Flannery O’Connor and the Habit of Art

“For the writer of fiction,” Flannery O’Connor once said, “everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.” This way of seeing she described as part of the “habit of art,” a concept borrowed from the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. She used the expression to explain the way of seeing that the artist must cultivate, one that does not separate meaning from experience.
The visual arts became one of her favorite touchstones for explaining this process. Many disciplines could help your writing, she said, but especially drawing: “Anything that helps you to see. Anything that makes you look.” Why was this emphasis on seeing and vision so important to her in explaining how fiction works? Because she came to writing from a background in the visual arts, where everything the artist communicates is apprehended, first, by the eye.
She had developed the habits of the artist, that way of seeing and observing and representing the world around her, from years of working as a cartoonist. She discovered for herself the nuances of practicing her craft in a medium that involved communicating with images and experimenting with the physical expressions of the body in carefully choreographed arrangements. Her natural proclivity for capturing the humorous character of real people and concrete situations, two rudimentary elements she later asserted form the genesis of any story, found expression in her prolific drawings and cartoons long before she began her career as a fiction writer.
Beginning at about age five, O’Connor drew and made cartoons, created small books, and wrote stories and comical sketches, often accompanied by her own illustrations. Although her interest in writing was equally evident, by the time she reached high school her abilities as a cartoonist had moved to the forefront. After her first cartoon was published in the fall of 1940, her work appeared in nearly every issue of her high-school and college newspapers, as well as yearbooks—roughly a hundred between 1940 and 1945—and most of these were produced from linoleum block cuts. When she graduated from the Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville in 1945, she was a celebrated local cartoonist preparing for a career in journalism that would, she hoped, combine work as a professional writer and cartoonist.
In her three years at GSCW, she earned a reputation among the students and alumnae as the “cartoon girl.” The staff members of the 1944 Spectrum yearbook gave her special recognition, publishing this acknowledgment for her in the yearbook: “Mary Flannery O’Connor, of cartoon fame, was the bright spot of our existence. There was always a smile in the Spectrum office on the days when her linoleum cuts came in.” During her senior year, she was The Spectrum’s feature editor, and her cartoons were the organizing principle of the entire design concept, providing a retrospective of O’Connor’s years as the school’s documentary cartoonist, caricaturist, and resident comic wit.
Taken as a whole, her cartoons comment on a predictable range of student experiences—the anticipation of vacations and holidays, complaints about teachers, cramming for final exams—and represent an impressive collection of single-frame satires anchored by human interaction. She targets the anti-intellectualism and social pretensions of her fellow students most frequently, but she also takes up some of the popular cranks about the school’s shortcomings and responds to the effects of World War II on the lives of the students, particularly the presence of the training school for WAVES that invaded the campus in early 1943. Her cartoons showed a talent for mimicking what she observed about people, their appearance, behavior, and manners, and what these things revealed about their character, or what she thought they showed.
Her first cartoon for The Peabody Palladium, “One Result of the New Peabody Orchestra,” published October 28, 1940, responds to an announcement on the front page, “Orchestra and Music Club Are Organized.” “The orchestra and the ‘Music Lover’s Club’ are two new organizations that have been started by the music minded people in Peabody,” the article reports. According to the cartoon, it appears that the music-minded are not always the music-talented, and at least one girl may be planning to keep her distance from this school activity. The school’s music programs were the subject of at least one other cartoon, “Music Appreciation Hath Charms” which has a girl snoozing in her chair with her legs stretched out and her arm hanging to the side as bars of music float in her direction. O’Connor later wrote of herself that she not only had a “tin leg,” but also a “tin ear.” She was sent to piano lessons and tried her hand at the accordion and the bass violin, but it was never quite her bag. The only time her mother ever recalled spanking O’Connor was to make her wear hose to her first piano recital. ...
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