May 2009

Jessica Ferri

nonfiction

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor by Brad Gooch

A definitive biography of Flannery O’Connor has long been overdue, and while I’m not sure I can label Brad Gooch’s offering “definitive,” it certainly does a service to an important and complex Southern writer who oftentimes gets the short end of the literary stick. I once had to shout-down an unruly classmate who refused to read one of O’Connor’s stories for an assignment because he felt she was racist. His argument is a much larger and more problematic one than I have space to discuss in this review, but he based his complaint on an incident when O’Connor refused to meet James Baldwin (who was visiting some other writers in Georgia in 1959), because she simply couldn’t make that kind of a gesture. She explained later, in a letter to her friend, “No I can’t see James Baldwin in Georgia. It would cause the greatest trouble and disturbance and disunion. In New York it would be nice to meet him; here it would not. I observe the traditions of the society I feed on -- it’s only fair. Might as well expect a mule to fly as me to see James Baldwin in Georgia. I have read one of his stories and it was a good one.”

O’Connor’s take on people and society goes something like “that’s just the way it is.” It is a cut and dry attitude towards racism, but not necessarily racist itself in nature. Gooch largely relies on the testimony of O’Connor’s friends and colleagues, who recall her as a believer of equal rights. He lets their memories testify for her, alongside Flannery’s letters. Although they house the occasional racial epithet, they’re also some of the funniest, wittiest correspondence in the English language. (When Flannery was close to finishing her first novel, which had taken several years to write, she took to calling it her “opus nauseous.”) Gooch’s focus is Flannery’s private life. But his hesitance to make assumptions on O’Connor’s character makes for more interesting reading, and in fairness, probably paints a more accurate portrait of the woman behind “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

We know O’Connor was deeply religious. She was a devout Catholic, a strange thing to be in Georgia. From the very beginning of her life she was already an outsider. Her father passed away from lupus, and she was diagnosed with the same disease at age 26. Her mother, Regina, kept the diagnosis a secret from her, but Flannery’s best friend, Sally Fitzgerald, could not. After she blurted it out in the car one afternoon, Flannery responded, “Well, that’s not good news. But I can’t thank you enough for telling me... I thought I had lupus, and I thought I was going crazy. I’d a lot rather be sick than crazy.” The disease would eventually kill her shortly before her 39th birthday. At that time, to live thirteen years with lupus was a long time, and O’Connor saw it as nothing short of a blessing.

Reading the descriptions of the flare-ups of lupus (an autoimmune disease where the body attacks its own healthy tissues) followed by Flannery’s determination to return to the typewriter and finish correcting her manuscripts is an inspiration. And Gooch’s chronology is enlightening -- I had always imagined O’Connor as a young prolific writer who was cut down after her diagnosis. After reading his book, it’s obvious this is not the case. Lupus did strike when Flannery was on the rise, and although she had to return home to live with her mother, it by no means prevented her from completing her work.

Gooch’s strength is in his description of the short period of time, before she was sick, when Flannery managed to escape Georgia for the North, first for the Iowa Writer’s program, and then on to Yaddo, where she met Robert Lowell. The meeting would prove fortuitous, as Lowell would introduce O’Connor to Robert Giroux, the man who would eventually publish her work at FSG. Lowell was an eccentric, and had recently joined the Catholic Church. Gooch hints at a romantic attachment between the two of them. At one point, Lowell even called Flannery a Saint. This section of the book is fascinating, as it gives us a window into O’Connor’s growth not only as a writer but also as a woman living outside of her comfort zone. It’s a refreshing revision on O’Connor’s pop-culture status as an invalid, living at home with her mother and tending to her peacocks.

Even after O’Connor had retired back to Milledgeville, she kept her mind at work by fostering conversation with friends and pen pals. Erik Langkajer was a textbook salesman who wanted to meet one of his company’s authors, so he was invited to Andalusia, the O’Connor family farm. He became quite the frequent visitor and at one point Regina O’Connor even described the two as “going together.” When he eventually moved to Europe, convinced that their relationship was only platonic (he described kissing her was like “kissing a skeleton”) Flannery was devastated. Gooch relays that this experience was most likely the inspiration for O’Connor’s story “Good Country People.”

Two other friends were Maryat Lee and Betty Hester. Maryat was a formidable woman who had graduated from Wellesley and gone to seminary school. Maryat became one of O’Connor’s most steadfast readers. Hester was a fan who had originally written to Flannery to inquire whether her stories were “about God.” Having been dismissed from service in WWII, Hester eventually confessed to Flannery that the reason was her sexual involvement with another woman. Both Lee and Hester were in love with Flannery. O’Connor did not share their feelings, but she maintained solid friendships with them her entire life. The open-ended question on O’Connor’s sexuality is an intriguing one, and Gooch deserves an accolade for making it a topic of conversation. Flannery was so isolated in Milledgeville it’s difficult to imagine her with friends, much less with love interests. But Gooch makes sure we’re aware of these connections. The result is a living, breathing subject.

In fact, Gooch makes the assertion that these intimate relationships were the inspiration for some of her short fiction -- in the characters in them ciphers for her friends. Although O’Connor always balked at art imitating life (she claimed that real fiction was totally made up), the similarities were undeniable. Maryat always worried that some stories would scald Regina, Flannery’s primary caregiver. Flannery simply responded, “She don’t read any of it.”

Regardless of the fictive nature of O’Connor’s work, she was prolific, and adhered to a strict writing schedule. She never knew for certain whether she would survive a flare-up from her disease. And her while faith undoubtedly soothed and buoyed her against massive anxiety on the matter, she writes like a person pursued. Her writing is violently good. There’s very little of it quoted in this biography -- Gooch assumes you already know the work by heart. Instead, he’s written a very personal, emotional account of a writer working relentlessly to accomplish what she saw as her purpose in life. Facing up to that challenge every day is the definition of true grace -- and I think O’Connor would approve.

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 0316000663
464 Pages