The forgotten visual output of the master of Southern Gothic fiction—and one of the country’s greatest writers of short stories—is being collected for the first time in a new volume from Fantagraphics, Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons, edited by Kelly Gerald. As Gerald told us, O’Connor’s cartoons—which were mostly made using linoleum cuts—reveal much about her developing satirical sense and conception of storytelling, tools that were later put to vivid use in her writing. The cartoons themselves retain a remarkable edge, especially for such youthful, playful work. Gerald is a Mississippi native who dedicated her doctoral work at Auburn University to O’Connor’s cartoons.
Gerald answered our questions about this early and unsung portion of Flannery O’Connor’s creative life via e-mail.
PWCW: When did Flannery O'Connor produce these cartoons? Where were they published?
Kelly Gerald: In the fall of 1940, O’Connor’s first cartoon was published in The Peabody Palladium, the student newspaper for Peabody High School in Milledgeville, Georgia. The school was located on the campus of Georgia State College for Women and operated by the education department as a laboratory school, so the high school and the college where all part of the same entity. When she graduated from Peabody in 1942, she started taking classes at GSCW that summer.
When the faculty advisor for the paper, George Haslam, asked the fifteen-year-old O’Connor if she would like to contribute something to the Palladium, she supposedly replied that she didn’t know how to write, but she could draw.And so she did. After that, her cartoons and illustrations appeared in nearly every student publication for the high school and college between 1940 and 1945, when she graduated from GSCW.
PWCW: How long did it take you to develop this book project and what was involved?
KG: I’d been researching and working on the cartoons for a while, but I can’t take any credit for getting this project off the ground. Gary Groth and Fantagraphics approached O’Connor’s agent about doing a book and worked out an agreement for an exclusive contract in late 2009, which was when I was contacted. Some years ago, I gave a presentation on the cartoons at an O’Connor conference in Milledgeville where some representatives of the O’Connor estate were present. They liked what they saw and remembered me when the Fantagraphics contract was developed. I’m very grateful to them.
PWCW: Were there any particular challenges in sourcing the cartoons reproduced in the book? Did you uncover any previously unpublished cartoons or drawings, in addition to the linoleum cuts?
KG: All the cartoons are from the school’s archive at Georgia College, formerly GSCW. It’s a small liberal arts college about 100 miles south east of Atlanta. The surviving copies of The Peabody Palladium as well as the college publications—The Colonnade, The Corinthian, The Alumae Journal, and Spectrum—are all there.
There are a few previously unpublished drawings in the collection there, childhood drawings and illustrated cards sent to friends, a few marginal doodles from letters written long after she graduated. The pencil drawing of a turkey, for instance, [she drew as a child] is incredible. It’s the earliest example of a cartoon with a complete joke, something she was capable of constructing even before she learned to write. That is absolutely amazing to me. And her drawing of a nun’s head from a letter to her friend Maryat Lee is not to be missed. It looks like a caricature of “The Flying Nun” before Sally Field made it funny.
PWCW: How do you see these cartoons in the context of Flannery O'Connor's better-known literary output? Do they reveal something we might not have known about her, or do they emphasize a particular aspect of her artistic personality?
KG: They reveal a lot about the development of her satirical style of comedy and about her experience as a student at GSCW. The cartoons are a fabulous documentary experience in that way. Most of the cartoons were made during WWII, and we get to see something of what life was like then for the young women at GSCW. There was a huge training school for WAVES [Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service] on the campus during the war, important enough for Bob Hope to make an appearance to entertain the troops. The cartoons help us to get to know the sort of person a young “Mary Flannery” was in this context.
Her cartoons also show us the type of conceptual and generative work she was doing, the tastes and creative habits she was developing. There are clear impressions in her cartoons of other artists who inspired her—Laurel and Hardy, James Thurber, Picasso, Cezanne. She wasn’t starting from zero when she decided in the first year of her graduate work at the University of Iowa that she wanted to write fiction. She had five years of experience as a cartoonist to build on. She learned how to make what she already knew how to do, and do well, work for her in fiction.
PWCW: Is there evidence that O'Connor drew or made other visual art later on in life, or did she give it up altogether in favor of writing?
KG: Most of the urge for cartooning, and the creative habits she’d developed as a cartoonist, had been absorbed into writing fiction. So in a sense, she never left that behind. But she wasn’t drawing so much in her later life as she was painting. On the lecture circuit, she emphasized the important relationship between the visual arts and writing. Many people who want to write fiction will fail, she said, not because they are bad writers but because they don’t understand what a story is. A story isn’t about telling the reader something. A story is about showing. What the fiction writer had to learn, to be successful, was how to become a graphic artist.