Flannery O’Connor: Cartoonist
Though hailed as one of America’s most influential post-World War II authors, Flannery O’Connor’s lifelong interest in cartooning has been, at best, only superficially documented. Beginning with an early childhood interest in drawing, O’Connor produced a significant body of cartoon work, much of which has been ignored in favor of her more significant achievements in fiction. Tom Heintjes looks at this forgotten part of her body of work.
[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Hogan’s Alley #2. Click on the thumbnails to see enlargements.]
Flannery O’Connor’s interest in cartooning revealed itself early: In 1931, as a first grader at St. Vincent’s Grammar School, run by the Sisters of Mercy from Ireland, Mary Flannery (as she was then called) enjoyed drawing as a pastime. Later, when she transferred to Sacred Heart School she wrote stories and drew pictures for her parents. As precisely as can be established, her first published cartoon work appeared while she attended Peabody Laboratory School in Milledgeville, Georgia, from 1939-42.
Peabody was, especially by the standards of the day, an experimental school, administered jointly by Georgia State College for Women and the local public school board. The school, encompassing grades 1 through 12, allowed students to establish their own learning pace, which allowed the gifted O’Connor to excel. By all accounts, O’Connor was a shy girl with a penchant for startling, unique behavior that foreshadowed the highly individualistic visions with which she later imbued her fiction. Generally, O’Connor preferred to be left to her own pursuits, which involved studies in painting, art and writing—both poetry and prose—while at Peabody. In the December 19, 1941, edition of The Palladium, Peabody’s student newspaper, a brief feature spotlighted the multitalented O’Connor—who also served as the paper’s art editor—wherein she described her favorite hobby as collecting publishers’ rejection slips. While at Peabody, O’Connor began learning the art and craft of linoleum cutting, the technique that she would use to produce most of her cartoons. O’Connor’s family boasted some amateur artists, which no doubt influenced the young girl, but she apparently didn’t boast about the work of her relatives: O’Connor would paint over any cracks in the walls of her home so that her mother, Regina, wouldn’t cover them up with the relatives’ paintings. Although she began cartooning at least as early as her mid-teens, not much is known in detail about her earlier interest in cartooning. O’Connor’s father, Edward, has also been cited as an early creative influence on his daughter; he held some interest in writing, and he encouraged his daughter to write and to draw. Edward O’Connor died on February 1, 1941, just as Flannery was completing her studies at Peabody. He died of lupus erythematosus, the same incurable illness that would eventually claim his daughter. O’Connor was deeply pained by the loss of her father and afterward mentioned him only infrequently. Two facts are noteworthy: Robert Fitzgerald, a longtime friend of the O’Connor family with whom O’Connor boarded while she lived in Ridgefield, Connecticut, wrote that Flannery had long admired the work of the celebrated New Yorker cartoonist George Price; and that of the hundreds of books in her personal library, the only one that concerned art was a volume of work by Honoré Daumier, the French artist who influenced later generations of cartoonists.
Upon graduation from Peabody, O’Connor enrolled at Georgia State College for Women and became art editor of The Colonnade, the school’s student-run newspaper. The biweekly began carrying O’Connor’s cartoons with the October 9, 1942, edition and continued to run them in virtually every issue until her 1945 graduation. The topics she lampooned in her cartoons focused largely on campus life and issues, although she brought to bear what would later become O’Connor trademarks: mordant humor and a sharp eye with which she could capture a quirky moment. The stark look and heavy use of black inherent to linoleum block cuts gave her cartoons a compelling appearance.
Once at GSCW, O’Connor began getting serious about forging a career in one of her two favorite creative pursuits: cartooning and fiction writing. To her chagrin, she soon learned of the low opinion in which her teachers held cartooning. Not one to be easily discouraged, she continued to pursue cartooning through The Colonnade and through her submissions to the Mecca of gag cartoonists, the New Yorker. In the early 1940s, O’Connor submitted many cartoons to the magazine, none of which was published or has apparently survived. One of O’Connor’s teachers recalled the submitted works, however, remembering them as “wonderful” and “merry” and “penetratingly conceived and skillfully executed.”
O’Connor’s complete lack of pretension allowed her to view cartooning as equally a valid means of expression as writing or painting. This point of view was not shared by the school’s administration, which looked down its nose at cartooning as a medium, much less as a vocation. On the other hand, O’Connor held a lifelong disdain for those who would self-importantly pronounce themselves the intelligentsia. In her correspondence, which is voluminous, she would intentionally misspell the word “intellectual” so that it came out as “innerleckshul” to make this point. In fact, O’Connor was not a gifted speller, which may be another reason why the largely nonverbal cartooning form held some appeal for her. She noted humorously that her teachers rued that fact that she put “ninety percent of my originality into my spelling.” The self-important and pompous were frequent targets in her cartoons, as were crowd-followers and conformists. Interestingly, her cartoons featured none of the freaks, clubfoots, murderers and misfits who populated her fiction. Presumably she suppressed her most outrageous notions out of concern for the sensibilities of her fellow students as well as an intuition for what would be deemed unacceptable by GSCW administration.
This lack of pretension and her contempt for pomposity are interesting, as they come from a woman who was descended from two socially important families. The O’Connors were a prominent Catholic family in Savannah, which is Georgia’s oldest cultural center. The Clines and the Treanors, from whom Flannery’s mother was descended, were both important Milledgeville clans. The Cline House had temporarily served as the governor’s mansion during the years the statehouse was in Milledgeville (which is, incidentally, but a few miles from the Eatonton home of Joel Chandler Harris, creator of Uncle Remus). In 1886, O’Connor’s maternal grandfather, Peter Cline, bought the edifice and made it the family home. (Cline was to serve as Milledgeville’s mayor for 22 years.) The Treanors donated the land on which stands the town’s first Catholic church, Sacred Heart Church, and Milledgeville’s first Mass was offered in 1847 in the apartment of Hugh Treanor, Flannery’s great-grandfather. A devout Catholic herself, Flannery nonetheless occasionally scandalized the family with some of her writings, which often bore darkly disturbing and stark images and characterizations—unprecedented for a woman writer of that era; but her mother, Regina, who was by all accounts a woman aware of the importance of social status, would stoutly defend her daughter’s right to portray whatever she wished to, even if some family members found it objectionable.
When she was five years old, O’Connor was visited by a photographer from Pathé News in New York to film one of her more unusual birds—a Cochin bantam chicken that could walk as easily backward as forward. As a small girl with some talent as a seamstress, she made clothes in which she dressed her chickens. She had a gray bantam named Colonel Eggbert that wore a white pique coat with a lace collar and two buttons in the back. She noted wryly that Pathé News never sent anyone out to film that sight.
The highly stylized signature that O’Connor applied to her Colonnade cartoons bears explanation. She fashioned her four initials—M, F, O and C—into a birdlike shape. From childhood through college, O’Connor was known as “Mary Flannery,” and this is how she is listed as features editor of The Colonnade, among her many other college credits. Not until she graduated GSCW in 1945 with a bachelor’s degree in social science and attended Iowa State University’s Writers’ Workshop, then directed by Paul Engle, did she decide that “Mary Flannery” didn’t seem sufficiently authorial; she said it sounded like the name of an Irish washerwoman. At that time, she became known as simply Flannery O’Connor.