Childhood Literary Criticisms

Flannery O’Connor’s writing is famous for its quick wit and sharp turns of phrase. Her letters are notoriously snarky and sarcastic, full of easily quotable criticisms of the South. What you might not know is that this tendency towards critical analysis began early in her literary life.

As a child, Flannery received many of her books as gifts from her family, especially her grandmother. While much of the literature she read as a child was typical of her day, the way she consumed them was indicative of her unique taste. Each book received her signature (“M. F. O’Connor”), often with special instructions for anyone else that happened to stumble across it. Serving as a sort of twentieth-century Goodreads, Flannery left reviews inside the covers and shared them with her friends.

Flannery’s love of classic American literature began early, with an affinity for Louisa May Alcott. Inside “Eight Cousins,” nine-year-old O’Connor asserted that the novel was “a splendid book,” and “first rate.” So dear was it that she felt it necessary to add the warning “Dont Tuch.”

Inscription by Flannery O’Connor in Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1917). (Andalusia Collection, 2018.1.1003)

As you may know, Flannery famously hated “Pinocchio.” Similar to the rest of her books, she cemented her ownership on it by writing her name and address in the front cover. On the first page, however, she offers this scathing criticism: “This is absolutely the worst book I have ever read. Don’t read it.” Even as a child, O’Connor knew exactly what she did and did not like, and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind about it!

Inscription by Flannery O’Connor in Pinocchio by D. Collodi (Chicago: Saalfield, 1924).
(Andalusia Collection, 2018.1.1000)

She held similar feelings for “Georgina Finds Herself,” writing on the first pages: “I wouldn’t read this book,” “awful,” “this is the worst book I ever read next to ‘Pinnochio’ Greastest respects.” Spelling errors aside, these notes are very reminiscent of her later, albeit more respectful, literary critiques.

Inscription by Flannery O’Connor in Georgiana Finds Herself by Shirley Watkins (USA: Goldsmith, 1922).
(Andalusia Collection, 2019.1.2)

She would hold reading sessions in the bathroom of her childhood home in Savannah, sharing her opinions with local children. In a letter to a friend years later, in 1958, Flannery echoed this sentiment as an adult: “Peculiar but I never could stand Alice in Wonderland either. It was a terrifying book; so was Pinocchio…Children don’t have near as good taste as the experts would think.”[1] It would be fascinating to hear detailed book reviews from young Flannery, to know exactly what elements made a book “first rate” or “awful.” Knowing her adult tastes, she was most likely bothered by weak writing and books that talked down to their child audiences.

Flannery was never afraid to share her controversial opinions on well-established institutions, be it “Pinocchio” or Catholicism. It’s good to know that while her tastes might have evolved, her instinct to express herself remained throughout her life.

[1] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), 288.

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