Flannery O’Connor: Cartoonist

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.

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