- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

FLANNERY: A LIFE OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR
By Brad Gooch
Little, Brown, $30, 416 pages
REVIEWED BY JAMES E. PERSON JR.

For many years, Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) has been viewed in much the same light as Harper Lee, each being a woman of the Deep South who crafted a small body of distinguished fiction while maintaining what some observers have called a “reclusive” personal life. The great difference between the two writers seemed to be that while Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a straightforward narrative journey into a recognizable Depression-era small town, O’Connor’s novels and short stories are often seen as journeys into a world of bizarre characters, metaphysics and symbols.

Biographer Brad Gooch rightly describes the fictional realm of O’Connor as one filled with “ribald humor, gargoyled faces and bodies, frontal action, threats of violence, and, most of all, the subtle tug of a spiritual quest in a dark universe animated by grace and significance.” Best to approach her with respectful caution. No wonder the critic Julian Symons, upon reviewing her first novel, “Wise Blood,” seemed to sense that there was something important here — he just wasn’t exactly sure what. “Miss O’Connor may become an important writer,” he ventured. “She is certainly a serious one.”

In “Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor,” Mr. Gooch has crafted the first serious biography of the distinguished Georgia writer, and in doing so he clears away some misconceptions about O’Connor and clarifies much about her life and work. Perhaps first and foremost, the author — a professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey and biographer of Frank O’Hara — dispels the notion that O’Connor was a recluse. She certainly sought privacy to spend her time writing and reading, but she also traveled widely within the eastern United States on speaking engagements and visits to friends.

Born into a comfortable middle-class Roman Catholic family in Savannah, Mary Flannery O’Connor was an only child and had few close friends during her childhood. The girl described by Mr. Gooch seems to have been quiet and creative, enjoying drawing — particularly cartooning — and writing stories. Raised and schooled in the Church, she seems to have suffered no identity crisis or period of rebellion in embracing the ancient faith and learning the Church’s doctrines and dogma. Mary Flannery (as she was called throughout her early life) accepted what she was taught as life-giving and natural; still, she was no plaster saint, and as she matured she developed a delightfully wry sense of humor and a satirist’s eye.

These qualities served her well throughout high school and college, where she gained a reputation on the campus of Georgia State College for Women as both a studious lone wolf and as a formidable cartoonist for campus publications. In college, she also showed strong talent as a writer and earned a scholarship for postgraduate work during the mid- 1940s at the University of Iowa. There, at the famous Writer’s Workshop, her fiction was critiqued by the likes of John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Andrew Lytle and other literary giants of the day. At Iowa, O’Connor began crafting an early draft of her novel “Wise Blood,” which was seven years in the works.

During those years, O’Connor met some of the closest and most influential friends of her life, including novelist Caroline Gordon, editor Robert Giroux, and writers Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, as well as the poet Robert Lowell, whom O’Connor met after her Iowa years at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in upstate New York. Even at that early time in her yet-unborn career, she evidenced a maturity of mind and focus that Lowell later recalled, writing that at Yaddo, “She had already really mastered and found her themes and style, knew she wouldn’t marry, would be Southern, shocking and disciplined. In a blunt, disdainful yet somehow very unpretentious and modest way, I think she knew how good she was.” Indeed, what Mr. Gooch’s biography reveals is that from the time O’Connor began writing in earnest, at Iowa and Yaddo, she was certain that she had the talent to be a successful writer and pursued that vision with single-minded determination.

In 1952, the year she completed and published “Wise Blood,” O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus erythematosus, a lingering condition that had broken the health of her father and led to his death during her youth. For the remaining 12 years of her life, O’Connor painstakingly worked on the fairly large number of short stories for which she is renowned, completed two novels, wrote dozens of book reviews, and became known as a writer’s writer, laboring at her craft until the final days of her life.

O’Connor took her work so seriously because she viewed writing as her God-given vocation. While she was no holier-than-thou type or joyless church lady by any means, she clung fiercely to that faith with the wisdom and fervor of a child who “goes out into the garden and takes hold of a tree, saying, ‘Let this tree be all I have,’” wrote another 20th-century Catholic writer, G.K. Chesterton; and “that moment its roots take hold on hell and its branches in the stars.”

Mr. Gooch notes in several places the important fact that O’Connor considered herself as possessing a 13th-century Catholic temperament. This means not that she was stuck stubbornly in the past, but that she observed no break between her religious nature and her aesthetic nature: They were one. In this she displayed the signal influence of Jacques Maritain, whose “Art and Scholasticism” (1920) she found invaluable in affirming the need for no dissociation of sensibility between art and faith, between everyday life and the life of the spirit. She determined to write by the light of her faith, not inserting little religious lessons in her fiction like raisins in a cake, but rather, letting her knowledge of human sinfulness and unexpected divine grace overflow from her imagination. Late in her life, the works of Teilhard de Chardin confirmed to O’Connor the primacy of the moral imagination as paramount within the Catholic artist’s life.

As many commentators have noted, including Mr. Gooch, O’Connor’s characters are “grotesques,” displaying by their words and deeds the brokenness and twistedness of the human heart — and they are in many cases funhouse-mirror reflections of people O’Connor knew, including herself. Perhaps the most deadly of the sins with which they struggle are the ones Jesus warned against most fervently, the ones most easily and breezily ignored by those who are oh-so-sure they’re going about God’s work: Smug self-righteousness and hypocrisy. This is most notably present in the doomed grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” who discovers at the moment of death that she shares a spiritual kinship with the escaped convict who kills her. “She would of been a good woman,” reflects the killer, after the deed is done, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

There are minor flaws that do not otherwise spoil the value of this biography. Mr. Gooch can sometime go a bridge too far in attempting to connect the events of O’Connor’s life to her fiction, as when he speaks of O’Connor one day slamming shut a book she disliked, and then proceeds to list several O’Connor stories featuring characters who slammed books shut. Occasionally minor details are not quite right, as where the author speaks of the conservative man of letters Russell Kirk as being an instructor at Michigan State when he met O’Connor in 1955. (In fact, Kirk had resigned from State two years earlier to become a writer and lecturer attached to no particular institution.)

Finally, the reader might wish that a biographer so obviously well connected with his subject had connected the dots a bit more completely in some aspects of this otherwise useful biography. Terms such as “Jansenist” and “Thomist” are used knowingly but with no explanation as to their significance. Elsewhere, we are taken to what appears to be a crucial point in the road and then left standing, as when Mr. Gooch quotes, with apparent agreement, a reader’s remark that the short story “Revelation” marked “a turning point in Flannery’s thinking, feeling, writing, everything. And that she had started in another direction.” But just how this story is a turning point, or how O’Connor’s “thinking, feeling, writing, everything” changed is never further developed.

This aside, Mr. Gooch accomplishes much good in this biography, stepping politely out of the picture to give his subject the center stage, offering a detailed account of her activities and beliefs, having performed an astonishing amount of research to reach the point of telling. Admirers of O’Connor will welcome Mr. Gooch’s thorough and informative biography of one of the most fascinating and rewarding writers in 20th-century American literature.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House) and has completed a novel.

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