Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor is a lushly detailed, compulsively readable narrative, the result of painstaking research and an obvious affection for its subject. Brad Gooch, author of a well-received biography of the poet Frank O’Hara, renders in continuous, novelistic fashion the story of O’Connor’s extraordinary artistic development, her swift rise to fame, her return to live as an invalid with her mother, her almost superhuman courage in the face of her debilitation by lupus, and her death at the age of thirty-nine.
Gooch seeks to weave a unified whole out of O’Connor’s life and art, the cultural and religious influences which shaped her, the multiplicity of voices – barbed, generous, at times innocent and longing – of her letters. And yet at times, the lyrical, urbane sensibility of Gooch’s narrative, its focus on the psychological, misses its mark.
Though billed on its flap copy as the “first major biography” of O’Connor, there is little in Flannery that cannot be found, in homelier form, in Jean Cash’s Flannery O’Connor: A Life; Gooch’s book leans heavily upon the earlier volume, acknowledging the debt only in bibliographical fine print. There are some revelations in Flannery, but mostly about people whom O’Connor knew, rather than O’Connor herself. A newly-opened trove of letters from O’Connor to Betty Hester—“A” in O’Connor’s collected correspondence, The Habit of Being—does not uncover a love affair, consummated or otherwise, as had been speculated; neither do the letters of Maryat Lee, to whom O’Connor wrote her last note before she died, though both correspondences include declarations of love to O’Connor and O’Connor’s gentle, awkward demurrals. There is a ghastly description of O’Connor’s only known adult kiss. There are no letters between O’Connor and her mother, Regina: Sally Fitzgerald, O’Connor’s literary executor and the editor of The Habit of Being, had not planned to include them in her own biography of O’Connor, which she was working on when she died in 2002, and one assumes Gooch did not have access to them for his book.
Gooch’s writing is at its best when evoking O’Connor’s early childhood in Savannah, the hothouse atmosphere of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and the literary worlds of Yaddo and 1950s New York. In the New York scenes—O’Hara’s world—Gooch depicts with an expert eye O’Connor’s tour of the circles of literary society, with a seemingly demented Robert Lowell as the devil (a set piece at Yaddo, in which Lowell attempts to oust the director because she harbored a guest with communist sympathies, casts light on O’Connor’s naive cooperation with Lowell). The view of the early Writer’s Workshop is fascinating, not only as a peephole in time into the social and fictional atmosphere there, but also into the origins of the formalist aesthetic doctrine that shaped O’Connor’s fiction.
Flannery also succeeds in its portrait of O’Connor’s youth. Cash also records that O’Connor’s father married into one of the city’s most prominent Catholic families, but Gooch gives a palpable texture to O’Connor’s childhood, literally shadowed by the Roman Catholic cathedral in Savannah her maternal grandfather helped finance, and in Milledgeville, where her family occupied the former governor’s mansion; he evokes a magical sense of privilege, as well as Regina O’Connor’s rigid protectiveness, and the family’s financial entanglements. Gooch’s account of O’Connor’s early artistic efforts, including a roman à clef titled My Relitives [sic], is lovingly rendered, and the atmosphere of entitlement which both encouraged and politely marginalized her gifts is cannily traced, pointing forward to the day when the ladies of Milledgeville, who found Wise Blood “horrible,” held a tea, attended by over 300 guests, in its author’s honor.
But Gooch’s understanding of what it meant for O’Connor to be known as “Miss Regina’s little girl” who also happened to write, only goes so deep. At times, as when he offers a page-long catalogue of the family’s Milledgeville mansion’s décor, he seems struck dumb by the milieu he seeks to inhabit. In contrast, Cash’s poll of O’Connor’s former classmates at Georgia State College for Women, which mainly elicited comments on her attractiveness or lack thereof, better conveys, intentionally or not, the atmosphere in which O’Connor lived most of her life.
