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.
The birdlike shape is significant: O’Connor had a lifelong passion for birds, a passion she said was developed instinctually and which manifested itself in her fiction. At the family home in Milledgeville, Andalusia (a 500-acre farm now named in the National Register of Historic Places as the former home of Flannery O’Connor), the adult O’Connor amassed a flock that included her beloved peacocks and peahens, as well as swans, chickens, ducks and other fowl. O’Connor’s self-portrait includes the neck and head of a pheasant. She was especially fond of peacocks, and she used the bird in her fiction to represent certain aspects of Christ.
In her cartooning for The Colonnade, one of her most frequent targets is the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) who were stationed on campus. Apart from the resources and campus facilities the WAVES occupied, they also destroyed the delicate gender balance that existed in the town. When O’Connor was graduated from GSCW, the all-female student population numbered 890. Nearby, cadets at Milledgeville’s Georgia Military College socialized regularly with GSCW students. But the WAVES disrupted the supply and demand in favor of the young men, a source of no small regret to the GSCW women. O’Connor also lampooned what she perceived as the conformist nature of the WAVES: most often, they are portrayed as marching in lockstep, one indistinguishable from another; as frequently, the WAVES are impediments to getting around campus.
In 1945, O’Connor’s senior year at GSCW, she became features editor of The Spectrum, the school’s yearbook. Aside from her editorial work, she rendered the end papers using a charcoal technique, and she drew many interior illustrations. Unlike her Colonnade work, the Spectrum drawings are more conventionally drawn: black ink on white paper. These drawings are perhaps less compelling than her linoleum work; O’Connor’s strength as a cartoonist had been in her ideas, which were more often than not the capturing of an outrageous moment, and the starkness of the linoleum cuts lent itself to the incisiveness of her concepts. Although not unpleasant to look at—they in fact recall a less polished James Thurber—her Spectrum drawings do little to conceal certain of O’Connor’s shortcomings as an artist.
1945 was a busy year for the college senior. Aside from her continuing work on The Colonnade and The Spectrum, O’Connor was inducted into the prestigious Phoenix Society, an honor conferred on only approximately the top seven percent of the senior class. She also edited The Corinthian, the school’s literary magazine. Although her role there allowed the budding author to shine more fully, she could not help but incorporate her artistic proclivities into the publication: she did linoleum cuts as spot illustrations scattered throughout the issues she edited.
O’Connor was as energetic in her efforts to get her cartooning work before the public as she was prolific. On the walls of the student union building, she had drawn murals featuring vignettes of campus life—but the walls were repainted before O’Connor became a celebrated author. The student union building was torn down in the 1970s, and a new one was erected. GSCW’s 1948 alumnae journal contains a photo of a student at a table against a wall bearing an O’Connor mural—perhaps the only existing evidence of the murals.
Even when O’Connor began attending the writers’ workshop in Iowa, she didn’t put her cartooning aspirations completely behind her as she began the refinement of her prose skills. While enrolled in the workshop, she continued to submit cartoons and drawings to the art department, and her course load included advanced drawing and studies in American political cartooning.
During her workshop period, O’Connor increasingly focused on her writing to the necessary exclusion of cartooning, and she worked diligently on short stories and a novel. In 1951, an Atlanta doctor, internist Arthur J. Merrill, diagnosed O’Connor as having the same type of lupus—lupus erythematosus—that killed her father. Incurable and terminal, O’Connor persevered through increasing physical debilitation and completed her first novel, Wise Blood, which appeared to critical acclaim in 1952. Over the next dozen years, she would publish an important body of literature and would continue to pursue her interest in visual art by taking up oil painting as a pastime. She also began enjoying television reruns of W.C. Fields movies, saying, “I think I might have written a picture that would be good for him.” Her oeuvre places her, along with Walker Percy, Reynolds Price, William Styron, Robert Penn Warren and Eudora Welty, as one of the most influential modern Southern writers. Inarguably, they all sit in the shadow of William Faulkner. (Coincidentally, the South’s most famous author had early in his career produced a body of cartoon work considerably smaller—and in some ways, less accomplished—than O’Connor’s.) She noted that, as a Southern author, she was aware of Faulkner’s monolithic stature when she said, “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” Her spectacular and hard-won career as a novelist, short-story writer and literary critic was cut short by her death on August 3, 1964, when O’Connor was 39.