When I was in fourth grade, my family took a trip to Washington, D.C. My memories of this time are few and hazy, though I remember being excited before we went. As a young nerd, two of my favorite things, in general, were museums and U.S. presidents.
I remember that on the drive down from New York, we stopped in Maryland to eat at a Bob’s Big Boy, which my parents were not happy about. It was my brother Jim’s birthday. We stayed in a hotel, something that, as a large family, we didn’t do often. There was a pool there, which thrilled me and my siblings.
I remember standing in front of the White House on a gray day, my youngest brother at the time beside me in a stroller. We went to Arlington National Cemetery to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame. I was sad to find out that the Kennedys had had a baby who died. Growing up Irish Catholic, I was sad to hear about most misfortunes that befell the Kennedys.
We visited Mount Vernon, which I remember being some kind of colossal failure, I think mostly because it was unseasonably hot and my siblings were cranky and bored. At the gift shop, my parents bought me a book. It was full of small biographies of famous American women. I spent the drive home reading it, memorizing details from the lives of women like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Margaret Mead, and Flannery O’Connor, none of whom I’d heard of previously.
Flannery O’Connor was of particular interest, her first name being my last name. I worried that, perhaps, I could never become a famous writer because there wouldn’t be room for two people with the name Flannery in American letters. (Her actual first name was Mary, a fact that has never left me.) However, I felt a kinship with her. She too was Irish Catholic. She had liked animals, which were very important to me as a nine-year-old. She was also, of course, bookish.
I didn’t actually read anything by Flannery O’Connor until my senior year in high school, when our teacher, herself a devout Catholic, assigned several of her short stories in our AP English Literature class. Reading those stories, I felt as stunned as Julian’s mother after she is knocked in the head with a pocketbook at the end of O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” I hadn’t expected the violence, the sharp observations of human behavior, the mysticism. It was then that I became a Flannery O’Connor devotee which I knew, somehow, had been inevitable.
I saw earlier this week that The Paris Review tweeted, in honor of her birthday, this 2012 blog post with a recording of Flannery O’Connor reading her classic story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Since listening to it, I’ve been thinking about my favorite O’Connor stories, which I’ve shared below. (I’ve linked to the stories, if I could find them on the internet. I can’t promise that the text will be perfect, as I didn’t read through all of them.)
I find that I go back to these and other stories often, both in my mind and in rereading them. My relationship with them has changed over time. When I started writing more seriously, focusing on short stories, I experienced O’Connor’s writing less as a reader and more as a writer. As my relationship with Catholicism grew weaker, I felt less emotionally connected to her expression of spirituality and more intellectually interested in it. Even though I can’t recreate that feeling of being hit over the head that I experienced when I first read her work, I know that Flannery O’Connor has affected me as a reader, a writer, and probably as a human.
Remembering our first encounter, my reading her short biography in the backseat of my family’s car, looking at a photograph of Flannery supporting herself with crutches on the steps of her Georgia home, I think about the little ways in which life is strange and mysterious. And I’m grateful for them.
Haley’s Favorite Flannery O’Connor Stories: