One of the most gifted short story writers of the 20th century has a name that is rather unusual, although as a tribute to her talent, it is not as uncommon as it was during her lifetime. There is a growing population of women, most under the age of thirty I would imagine, with the first name Flannery. Those who are familiar with the life of the famous Georgia writer know that “Flannery” was a family surname and her middle name. Her full name was Mary Flannery O’Connor. However, when she went away to graduate school and eventually enrolled in the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, she decided to drop her first name and began signing all her work simply as “Flannery.” Further, she requested that friends, relatives, and even her own mother refrain from calling her Mary Flannery, the double-name style that was so typical of women in the early to mid-20th century in the American South. From that point on, she would be Flannery O’Connor.
It is impossible to know how much thought or even strategy went into Flannery O’Connor’s decision to abandon her first name. Considering that she was raised a devout Roman Catholic and was a dutiful daughter of the Church, it would not have been a choice made lightly or carelessly. Indeed, someone so committed to the faith would need a very good reason to drop the name of the mother of Christ, especially considering that she was adopting a much more masculine forename or Christian name — the irony is obvious. Her mother, Regina Cline O’Connor, resisted for a while but finally gave in to her daughter’s demands. Years later, O’Connor claimed that she made the name change primarily for the sake of her career as a writer. She explained to friends that no one would want to read anything written by someone named Mary O’Connor, which to her sounded like the name of an Irish wash woman.
On second thought, readers of O’Connor know that she was incredibly deliberate in her craft as a writer. By the time O’Connor hands us a story, there is not a single word or mark of punctuation left on the page that doesn’t need to be there. Those steel blue eyes served as windows into a brilliant mind with a razor-sharp wit. Flannery O’Connor had wanted to be a writer from a very early age. As a child, she wrote stories, illustrated them, bound them with yarn, and made multiple copies of them to distribute to friends and family. She was absolutely fascinated by the whole process of both writing and publishing, which later translated to a keen understanding of writing as a profession.
I am convinced that when O’Connor began writing in Iowa in the mid-1940s, she also started to envision herself as a successful author. Knowing that she would soon be sending manuscripts off to prospective agents and publishers, she no doubt understood her disadvantage of being a female who wanted to be taken seriously in a male-dominated profession. To avoid having her manuscripts ignored or trashed immediately, she needed for editors to think they were reading the work of a man, and a name like Flannery gave her that edge. Certainly the content of her fiction would not have given her gender away! The strategy worked. Letters she received from editors in response to her early submissions were addressed “Dear Mr. O’Connor.” One early editor, upon learning O’Connor’s identity, still doubted that the stories were written by a woman at all.
Beyond the androgyny factor, a name like Flannery O’Connor gave the writer another distinct advantage, one that is often fabricated now by entertainers from a multitude of genres. Having an unusual name goes a long way toward establishing memorable identity. After all, how many writers do you know named Twain? Poe? Steinbeck? Faulkner? Of course, those are last names, and isn’t it amazing how often readers don’t refer to O’Connor by her more common last name, but by her iconic first name? Fast forward to the age of pop culture. It isn’t difficult to remember names like Cher, Sting, Madonna, Eminem, T-Pain, or Beyonce. Who needs a last name? Atypical works, and it works well.
Flannery O’Connor died at the young age of 39 from complications of lupus, the disease that had taken her father’s life when she was only 15. Her mother outlived her by about 30 years. I don’t know if O’Connor chose the wording for her tombstone or not. Perhaps Regina O’Connor had the last word with her only child this time. Maybe the inscription was dictated by the custom of the Church, the community, or family tradition. Whatever the case may be, O’Connor is laid to rest with her full name restored as a memorial to a literary genius. Those of us who admire her work will always respect her wishes and remember her as Flannery O’Connor. A writer by any other name is, well, someone else entirely.