Flannery

by Brad Gooch

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Flannery

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“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...

(This entire section contains 1715 words.)

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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 more biographies. Gooch reports O’Connor’s well-documented aversion to author biography and her self-deprecating observation that a biography of a woman who spent most of her time writing and caring for barn fowl would make dull reading. Certainly, O’Connor had no adventures of the sort that characterized the lives of Ernest Hemingway or Clare Booth Luce, but her unique fusion of genteel manners, satiric vision, and dry wit are enough to make Gooch’s compilation of anecdotes worth reading.

Gooch forges connections between O’Connor’s life and her fiction, but some of these connections seem forced. For example, O’Connor’s unlikely friend, Maryat Lee, different in every way from the author, once spoke of religious orthodoxy as a ceiling she had broken through. Gooch compares this statement to a passage in O’Connor’s story “The Enduring Chill” in which the character Asbury sees an image of the Holy Spirit in a water stain on the ceiling. While some of Gooch’s connections are tenuous, he packs his analysis with them, and the sheer number of the interrelations he sees between O’Connor’s life and work provides readers with a significant mass of details to evaluate and judge for themselves.

Gooch reveals that O’Connor was reading about an RKO Studios publicity campaign for the premiere of the film Mighty Joe Young (1949) while she was revising Wise Blood (1952). In the novel, the character Enoch witnesses a publicity stunt identical to the one about which O’Connor read: a man dressed in an ape suit. Similarly, the Elvis Presley film Wild in the Country (1961) played in O’Connor’s hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia, in July, while she was writing “The Lame Shall Enter First.” The story features a similar theme to that of the filmrehabilitation of a country boy from delinquencyas well as a character who sings Presley’s version of “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” While these cross-references to popular culture are one of Flannery’s chief assets, however, they are not indexed.

Although not well connected to one another, the scenes and anecdotes making up Gooch’s biography are well told. Gooch is especially good at the iterative mode of narration, describing one scene in detail so it stands for countless other iterations of the same scene. He vividly and carefully describes O’Connor’s writing sessions at Yaddo in 1948-1949, when the budding author enjoyed the luxury of solitude for the last time; elegant luncheons in the Sanford House Tea Room in Milledgeville after its opening in the fall of 1952; and endless visits to hospitals and medical specialists from 1950 onward. The medical scenes serve as a good index of Gooch’s narrative skill: Their cumulative effect is a blur, as they must have been in real life to O’Connor and her mother, yet each is clinically accurate in detailing O’Connor’s symptoms at the time.

The book is strictly organized by chronology, and it is divided by O’Connor’s debut as a published author. The first five chapters, forming part 1, recount her life before the publication of her first novel, Wise Blood. Each chapter represents a new residence: her early childhood in Savannah (chapter 1), the move to Milledgeville (chapter 2), Georgia State College for Women (chapter 3), Iowa State University (chapter 4), and the Yaddo Artists’ Colony outside Saratoga Springs, New York (chapter 5). In part 2, geography ceases to be a convenient marker, since after Christmas, 1950, O’Connor found herself increasingly confined to Andalusia, her mother’s farm in Milledgeville. In place of geographical tags, then, the last five chapters are designated by titles and images from O’Connor’s fiction: “The Life You Save” (chapter 6), “The ’Bible’ Salesman” (chapter 7), “Freaks and Folks” (chapter 8), “Everything That Rises” (chapter 9), and “Revelation” (chapter 10).

O’Connor’s increasing confinement to Andalusia made her come to terms with her complex relationship with her overprotective mother, and in the second half of the biography Gooch comes to terms with it as well. While readers may disagree with Gooch’s understanding of O’Connor’s southernness and her Roman Catholicism, few will fault his balanced portrayal of Regina O’Connor and her interactions with her famous daughter. Regina’s micromanagement of Flannery’s life from her earliest days is clear. She handpicked her daughter’s friends and had her driven or escorted to and from classes, even through Flannery’s graduation from the Georgia State College for Women, only a few blocks from her home. Gooch also makes clear his agreement with O’Connor’s friend and correspondent Maryat Lee that the author “got away with murder” in caricaturing her mother through several unflattering characters in her fiction, most famously the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

What also comes through in Gooch’s portrayalespecially of the later years, as the lupus from which she would die in 1964 made her more and more physically dependent on her motheris the extent of O’Connor’s emotional dependence and her realization that both her disease and her mother were her paths to sanctity, the crosses she had to bear to achieve holiness. The latter half of the book is a chronicle of O’Connor’s slow deterioration: her mother’s withholding the diagnosis of lupus from her; Sally Fitzgerald blurting it out in the car one day; and her trip to Lourdes, to which O’Connor attributed a renewal of her will to write (and perhaps the recalcification of her hip).

Flannery appears at a time when O’Connor’s canonicity, her status as a major American author, is assured, though Gooch’s “Acknowledgments” essay may overstate the extent to which she was evaluated as minor in 1980. It could be argued that O’Connor has not been seen as a minor author since receiving the O. Henry Award for “Greenleaf” in 1956 (three years after coming in second for “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”). After 1960, few anthologies of American fiction lacked an O’Connor story. Gooch may have written his biography of O’Connor later than he had originally intended, but the timing may be fortunate: it provides enough new detail to whet readers’ appetite for the next major study of O’Connor.

Bibliography

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The Atlantic Monthly 303, no. 5 (June, 2009): 88-96.

Booklist 105, no. 7 (December 1, 2008): 4.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 23 (December 1, 2008): 1240-1241.

Library Journal 133, no. 20 (December 1, 2008): 130.

London Review of Books 31, no. 14 (July 23, 2009): 24-26.

National Review 61, no. 4 (March 9, 2009): 38-42.

The New Republic 240, no. 9 (June 3, 2009): 39-43.

The New Yorker 85, no. 6 (March 23, 2009): 75.

The New York Times, February 23, 2009, p. 8.

The New York Times Book Review, March 1, 2009, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 47 (November 24, 2008): 45.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 11, 2009, p. 9.

The Virginia Quarterly Review 85, no. 2 (Spring, 2009): 202-205.