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Flannery O’Connor Biography Reveals the Famously Misunderstood Catholic

Shortly after Easter, 1958, an elderly cousin of Flannery O’Connor offered the writer and her mother an all-expense paid visit to Lourdes. Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, wrote that O’Connor went to the Lourdes waters in “a dress, a long sweater and brandished a pair of aluminum crutches,” a look that O’Connor said made her look like “a structure with flying buttresses.” O’Connor imagined that the trip to Lourdes would be a “comic nightmare” with “a planeload of fortress-footed female Catholics being pushed from shrine to shrine,” and yet what she found and noted in her letters was the “distinct body odor of the crowd.”

Leave it to O’Connor to tell the truth while mixing the sacred with acerbic witticisms. After managing to fill a thermos of water for a friend back home who was thinking of becoming a lay member of the Carmelite Order, she admitted, “I am one of those people who could die for his religion easier than taking a bath for it.”

From Lourdes, O’Connor and her mother went to Rome where the writer had an audience with Pope Pius XII, then eighty years old. Elie describes O’Connor’s time in Rome as a period when she revealed her true “church lady” self. But the author of two novels, three short story collections and six other books was no ordinary “church lady,” as Daniel Moran illustrates in his remarkable study of O’Connor, Creating Flannery O’Connor, a detailed look at the writer and her critics, publishers and readers.

Published by the University of Georgia Press, this book belies traditional notions of dry, academic scholarship. Moran, who teaches writing at Rutgers University and history at Monmouth University, examines every aspect of O’Connor’s reputation as he fuses hard scholarship with pop culture references to O’Connor’s work.

O’Connor, who could easily be called the most misunderstood Catholic writer of the 20th century -- a Catholic bishop in 2000 banned O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find from Catholic schools in Lafayette, Louisiana -- began her career at 21 when she applied for admission to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her southern dialect was so thick then that she could only make herself understood by writing her name and her request to be admitted on a piece of paper.

Part of the O’Connor myth is that her illness was responsible for her art. O’Connor suffered from lupus erythematosus and died of the disease in 1964. “That she died of a slowly working disease about which relatively little was known allowed critics to link her illness with her art … that O’Connor found repulsive,” Moran writes. O’Connor made it clear that she didn’t want further attention drawn to herself in this way: “My lupus has no business in literary considerations,” she wrote.