A Life of Flannery O'Connor
by Brad Gooch
Little, Brown, 464 pp., $30
It is a great, albeit somewhat paradoxical, compliment to Brad Gooch that, midway through Flannery, readers may be tempted to set the book aside unfinished. His portrait of the singular Georgia author who improbably wed contemporary Southern Gothic literature's hardboiled, earth-bound sensibility to a believer's transcendent fire-and-brimstone vision of fallen man's ancient tribulation is so exquisitely rendered that, as the end draws nigh, the thought of watching O'Connor--a mere 39 years old and at the height of her powers--suffer and die of the same lupus that snatched her father from her as a child becomes a bit much to bear.
It is O'Connor herself, drawling from the pages of Flannery, that puts the kibosh on such sentimental squeamishness. This is a woman, after all, who when reluctantly schlepped off to the holy grotto at Lourdes ("I am one of those people who could die for his religion sooner than take a bath for it") later confided that she had, despite her grave illness and unwavering faith, nonetheless "prayed there for the novel I was working on, not for my bones, which I care about less." Scant weeks before shuffling off this mortal coil, O'Connor was revising stories and correcting proofs of Everything That Rises Must Converge, frequently from a hospital bed, unbowed to the end.
"The world was made for the dead," Mason Tarwater, the crazed backwoods prophet tells his nephew in The Violent Bear It Away, published in 1963, a year before she died. "Think of all the dead there are. There's a million times more dead than living and the dead are dead a million times longer than the living are alive." Thus chastened with regard to the expired, into whose hordes we are all destined to assimilate, it becomes easier to turn to the life that she lived in full.
For O'Connor diehards, Flannery will serve as a bounty of revelation and context, from the long, deliberative years of revisions and re-imaginings which eventually begat Wise Blood to the events and individuals that inspired some of her most memorable works. For example, the basis for the story "A Stroke of Good Fortune" was an excised subplot from Wise Blood, with the pregnant, in denial Ruby originally cast as Hazel Motes's sister. Enoch Emery's psychotic encasement in an ape suit was likely drawn from the marketing hullabaloo O'Connor saw in Times Square around Mighty Joe Young. Unrequited love for a traveling Harcourt Brace textbook salesman helped spark the four-day writing flurry that produced the classic story "Good Country People."
Flannery is rife with such delicious bits. But there is also plenty to recommend it to readers outside O'Connor's considerable circle of devotees. With minimal inferential psychobabble, Gooch presents a rousing tale of a quintessentially American artist, whose industry ("Well, I thought I had better get to working on a novel, so I got to work and wrote one," she replied when queried on the origins of Wise Blood), fierce individualism, and boldness summoned into being an unlikely triumph.
Today, the Library of America volume of O'Connor's collected works outsells William Faulkner's--though not likely his Oprah's Book Club boxed set! Andalusia, the Milledgeville, Georgia, farm where O'Connor lived, worked, and moseyed around atop her "aluminum legs" (crutches), is a tourist destination. Her work has been published in more than 40 countries. Who would have dared suggest all of this would pass when, at age 26, a year before Wise Blood appeared, O'Connor was handed a medical diagnosis that was, in effect, a death sentence?
Endearing peculiarities early proved O'Connor a bird of a different feather--a cliché presumably pardonable when applied to an owner of an extensive menagerie of winged creatures, including beloved peacocks in whose tail feathers she observed "a map of the universe." And also because there are precious few other clichés you could saddle onto a woman who, as a young girl, brought castor oil sandwiches to school to avoid the whole lunch sharing/trading banality. Or who, before age 16, penned biting satires of both Proust's Remembrance of Things Past entitled Recollections on My Future Childhood ("It was my first sardine . . . bruised & blue from the crowding") as well as her own family ("Seven copies were printed and distributed by me. It was in the naturalistic vein and was not well received") and sewed her pet duckling a "whole outfit of underwear and clothes" for a Home Economics final.
