Monday, May 25, 2009

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, by Brad Gooch

The new biography of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch (Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, Little, Brown, and Company, 2009) gives a better and more three-dimensional portrait of the writer than any other I have encountered. It is not a literary biography--it does not read or interpret her stories and her two novels, and it does not trace her development as a writer in any but the most general details. But it is an engaging and sympathetic account of the writer’s life and of the conditions and challenges she faced. It is also well written. The biography is sympathetic to O’Connor without being hagiographic. Gooch may find much to admire in his subject, but he doesn’t hesitate to bring out issues that might place her in an unflattering light (her views on race, for instance, which moderated over the years).

I have always found O’Connor and her fiction difficult. She strikes me as an exceedingly doctrinaire and uncompromising writer both in her theology and in her fiction. She shows no mercy to her characters, though she would argue that it is not her business but God’s to do so. She was a devout Catholic in a Protestant South. She lost her father, whom she loved, at an early age to the same disease that would later afflict her. Her mother Regina was, apparently, strict and difficult. When she contracted lupus and returned to Milledgeville to live out the remainder of her life, she did so in part because she knew she could depend on Regina for help and support. She worried about what might happen to her if her mother died before she did. But mother and daughter apparently did not always get along, and Regina did not understand or like her daughter’s writing. Various visitors to the O’Connor home at Andalusia commented on the tension in the household and on Regina’s occasional hostile or embarrassing comments. Of course, lupus itself was a major challenge during the last fifteen years of O’Connor’s life. She knew the diagnosis was a death sentence, and the main question was how long she would last before it took her. Amazingly, she continued to live a full life right up until her final illness and completed two of her best stories, “Parker’s Back” and “Judgment Day,” shortly before she died.

Gooch seems to have read every document and interviewed every conceivable living subject who knew O’Connor. His accounts of her early childhood and Catholic upbringing in Savannah are detailed and fascinating. He depicts a young Flannery who was a self-styled character from an early age, writing stories about her family, drawing satirical cartoons, training chickens to walk backwards, disdaining social occasions that for other Southern girls would have been command performances. It is to Regina’s credit that as much as she might have exerted authority in her household she gave her daughter ample space and opportunity to grow and develop, both before her illness and afterwards—although this may have been the result of O’Connor’s own strong personality.

One way the biography manages to depict a three-dimensional O’Connor is through the people she was friends with and, in a few cases, in whom she may have been romantically interested. The main example of the latter category was Erik Langkjaer, a young book salesman who visited her frequently during the early 1950s but who returned to Europe and became engaged to another woman while O’Connor apparently still believed a relationship might develop. Gooch portrays the failure of this relationship as one that was painful for the writer. O’Connor apparently later incorporated elements of this relationship into her story “Good Country People”— Langkjaer even recognized himself in the story. There has been some speculation over the years about O’Connor’s sexuality. She was friends with two women who professed their love for her—Maryat Lee and Betty Hester--but she did not reciprocate their affections except in a friendly way. She remained close with both women to the end of her life. The friendship with Hester was clearly an important one that produced a rich and revealing series of letters. Friendships with writers such as Robie McCauley, Robert Lowell, Caroline Gordon, Andrew Lytle, and others demonstrate that she did not lead a life of isolation and that she often traveled away from Milledgeville to visit friends such as Brainard and Frances Cheney in Nashville.

One flaw in the book, I think, is Gooch’s constant attempts to draw parallels between O’Connor’s life and her fiction. Obviously, there were links, and clearly O’Connor got much of her material not only from people she knew and events she experienced but also from stories told to her by family and friends. But imagination clearly played an important process in the invention of her stories, and Gooch doesn’t sufficiently credit it. He seems to believe that everything in her fiction has some connection or basis in her life, though he acknowledges the often dramatic ways in which she transformed life experiences into her art.

Gooch is especially effective at making clear the extent to which O’Connor’s devout Catholicism affected every aspect of her life and work. He makes clear that she read widely in Catholic theology and philosophy and that she was especially fond of the Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac. In literature she read fairly widely, including the literature of the American South, and she had strong opinions on the writers she admired (Faulkner) and those she disliked (Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote).

Gooch quotes generously from O’Connor’s letters, stories, and other writings, as well as from interviews and accounts by numerous other individuals. He brings O’Connor to life in part by allowing the reader to hear her own voice as often as possible in the biography, and by allowing us to see O’Connor through the opinions of the others who knew her.

I have often wondered (along with others) whether by the time of her death O’Connor had written herself out. Late in her life, she herself seemed troubled by this question. Would she have continued to write the same sort of fiction? The questions of whether and how her work would have evolved invite the kind of pointless speculation inevitably focused on writers who die at a relatively young age.

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