The Economics of Flannery O'Connor by Rhonda Armstrong
Several of Flannery O’Connor’s most celebrated short stories (“A Circle in the Fire,” “Good Country People,” “Greenleaf,” and “The Displaced Person,” to name only a few) feature widowed female farmers, and these farm women quite often express their concerns about the economy of farming. Readers may make a connection between those women farmers and O’Connor’s mother, Regina Cline O’Connor, who ran the farm known as Andalusia just outside of Milledgeville, Georgia. O’Connor and her mother lived on this farm for the last fifteen years of O’Connor’s life, during which period she wrote most of her short stories. In O’Connor’s letters and other documents, we can find evidence that the concerns expressed by those farm women in O’Connor’s stories were shared by her mother. The Habit of Being collects several letters that mention, in varying levels of detail, the financial and labor concerns of the farm.
While O’Connor’s stories reveal some of the economic tensions of farming, those stories themselves were also an economic consideration. It is perhaps tempting to think of O’Connor as living a life devoted to art in some pure sense unsullied by questions of money, but she was of course a professional writer. Though her illness brought her back to Milledgeville to live on her mother’s farm, she brought her own income to the family budget.
From early in her career, O’Connor paid attention to the money that writers make—or more often, don’t make. Her letters from Iowa, where she completed an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, make mention of the literary magazines that offer considerable prestige but very little pay. These are the magazines, she told her mother, in which she hoped to publish her own stories. When The Sewanee Review paid her well for a story, she expressed considerable surprise. Nonetheless, O’Connor recognized that those ill-paying literary magazines were the path to greater literary success—the kind that came with book sales and royalties.
As she neared the end of her graduate program, O’Connor began applying for various jobs and fellowships. A fellowship that would allow her to continue writing full time was her preferred option, and she indicated that she was prepared to supplement from her own savings whatever paltry stipend might be attached. Having saved up gifts and bequests from relatives, O’Connor was fortunate to have the choice of taking a smaller fellowship, but even small fellowships were hard to come by. When one potential opportunity fell through, she seemed resigned to teaching university writing classes while trying to carve out time for her own work. Her letters home included queries about her bank balance, and she expressed concern that she would not have sufficient funds for a ticket home at the end of the year.
The Rinehart award alleviated O’Connor’s worries about having hold down another job while she wrote. During her last semester at Iowa, Rinehart Publishers announced an award for a first novel from a promising Iowa Workshop student, which O’Connor won. It came with $750 as an advance, with an additional $750 upon acceptance of the final manuscript. This amount would be enough to support O’Connor for more than a year of work on Wise Blood. It was followed in 1952 by a Kenyon Review fellowship, providing further support and allowing O’Connor to continue writing full time.
The letters collected at the beginning of A Habit of Being demonstrate O’Connor’s preoccupation with the economics of writings: finding an agent, getting stories published, negotiating contracts. After the publication of Wise Blood in 1952, O’Connor began publishing a steady stream of stories, and in 1953, her story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” was selected for an O. Henry Prize, the first of a string of prize-winning stories. That same story was optioned for a television production in 1956, and with the $800 she received, O’Connor purchased a Hotpoint refrigerator. She was sanguine about the deal, writing, “While they make hash out of my story, she (her mother, Regina) and me will make ice in the new refrigerator.”
O’Connor continued to publish, and after Wise Blood, her books sold respectably well: her first short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find, sold 4000 books in three printings. The publishing successes are followed by additional awards and prizes, including an $8000 Ford Foundation grant in 1959.
Even after these successes, though, O’Connor continued to think about how writers make money. In 1960, she pitched a feature story on peacocks to a glossy travel magazine. The resulting essay, “King of the Birds,” fetched her $750, which was, she wrote, the most money she ever earned from a magazine.
While we may think of O’Connor’s art as her vocation, it was also an occupation, an economic concern. Visiting Andalusia today, you can see not only the effects of the farm economy, but also that 1956 Hotpoint refrigerator, a physical reminder of the writerly economics of Flannery O’Connor.