Friday, October 17, 2014

Flannery and Her Mother

Before my first visit to Andalusia this summer, my sympathies when considering Flannery O’Connor’s upbringing were primarily with her as a rebellious daughter. Considering myself a similarly headstrong, bookish woman who has often felt restricted by the behavior expected of southern ladies, I have often identified with O’Connor and the characters she has created who rebel against their mothers, such as Joy-Hulga in “Good Country People” and Mary Grace in “Revelation.” As O’Connor herself explained in a letter to her friend Betty Hester, the ugly sweatshirt she gave her character Joy-Hulga was similar to one which she herself possessed, which she used to wear “all the time, it being my policy at that point in life to create an unfavorable impression.” Her mother, she explained, further, “does not approve of making a spectacle of oneself.”[1] I, myself, enjoy living vicariously through these characters, such as Joy-Hulga’s rejecting her given name, Joy, for Hulga, “the ugliest name in any language,”[2] or Mary Grace’s hitting Mrs. Turpin in the head with her text book and calling her a wart hog from hell.[3] I am sympathetic to the exasperation they express with the narrow confines of appropriate southern ladylike behavior. 

However, the experience of being at Andalusia has changed my perspective somewhat. Walking the grounds and seeing the barns and farm equipment made real to me the fact that it was an actual working farm that Flannery’s mother came to oversee and work. A member of what O’Connor biographer Brad Gooch characterizes as the “first family” of Milledgeville, Georgia,[4] Regina Cline married Ed O’Connor in 1922 at the age of 26, three months after they met at her brother’s wedding in Savannah. In the late 1930s, Ed O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic, autoimmune disease which eventually took not only his life but that of Flannery as well. Although the family lived for a brief time in Atlanta while Ed O’Connor was still able to work, from 1938 forward, Regina Cline O’Connor’s hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia, and her homestead which Flannery would christen “Andalusia” would become more and more central to their lives. By 1951, after Flannery’s own diagnosis with lupus, mother and daughter moved to Andalusia full-time, where Flannery could write (without having to negotiate steps, as she did in their family’s home in town) and Regina took over running the family farm while caring for her daughter. 

Seeing the farm now, and the details such as the corrugated floor in the dairy farm (which kept the cows from slipping when being milked) or the tractor and manure spreader which feature so prominently in stories such as “The Displaced Person,”[5] I am struck by what strength Regina Cline O’Connor must have possessed. Widowed at 44, she raised a precocious daughter and ran a dairy farm during the 1950s, the post-war era during which time a return to traditional femininity was lauded and popular culture celebrated the nuclear family in which women’s roles were limited to wife and mother. Flannery herself admitted that she could be a rather insufferable daughter. In that same letter to Betty Hester, for example, she reported that when she was reading Thomas Aquinas while she was in college, “If my mother were to come in during this process and say, ‘Turn off that light. It’s late,’ I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression would reply, ‘On the contrary, I answer that the light being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,’ or some such thing.”[6] 

Like many others, I was quite excited about the New York Times article announcing Emory University’s acquisition of nearly thirty boxes of Flannery O’Connor’s papers. I spent my fall break in the reading room at Emory, reading through the letters that Flannery sent to her mother while she was in graduate school in Iowa—letters which she wrote every day. Unlike the contentious mother-daughter relationships in her fiction, the young woman who wrote to her mother from Iowa is grateful for care packages and chatty about her roommates. As my research continues, I’m looking forward to finding Regina’s own words. I hope to get a richer sense of their relationship from their own words to each other, as opposed to making assumptions based on the characters that Flannery created, or even her descriptions in the letters she wrote to her friends. In these letters (such as the examples I’ve shared above), Regina often acts as a foil (at times, a comic foil) for Flannery’s larger than life personality. Reconsidering Flannery O’Connor and her mother in this way ultimately brings me back to her fiction: what happens when we consider the mothers in stories such as “A Circle in the Fire” or even “Good Country People” in a more sympathetic light? 

Grieving her husband while rearing her daughter in the conservative South of the 1950s, Regina Cline O’Connor ran a successful business on the 550-acre dairy farm with its herds of milk-producing cows, breeding of Shetland ponies, and the sale of timber rights.[7] Though they expected only to stay through the summer of 1951 in the farmhouse, whose first-floor rooms allowed the convalescing Flannery to more comfortably get around, Andalusia remained their home through Flannery’s death in 1964. Regina died in 1995. They are both buried, along with Ed O’Connor, in the Memory Hill Cemetery in Milledgeville. With the release of this new treasure trove of papers, I’m looking forward to getting to know both mother and daughter better.

-- Monica C. Miller is a Marion L Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in the school of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech, specializing in digital pedagogies and multimodal composition. She received her Ph.D. from Louisiana State University in 2014, where she studied American literature, with concentrations in Southern Literature and Women’s and Gender Studies. Her work focuses on the intersections of region and gender. She was among 24 scholars attending "Reconsidering Flannery O'Connor," a Summer Institute funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and held at Georgia College in July 2014. For more information about the institute, please visit

[1] From “Letter to A,” 9 August 1955, in The Habit of Being: Letters (New York: Farrar , Straus and Giroux, 1979): 94.
[2] “Good Country People,” in Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works (New York: Library of America, 1988): 266.
[3] “Revelation,” ibid: 646.
[4] Flannery: A Life, (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2009): 22.
[5] I am grateful to Jim Owens for pointing out these wonderfully significant details on my most recent trip to Andalusia.
[6] Flannery: A Life, (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2009): 94.
[7] Ibid 279.

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