can see in some of these early renderings images that will later appear in O'Connor stories: two ladies wearing identical hats (as in "Everything That Rises Must Converge"), the pompous pseudo-intellectual ("Greenleaf,"), etc.

Unlike most Southern females of her era, O'Connor got to go to college. She went to the University of Iowa in l946 to study journalism and become a cartoonist. But as soon as she got there, she realized she wanted to write fiction. Her father's death had led to one form of art; her loss, by dislocation, led to another. Displaced from the Southern and Catholic cultures in which she knew how to fit, and with her funny accent, very out-of-it manners, and minority beliefs, she began to feel very alone.

Maybe everyone feels alone and maybe everyone is. But O'Connor's loneliness began articulating itself in her writing...

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