A fresh look at Flannery O'Connor

You may know her prose, but have you seen her cartoons?

Flannery O'Connor is best remembered for her potent fictions, and to a lesser extent for her unfortunate life (she eked out the last decade and a half of her life in relative solitude with her mother, refashioning her childhood home into a makeshift bird sanctuary before dying of lupus at the unripe age of 39). What she isn't primarily remembered for are her cartoons, although this may change with the publication of a collection of her early drawings later this year.

The drawings that comprise the majority of Flannery O'Connor: The Cartoons are taken from her time as a high school student at Peabody and then an undergraduate at Georgia State, and would have been published in journals alongside news stories relating to the life of the school and college itself. Cut from linoleum with oil-based ink applied to the ridges, the drawings are rudimentary but charming, a stripped down version of what Marjane Satrapi did in Persepolis. What's clear, though, is the perspective of the outsider, which O'Connor refined in her debut novel Wise Blood and stories such as A Good Man is Hard to Find A bespectacled wallflower watches a dance and thinks to herself, "Well, I can always be a PhD"; an audience member snipes to her friend, "Wake me up when it's time to clap!"; a frumpy young girl with a mottled face asks a librarian, "Do you have any books the faculty doesn't particularly recommend?"

Even though the cartoons are largely comic, and lack the richness of detail that a short story affords, it would be wrong to dismiss them as juvenilia. O'Connor seriously considered a career as a cartoonist, according to her biographer Brad Gooch, submitting cartoons to the New Yorker (and drawing "a lot of encouragin' rejection slips" along the way) and winning comparisons with James Thurber (whose book My World and Welcome to It made him a household name in the US in the 40s) and George Price (O'Connor's friend Robert Fitzgerald said they shared "an energy and angularity"). What's more, cartoons and drawings were O'Connor's entry point to creativity. Like most children, she spent a great deal of her youth drawing pictures; where O'Connor arguably differed was in the offbeat perspective even her first drawings displayed. Gooch writes:

"A cartoon O'Connor drew when she was nine years old shows a child walking with her father and mother. In a balloon coming from the mother's mouth are the words: 'Hold your head up, Mary Flannery, and you are just as bad, Ed.' To which the girl, dragging along, snidely replies, 'I was readin' where someone died of holding up their head.'"

Like a lot of Southern writers, O'Connor largely eschewed topicality. The topical cartoons she did attempt (particularly those that deal with the influx of female military personel to the college campus) don't stand up as well as those that stand outside of the period in which they were drawn. My particular favourite of these sees the two girls who are the closest O'Connor gets to recurring characters gossiping beneath an umbrella in the rain: "Understand," one girl says, dressed in a head scarf and with a pile of books beneath each arm, "I got nothing against getting educated but it just looks like there ought to be an easier way to do it."

While some may say that it took the shadow of death (O'Connor found out she was suffering from lupus at the age of 25 and spent her last years doing what many regard to be her best work) to turn Flannery O'Connor into a great artist, the Flannery O'Connor responsible for these cartoons had recently lost her father, also to lupus, a judgment she regarded as a "bullet in the side" from God. The darkness she would make her own is already showing its teeth. One cartoon shows a jolly dentist perched on the chest of a bald bug-eyed man with razor teeth saying, "You don't mind if I get comfortable do you?" Another shows three tearful girls staring into a hole in the ground from which two legs protrude.

Later in life, Flannery O'Connor – the "pigeon-toed only child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I'll-bite-you complex" – turned to painting, the house she shared with her mother adorned with portraits of herself and her peacocks. The cartoons, then, remain a glimpse of what might have been. And for fans, this is that all-too-rare commodity: a "new" Flannery O'Connor book to slip on the shelf besides the scant few books she left us with.


Peter Wild

The GuardianTramp

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