“Does it have symbolisms in it?” Regina O’Connor asked her daughter, fiction writer Flannery O’Connor, as they awaited the appearance of her second novel in the late fall of 1959. “You know, when I was coming along, they didn’t have symbolisms.” Biographer Brad Gooch quotes Mrs. O’Connor’s philistine question as a tacit comment on a mother’s inability to fathom her daughter’s art, but the question could just as fairly be asked of Gooch’s biography. The answer would be that, unless one counts Freudian clichés, there are no “symbolisms” in Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, and the book is the poorer for it.

Good biographies do not need to incorporate symbolism. However, as was the case with Gooch’s acclaimed 1993 biography of Frank O’Haraanother Irish American Catholic writer who died young (O’Hara died at forty; O’Connor died at thirty-nine)Flannery suffers from the lack of a through line that would impart a sense of personal continuity to the strings of anecdotes Gooch meticulously orders by chronology. The closest Gooch comes to a unifying image is invoked only at the beginning and the end, and even then it does not quite work. Gooch recreates, in some detail, O’Connor’s first public appearance in a Pathé newsreel, at the age of five, teaching her pet chicken to walk backward. He tries to use the chicken incident as the focal point for the author’s life story. The incident might have been a good choice if the biographer had attached to it a consistent interpretation of an O’Connor who walked backward, went against the grain, or otherwise reflected some aspect of the story. The portrayal of Flannery O’Connor in this biography never coheres to that degree.

The seeming absence of authorial purpose in Flannery might be attributed simply to objectivity were the biographer’s objectivity not so selective. Although understandably skeptical of O’Connor’s own self-evaluations, Gooch is surprisingly uncritical of what others say about her. Gooch admirably conveys how little O’Connor’s mother, family, and college friends understood her and her work. He seems less conscious of the misunderstandings of the literati who discovered her genius, although he skillfully describes the limits of Caroline Gordon’s editorial eye, of which even O’Connor became aware near the end.

Despite these limitations, Gooch’s book has great value as raw material for more perceptive literary evaluation. O’Connor biographies have been hampered until recently by their authors’ lack of access to some relevant materials, and Gooch presents some of those materials, such as the letters of Betty Hester, until 1998 known only by the coy pseudonym “A” in Sally Fitzgerald’s edition of O’Connor’s letters. The new documents made available through Flannery will be a sensation to O’Connor scholars hungry for every tidbit, although the book contains no major revelations. Hester’s identity was revealed after her suicide in 1998, and though some of her letters were not unsealed until 2007, her influence on O’Connor (and vice versa) was thoroughly discussed in Jean W. Cash’s 2002 biography, Flannery O’Connor: A Life.

The very existence of the previous book-length biography is significant to the publication of Gooch’s book, as it calls into question the need for a new biography. Gooch’s reasons for writing Flannery, though, seem to be largely personal: The study’s “Acknowledgments” appendix begins as a narrative of Gooch’s “literary infatuation” with O’Connor. Inspired by reading Sally Fitzgerald’s 1979 collection of O’Connor’s letters, The Habit of Being, Gooch wrote to Fitzgerald announcing his intention to write a biography. He dropped his project, however, when Fitzgerald told him that she was writing her own biography of her literary friend. When Fitzgerald died in 2000, she had not yet published her promised biography, and it has yet to appear. Hence, there was no reason for Gooch not to write a second O’Connor biography.

The reality is that there is enough personality in Flannery O’Connor for half a dozen...

(The entire section is 1715 words.)