Sunday, June 14, 2015

Biographical Comments for Unveiling of Flannery O’Connor Stamp

Stamp Ceremony, McLean, VA – June 5, 2015

I’m very pleased to be here for the First Day of Issue Ceremony for the stamp honoring Flannery O’Connor. I want to thank Jill Piazza for inviting me and for making the arrangements, and I want to thank Prof. Avis Hewitt of Grand Valley State University for providing so much of the enthusiasm for the drive to have O’Connor honored in this fashion. Flannery O’Connor has received many honors—her Complete Stories was voted the best book ever to have won the National Book Award, and she was recently inducted into the Poets Corner at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City—but I believe O’Connor would be particularly gratified to receive an honor in the form of postage of the ornithic sort we are here to celebrate. O’Connor used to create her signature by arranging her initials into the shape of a bird. In a letter to Janet McKane, O’Connor recalls her delight in once receiving a stamp in commemoration of National Chicken Week (HB 577). Yes, the stamp had a chicken on it. When O’Connor painted her most famous self portrait, she included a bird in it, nearly as her double. So it is only right that the O’Connor stamp includes some peacock feathers. O’Connor owned as many as fifty peacocks at one point. The stamp is very pretty, but those of you who know O’Connor’s writing will forgive me if I enjoy imagining a fight breaking out among these beautifully grotesque birds outside the frame, at O’Connor’s feet.

This honor of having a stamp is also appropriate because Flannery O’Connor is one of THE greatest writers of personal letters. Her letters are witty and smart, and she was a great friend to the many people with whom she corresponded. I believe O’Connor generally tried to become whatever her pen pals needed her to be, from spiritual counselor to redneck playmate. O’Connor could be a nice person. If you read a substantial selection of O’Connor’s letters—say, in the collection The Habit of Being, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award—you will receive an autobiography, some comedy routines, sophisticated training in theology, and a class on how to live as a fiction writer. I have noticed that the stamp to honor O’Connor is a three-ounce stamp, one that does not go on ordinary correspondence. But this too seems right, for O’Connor wrote letters that were anything but ordinary. I’m sure Flannery wishes she could be here today, if only to startle us.

I bring you greetings from Milledgeville (the antebellum capital city of Georgia), and from Georgia College (called Georgia State College for Women when O’Connor went to college there), and from the farm home Andalusia (—the places that inspired O’Connor, where she wrote her major works, and where we now work to preserve and support her legacy. Though Flannery grew up in Savannah, Georgia, where she was born in 1925, she did get to visit Milledgeville as a child. These visits were moments of freedom from parental watchfulness. Around age 25, after O’Connor had been away from the South for years—in Iowa, in New York, in Connecticut—her illness with lupus forced her to return to the farm, there to live the rest of her life with her strong-willed mother, Regina, always nearby. As Brad Gooch suggests, O’Connor bought those peacocks to make herself feel better about living on a farm (219). Milledgeville life was the reputation for being, shall we say, colorful. After all, it has been the home of several prisons and the home of the world’s second largest insane asylum. It would be an overstatement to say that “In reality, the countryside surrounding the town was full of grotesques” suitable for O’Connor’s fiction: “fake preachers and faith healers, phony Bible salesmen, busybody farmers’ wives, Ku Klux clansmen, drifters, and serial killers” (O’Donnell 25). But we have our moments. And oh yes, Angela O’Donnell points out that in Milledgeville, Flannery “developed a new sense of herself as being different from her peers on account of her Catholicism” (24). O’Connor made the most of this religious friction.

What happened at Andalusia in the 1950s and early 60s was nearly miraculous. For one thing, Flannery and Regina avoided doing bodily harm to each other, and for another thing, by the time O’Connor died in 1964, Regina had given her thirteen years of a lifestyle similar to what the young O’Connor had discovered at the writers’ colony Yaddo—a life most writers would die for, in which all the energy the writer could muster each day was devoted to the concentration needed to produce the next great piece of writing. O’Connor spent many of her afternoons writing her beautifully crafted letters.

At Georgia College we are fortunate that Regina O’Connor donated the world’s largest and most significant collection of O’Connor’s manuscripts to the school library. We are also lucky that O’Connor was a great reviser. We now publish the Flannery O’Connor Review—which we believe to be the longest-running journal dedicated to a woman writer (—and we host conferences about O’Connor from time to time and greet a great many literary tourists and visiting researchers. Georgia College even published a book some years ago called Postmarked Milledgeville—just to describe all the collections of Flannery O’Connor’s letters that have been deposited in libraries all over the country.

I want to thank you all for being here today to honor Flannery O’Connor, and I hope you buy a great many O’Connor stamps. Save them forever, or use them on looooong letters. And...  come see us.

-- Bruce Gentry edits the Flannery O’Connor Review and teaches the course on O’Connor’s fiction at Georgia College. This year he will host a conference, “Flannery O’Connor and Other Southern Women Writers,” scheduled for 17-19 Sept. 2015.

left to right: Daniel Piazza, Chief Curator of Philately, Smithsonian National Postal Museum; Ralph C. Wood, University Professor of Theology and Literature, Baylor University; Daniel D. Grant, Postmaster, McLean, VA; and Bruce Gentry, Professor of English and Editor, Flannery O’Connor Review, Georgia College

Works Cited

Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Little, 2009.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, 1971.

---. The Habit of Being: Letters. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, 1979.

O’Donnell, Angela Alaimo. Flannery O’Connor: Fired by Faith. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2015.

Scott, R. Neil, Valerie Nye, Sarah Gordon and Irwin Streight. Postmarked Milledgeville: A Guide to Flannery O’Connor’s Correspondence in Libraries and Archives. Milledgeville, GA: Georgia College, 2002.

1 comment:

Christine said...

Just terrific, Bruce!