Leaving Mary Behind

 Shelby Lyn Snipes is the Fall 2020 Collections Intern at Andalusia. Her semester-long project includes working on digitizing and cataloging historic photos for the collection. She graduates May 2021 with a degree in English Literature from Georgia College and State University.

One of the most common Southern stereotypes is the use of the double first name. However, if you have spent any significant time in the South, you will quickly learn that this is not a stereotype. Southerners love their double names, even if they are not as prominent as they once were. I too, have a double name, and when questioned as to why he decided to name me so, my father said, “It runs in the family, and I liked the way it sounded.” Fair enough, and to be honest, I like the way it sounds too. Flannery O’Connor, on the other hand, felt quite different.

Edward, Mary Flannery, and Regina O’Connor. (Andalusia Collection: 2019.1.31)

Born Mary Flannery O’Connor on March 25, 1925, the only child of Regina and Edward O’Connor, Flannery O’Connor, grew up surrounded by her family and friends in Savannah, Georgia. In her youth, Flannery and her parents moved to Milledgeville, her mother’s family home, and she enrolled in school. It was here she made friends, many of whom transitioned around the corner to Georgia State College for Women after high school. It was not until she moved to Iowa to pursue a master’s degree from the University of Iowa that she was truly on her own. Like most of us, when we went off to school, Flannery was in for a culture shock. Midwestern Iowa City was different from the small, southern town of Milledgeville. There everything about her made her stand out.  Flannery’s acute awareness of her oddity as a Southern woman in Iowa City felt her double name only made her more peculiar. So she remedied the problem. Later, when asked why she did not publish under the name ‘Mary O’Connor,’ Flannery joked with writer Richard Gilman, “Who was likely to buy the stories of an Irish washerwoman?”[1] From this notion was born ‘Flannery O’Connor,’ Southern author.

Flannery O’Connor in Iowa City. (Andalusia Collection: 2019.1.154)

Speaking from personal experience, the idea of dropping the double name is not uncommon. More often than not, when you are around people who are not as immersed in Southern culture, it just tends to make things more difficult. In today’s society, people often disregard the double name, unless you explicitly say that you prefer to be addressed by both names.

Flannery’s decision to drop ‘Mary.’ Has often left scholars wondering why. The most obvious answer is that ‘Flannery O’Connor’ stands out more than ‘Mary O’Connor.’ Even though she joked about the name sounding like the name of an “Irish washerwoman,” Flannery did have a point. A unique name like ‘Flannery O’Connor’ would help her to sell more stories. However, there has been more debate about the decision. Flannery was named after the wife of a Civil War hero and grew up in a society still haunted by the Civil War. Flannery stated, “I never was one to go over the Civil War in a big way” even though she was surrounded by a group of older women who held chapter meetings for the Daughters of the Confederacy. [2] It is within reason Flannery experienced a love-hate relationship with the South. In an effort to expand her perspective and experience new places, she chose to attend school in the north and drop her first name—all of course, with permission first from her mother.

Regardless of why Flannery O’Connor changed her name, her professional career was something to be proud of. It was the South that made her, as indicated in her works. Flannery, concerning the South, once told Cecil Dawkins, “I stayed away from the time I was 20 until I was 25 with the notion that the life of my writing depended on me staying away. I would certainly have persisted in that delusion had I not got very ill and had to come home. The best of my writing had been done here.”[3] What we do know is that Flannery eventually cherished her time in Milledgeville and never regretted changing her name as it opened a world of possibilities for her.

[1] Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2009), 121.

[2] Gooch, Flannery, 15.

[3] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), 230.

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