Gooch mines innumerable similarly revealing nuggets from O'Connor's stint at the Georgia State College for Women ("Although the majority of you like the 'my love has gone now I shall moan' type of work, we will give you none of it," she writes in her first editor's note for the school's Corinthian), life on Andalusia ("I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation. In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both"), the Iowa Writer's Workshop ("She was a lovely girl, but scared the boys to death with her irony," a mentor recalls), and the alcohol, drug, and free love-addled Yaddo artists' retreat in Saratoga Springs ("You survive in this atmosphere by minding your own business and by having plenty of your business to mind, and by not being afraid to be different from the rest of them").
Different she was. "You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you," she advised. The shoving virtually guaranteed O'Connor would exist between worlds.
Not that she felt particularly adrift. "I stayed away from the time I was 20 until I was 25 with the notion that the life of my writing depended upon my staying away," she wrote to author Cecil Dawkins. "I would certainly have persisted in that delusion had I not got very ill and had to come home. The best of my writing has been done here."
Indeed, some of O'Connor's most oft-quoted lines--"Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one"; "I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic"--are drawn from her public defenses of the South.
Yet in her own hometown Wise Blood was passed around in brown paper bags and hidden in closets like pornography. Longstanding Milledgeville scuttlebutt holds that her unsuspecting aunt spent a week in bed, horrified after reading the book, drafting apology notes to the priests she'd proudly sent copies. This reaction was not limited to family and neighbors: O'Connor's first college writing instructor, apparently no convert to Hazel Motes's Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, mused to a journalist, "The character who dies in the last chapter could have done the world a great favor by dying in the first chapter instead."
To be sure, writing was not missionary work for O'Connor. "When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one," she noted. But neither her Roman Catholic faith nor her stringent moral code can truly be untangled from her fiction. To O'Connor there was "nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism," and she refused to sugarcoat the ugliness of sin or the arduous, uncertain process of redemption. A 1953 Christmas card to O'Connor from Robert Lowell captured this perfectly: "Both the baptizing and the homicidal lunatic are fearfully good," Lowell wrote.
Hazel Motes almost certainly doth protest too much when he insists, "I'm not a preacher." The cabbie's response, however, is nonetheless instructive:
"I understand," the driver said. "It ain't anybody perfect on this green earth of God's, preachers nor nobody else. And you can tell people better how terrible sin is if you know from your own personal experience."
O'Connor's most intense work offers a vicarious experience of sin. She saw evil not as "a problem to be solved but a mystery to be endured." The enduring is not a pleasant prospect. In The Violent Bear It Away, young Francis Tarwater, told by a madman he would soon become a prophet, stands in a field
. . . afraid that if he let his eye rest for an instant longer than was needed to place something--a spade, a hoe, the mule's hind quarters before his plow, the red furrow under him--that the thing would suddenly stand before him, strange and terrifying, demanding that he name it and name it justly and be judged for the name he gave it.
Flannery O'Connor named names, and it is precisely this which makes her work so challenging. A niece of O'Connor's close friend Maryat Lee once asked her aunt why O'Connor "made Mary Grace so ugly" in the story "Revelation."
"Because Flannery loved her," Lee, who the cruel yet socially conscious character was in part modeled after, answered--as Gooch notes, "wisely."
In the epigraph that opens Flannery, Gooch quotes O'Connor as certain "there won't be any biographies of me because . . . lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy."
Ironically, her confinement at Andalusia left biographers with a treasure trove of her gorgeously descriptive and meditative letters to draw on. It is clear from these letters that O'Connor's life is more intriguing (and difficult to encapsulate) than the famously averse-to-fame writer ever supposed. (She once said that she'd rather consign herself to "Hell's fire on this earth" than accept the designation "famous writer.") O'Connor was once asked during a television interview if she might not like to offer a synopsis of her story, "The Life You Save Might Be Your Own."
"No, I certainly would not," she responded. "I don't think you can paraphrase a story like that. I think there's only one way to tell it, and that's the way it's told in the story."
Shawn Macomber is a writer in Philadelphia.