An Odd Bird

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor
Brad Gooch; Little, Brown & Company; 464 pages; $30

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Flannery O’Connor is that she is fascinating at all. Compared to other 20th-century literary figures, she lived a dull life. She never lost her mind. She didn’t sleep around. She didn’t have a drinking or drug problem; the closest thing she ever had to an addiction was her love of unusual birds. She lived as a devout Catholic and she died one, too, without a crisis of faith in between. She shared a house with her mother.

As the epigraph to Brad Gooch’s new biography of O’Connor illustrates, not even she thought that sort of life made good material: “There won’t be any biographies of me,” she wrote her friend Betty Hester (known to readers of O’Connor’s letters as “A”), “because . . . lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.”

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Happily, Gooch disproves O’Connor’s theory with an absorbing and accessible biography that should appeal to devotees and novices alike. His style is straightforward and direct but never dull; his research mobilizes many perspectives and voices to uncover his subject’s life, but rarely slows the pace.

In many ways, the O’Connor of this biography will be familiar to anyone who has read her stories, essays, or letters. From a very early age, she was funny, blunt, and disarming; socially shy, though confident in her opinions. But Gooch shows a much more vulnerable and sensitive figure as well. When jilted by her only serious love interest, O’Connor was badly hurt. And when Hester confided that she had been discharged from the military for a sexual encounter with another woman, O’Connor reassured her, “It doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference in my opinion of you, which is the same as it was, and that is: based solidly on complete respect.”

Unfortunately, Gooch begins the biography the same way that Paul Elie introduces O’Connor in his own study of her life: with the story of a New Yorker visiting her family’s home in Georgia to film a chicken she had trained to walk backward. Both writers use this anecdote, which O’Connor told often, to symbolize her own oddness — the chicken’s not the only strange bird in the episode.

O’Connor was otherwise quiet about her childhood, but many details of her early family life are engaging, including the dynamics in her large genteel family, and her close relationship with her father, who died of lupus when she was 15 years old. The early displays of her sharp satirical wit and keen observational skills are very entertaining, especially the descriptions of the cartoons she drew in high school and college. In fact, it was as a cartoonist rather than a student or writer that she most distinguished herself at Georgia State College for Women. (Though Gooch doesn’t say so, she connected her love of her cartoons and painting with her fiction, explaining in an essay that many fiction writers paint “because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things.”)

O’Connor didn’t leave central Georgia until she moved to Iowa to study journalism. Quickly realizing this wasn’t the path for her, she switched programs and enrolled in the now famous Iowa Fiction Workshop, where she earned accolades from her influential instructors and their well-placed friends (as well as both the jealousy and respect of her classmates).

Although her family expected her to return home after earning her degree, O’Connor secured a writing residency at the Yaddo Workshop in upstate New York, where she began an important friendship with Robert Lowell. Her time at Yaddo was cut short by political controversy when members of the workshop were accused of being Communist sympathizers. (Gooch is critical of O’Connor’s disdain for Communism, calling her opinion of it as evil “simple,” and her tone toward it as “shrill.”) Leaving Yaddo, O’Connor spent several months in Manhattan before moving to Connecticut to live with her close friends Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. As Gooch makes clear through this narrative of travel and connection with America’s highest literary circles, O’Connor was not the sheltered wallflower she is often considered.

O’Connor was forced into a life of relative solitude when she was diagnosed with lupus in late 1950 — a diagnosis her mother initially hid from her, letting her believe she had rheumatoid arthritis. From 1951 until her death in 1964, O’Connor would live in her family’s plantation house in Milledgeville, and it was here that she wrote her greatest stories. Even in these years, however, Gooch shows that she didn’t live a hermitic existence: She had extensive correspondence, saw many visitors, gave many talks out of the state, and visited friends in Tennessee. She even, somewhat begrudgingly, went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes.

A creature of habit, O’Connor held fast to a morning writing routine, believing in what Jacques Maritain called “the habit of art.” (Maritain, a French theologian whom she mentions often in her letters and essays, gets curiously little mention in this biography.) She woke up early, went to morning Mass, then wrote from 9 a.m. until noon. She wrote deliberately, averaging only three pages a day, and revised thoroughly, so what she did write often did not survive the next morning’s efforts. As this painstaking process suggests, she was a thoughtful writer, too, and her statements about the craft stand among the best of the last century: unpretentious, clear-minded, and revealing.

Though Gooch writes for a general audience, he does not gloss over the centrality of O’Connor’s Catholicism. He treats her faith seriously and respectfully, identifying her major theological influences (from Aquinas to Teilhard de Chardin) and making clear that O’Connor was a devout and thoughtful Catholic. In short, he is never condescending and approaches her work and life on her own terms.

That said, Gooch does not emphasize the religious elements of O’Connor’s fiction. Instead, working from the premise that “the separation between her life and her art was porous,” he focuses on the real-life seeds of her stories, the ways that they reflect her personal relationships. It is no doubt true that her everyday life seeps into her fiction; for example, it is obviously not a coincidence that O’Connor, living with her own martinet of a matriarch, would have so many stories with difficult mothers. Nor is it surprising that these moments of crossover are Gooch’s emphasis: He is writing a biography, after all. And sometimes the approach is enlightening, as when he identifies parallels between the main character of “An Enduring Chill” and O’Connor’s bohemian friend Maryat Lee.

But sometimes O’Connor comes across as a self-absorbed author of slightly fictionalized diary entries, somebody who would be more comfortable moaning with Morrissey than philosophizing with Aquinas. And it runs counter to her belief, expressed in her letters, that “everything has to be subordinated to a whole which is not you.”

The book is nonetheless a pleasure to read, both because O’Connor’s narrow world is so deep, and because Gooch writes clearly and with a strong narrative momentum. This biography underscores that O’Connor’s life is an inspiration to any writer, Catholic or not, and a model for any Catholic, writer or not.

Author

  • Christopher Scalia

    Christopher Scalia is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

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