Award-winning American author and devout Roman Catholic Flannery O’Connor will appear on a new postage stamp this summer, the U.S. postal service announced last week. The stamp is decorated with peacock feathers, a tribute to the family peacock farm in Georgia where O’Connor did much of her writing.
Famous for her Southern Gothic fiction style, O’Connor’s best-known works include her first novel, “Wise Blood”, and many short stories such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” A collection of her works, “The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor,” won the 1972 National Book Award for fiction and was named the Best of the National Book Awards, 1950-2008 by a public vote.
The author was born in 1925, the only child to devout Roman Catholic parents living in the heart of the Protestant “Bible Belt” in Savannah, Georgia. O’Connor went to school at Georgia State College for Women, then to the Iowa Writers Workshop, and finally to New York to study and work on her writing.
However, at the age of 25, a diagnosis of lupus forced O’Connor to return home to her family’s farm in Andalusia, Georgia, where she lived out her days caring for animals, going to church, and writing.
Her inclusion on U.S. postage stamps is a triumph for both American authors and American Catholics, said Ralph Wood, professor of literature and theology at Baylor University and author of the 2005 book “Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South.”
“More than 50 years after her early death in 1964 (at age 39), her fiction continues to command worldwide attention, and so the USPS rightly adds her to its roll-call of writers who have been thus honored,” Wood told CNA in an e-mail interview.
“Yet it would be tempting on such a public occasion to ignore the religious nature of Flannery O’Connor’s achievement,” Wood added.
But this can hardly be done. O’Connor never kept her faith a secret, and despite her frail health would travel to speak about faith and literature.
The recent release of her college prayer journal, which she kept while attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in her early 20s, provides even more evidence that the author’s deep interior life and relationship with God drove her passion for writing.
“Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You,” she wrote.
“In those years O’Connor came to recognize her own significant talent, but also came to worry that her powerful desire for literary success – a success that seemed to be within her reach – might threaten her relationship with God,” said Professor John Grammar, director of the Sewanee School of Letters.
“How to harmonize her desire to write well with her desire to love God completely? Writing had to become an avenue to God, not an end in itself,” he added. Throughout the journal, O’Connor increasingly writes about seeing her talent as a vocation, rather than a career path to success.
What further makes O’Connor stand out from other writers, and particularly other writers of faith, is her willingness to write about the dark and grotesque: her constant use of unsavory characters and horrific plots is almost unheard of in other Christian writings.
“The distinctive thing about O’Connor as a Christian artist is that she has little interest in making us feel good,” Grammar said. “In her work the love of God is always present, but far from being comforting, it is guaranteed to disrupt comfort and shake up complacent certainties, in her characters and her readers.”
Indeed, O’Connor herself said she was uninterested in making people feel comfortable and happy, as Brad Gooch explains in his biography “Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor.”
“O’Connor said that modern writers must often tell ‘perverse’ stories to ‘shock’ a morally blind world. ‘It requires considerable courage,’ she concluded, ‘not to turn away from the story-teller,'” he wrote.
American Catholics can learn something from O’Connor, whose relevance continues today despite her unwillingness to compromise or water down her beliefs in her work.
“Beset with its own failings, the Church is also besieged with demands for accommodation of its basic doctrines and practices to the secular spirit of the age,” Wood said.
“Flannery O’Connor rejected all such compromises. Her fiction endures because it provides a living artistic alternative to the twin evils of modernity: the omni-competent nation-state and the all-pervasive Culture of Death. Whatever the motives prompting it, this commemorative stamp contains the image of the nation’s most redemptive writer: Flannery O’Connor.”
The Flannery O’Connor stamp is a “forever” stamp for 3-ounce packages and will be available June 5.