A Look into Flannery’s Library

By Deanna Sorrells

The fact that Flannery O’Connor, famed southern gothic fiction author, was a well-read individual should not come as a surprise to anyone that has encountered her works. The collection of over 700 books and journals currently housed within the Georgia College and State University library Special Collections as well as the inscribed childhood novels within the Andalusia Museum (both located in Milledgeville, GA) boasts to the sheer amount of literature Flannery consumed in her lifetime. However, Flannery has lamented her consumption of literature throughout her life as “botched” and readily admits “I have not been influenced by the best people”.1

Flannery enjoyed reading Little Men as a child; Andalusia Collection 2018.1.1004

Flannery spent her childhood (1925-1940) in Savannah Georgia, in the care of her mother, Regina Cline O’Connor, and father, Edward O’Connor. The southern gothic author depicts her young self as a “pigeon-toed child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you complex”.2 Often described as a strange girl by others as well, Flannery did not seem to have many close young friends. In a 1955 letter to A. (a young woman from Atlanta who Flannery never met), Flannery confesses “the only good things I read when I was a child were the Greek and Roman myths which I got out of a set of a child’s encyclopedia called The Book of Knowledge. The rest of what I read was Slop with a capital S.”3  

Flannery’s self-proclaimed “Slop period” consists of the children’s tales she entertained herself with such as Little Men by Louise May Alcott or Pinocchio. Her opinions on these books are well known due to the way she frequently inscribed her personal reviews into their covers as a child. (You can read more about them in a previous blog post, Childhood Literary Criticisms

Flannery describes her next bout of literary consumption as “an influence I would rather not think about”: Edgar Allen Poe.4 Within her letters, Flannery’s opinions on the macabre author shift between nostalgic and critical. She writes in a 1953 letter, “I have a book called The Humorous Tales of E. A. Poe that I used to read before the age of reason. They were anything but funny”.5 However, it becomes evident to O’Connor readers that her stories share many grotesque and gothic themes with authors such as Poe and the Grimm brothers. Flannery’s high school education gave her little reason nor desire to read much and while attending Georgia State College for Women, she focused on her sociological studies and extracurricular work with student publications. 

Flannery at Georgia State College for Women; Andalusia Collections 2019.1.138 gift of Louise Florencourt

Flannery’s graduate education in Iowa introduced her to a new realm of literature, the aspiring author having never encountered the works of authors such as Faulkner, Kafka, or Hawthorne before. Thus began her period of literary obsession which included what she referred to as “the Catholic novelists” (François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Graham Greene), “the nuts” (Djuna Barnes, Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolfe), “the best southern writers” (William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter), and “the Russians” (“not Tolstoi so much but Dostoievski, Turgenev, Checkov, and Gogol”).6 Flannery also points out that she was rapidly absorbing this new literature while writing at the same time, a theme that would follow throughout her life and career. 

As much as Flannery read, she also openly offered her thoughts and criticisms of the books and authors she encountered within her correspondences. Henry James and Joseph Conrad were among the authors she praised frequently in letters to other friends and writers. “When I read Henry James, I feel something is happening to me,” Flannery writes about the realist novelist, “I’m not always sure if I like it but it is something happening”.7 In the same letter she goes on to say, “I don’t think there is any writer I like so much as Conrad.”  

In 1951, Flannery’s lifelong friends, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald sent her the newly published novel, Catcher in the Rye. Flannery writes about her enjoyment while reading the book in the same day it arrived in the post (while Regina warned it would RUIN her eyes).8 

However, not all authors or books received Flannery’s favor. Aside from her official literary reviews, Flannery also offered her disapproval of authors such as Ayn Rand and Sigmund Freud (though she does write “I really have quite a respect for Freud when he isn’t made into a philosopher” in a 1962 letter).9 True to her sharp and honest nature, Flannery wrote to playwright Maryat Lee in 1960 “I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail.”10

Romanticism and sentimentality had no place in Flannery’s chosen literature, a 1979 article claiming, “she compared the poetry of Emily Dickinson to the froth on a glass of Alka Seltzer.”11 When everyone flocked to the theaters to watch the premier of “Gone with the Wind” in 1939, fourteen-year-old Flannery O’Connor reportedly could not stand the romanticized version of the Old South. She stayed true to her dislike of the film, going on to write her short story, “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” to mock the excitement over the movie. Even Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was not safe from Flannery as she expressed her thoughts to a friend in 1960: “For a child’s book it does alright.”12 

Flannery with a copy of her first novel, Wise Blood; Andalusia Collection 2019.1.185 gift of Louise Florencourt

When considering the authors and works that Flannery O’Connor admired throughout her life, as well as those she criticized, it is hard to believe her when she wrote “I have not been influenced by the best people.” Flannery’s affinity to the grotesque and aversion of sentimentality shares many characteristics with the authors and works she consumed throughout her lifetime and career. When you pick up a book today, take a minute to ask yourself: WWFT (What Would Flannery Think?)


[1] Flannery O’Connor, Flannery O’Connor Collected Works, ed. Sally Fitzgerald. (New York: The Library Classics of the United States, 1988), 950.

[2] Brad Gooch, Flannery, (New York: Little, Brown and Company 2009), 30.

[3] Flannery O’Connor, Flannery O’Connor Collected Works, ed. Sally Fitzgerald. (New York: The Library Classics of the United States, 1988), 950.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 911.

[6] Ibid, 951.

[7] Ibid, 911.

[8] Ibid, 892.

[9] Ibid, 1175.

[10] Flannery O’Connor, Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald. ((New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1988).

[11] Alice Alex, “Flannery O’Connor’s South”, The Washington Post (March 25, 1979)

[12] Philip Marchand, “The Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor Smackdown” PressReader (July 18, 2015)

American Masters, “Flannery”. PBS, (March 3, 2021)

Jaime Fuller, “A Flannery O’Connor Reading List” Lapham’s Quarterly (September 26, 2018)

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