After her return to Milledgeville, O’Connor’s relationship with her mother became central in her life. Yet for long stretches of Gooch’s book, Regina O’Connor disappears, resurfacing only toward the end. Perhaps this absence is due to scrupulousness—Flannery’s day-to-day life with her mother was mostly unobserved. Gooch settles for a familiar mise en scène of Regina as a tyrannical mother, ignorant of the meaning of her daughter’s work yet fiercely protective of her, and O’Connor as a docile child, unconsciously taking revenge on her in her stories. But Cash keeps Regina on stage, poking and prodding with every scrap of quotation at her disposal, until gradually a subtly different picture emerges—in O’Connor’s own concerns about money, in Regina’s awkward attempts to join literary discussions, in the starched formality of Regina’s note to Maryat Lee, forwarding O’Connor’s extraordinarily moving last letter to her, which Cash quotes in full.
Gooch is also silent on the effect on O’Connor of her father’s death. He does offer an insightful quote from an early notebook, in which she wrote of his death that “God has broken our complacency like a bullet in the side,” an early formulation of her conception of divine grace. He also quotes an eerie early story, as Cash does, in which Death appears, carrying “something at his side.” Unlike Cash, he does not cite O’Connor’s oft-quoted letter to Betty Hester about visiting an orphanage as a girl, a letter which viscerally conveys her horror at having lost her father.
What Gooch doggedly pursues is evidence of O’Connor’s romantic life. He is seldom unseemly—his depictions of O’Connor’s platonic relationship with Robie Macauley, her unrequited love for Robert Lowell, Betty Hester and Maryat Lee’s one-sided declarations, never leer. Several times, he returns to a quote from O’Connor to the effect that she intended never to “grow up” past the age of twelve, an age before her father’s death, before adolescence and sex. Suggested, though never stated, is an assumption that O’Connor chose to eschew sexual relationships in order to devote herself to her art. Cash adduces a more hard-nosed explanation for her solitude, at least after her return to Milledgeville: She did not want to burden her mother with a husband in the house, and did not want to burden a husband with her own illness. The first explanation is psychological, the second social; both explanations seem true, neither entirely so. But Gooch’s choice of the former suggests a rather romantic set of assumptions about the relationship between O’Connor’s life and art.
Throughout his book, Gooch relates the facts of O’Connor’s life to the events of her fiction, connecting her return to Milledgeville during her first attack of lupus with the railway arrival of the protagonist in “The Enduring Chill,” Regina O’Connor’s Polish tenant farmers to the tenant family in “The Displaced Person.” He does not venture to say how O’Connor transformed these scraps of observation and experience into art; he presents the facts, presents the stories, and asserts a direct relation between the two. He records, as Cash does, her early reading of Poe’s Humorous Tales, her late enthusiasm for the theologian Teilhard du Chardin; he dutifully lists her religious and fictional reading; but he has almost nothing to say about how she put these materials to use in her life and work. He asserts that her work is anagogic, but his account of its creation suggests that it is actually psychological.
This view comes into focus most clearly in the recounting of O’Connor’s relationship with Erik Langkjaer and its transformation into “Good Country People.” O’Connor dated Langkjaer, a sales representative for her publisher, until Langkjaer interrupted their courtship to move back to Europe, implying that he would return, not revealing in his letters his meeting and eventual engagement to a woman there.
O’Connor wrote “Good Country People” before Langkjaer revealed his engagement, but Gooch interprets the story as “a red flag from the imagination.” “Developments in her relationship with Erik played a part in its creation, too, even if they were only dimly understood by her. By the beginning of 1955, Flannery knew that Erik was extending his leave of absence. And ‘Good Country People’ contains many coded references to him…”
Gooch builds a convincing case for Langkjaer as the model for Manley Pointer, the traveling “Bible salesman” in the story. Langkjaer was agnostic, as is Pointer, the promotional materials he used known in his trade as “The Bible.” O’Connor’s letters to Langkjaer are moving, especially in contrast to her usual barbed tone, and Gooch’s depiction of O’Connor’s guarded longing brings her vividly to life. But his view of “Good Country People” ignores O’Connor’s own take on the story, in which she describes the theft of Joy/Hulga’s wooden leg as the loss of “a wooden part of her soul”—a bullet in the side, a moment of grace entering, as it always does in O’Connor’s fiction, through pain and violence. O’Connor’s explanation suggests a different, more ambiguous message, both of desire and a lampooning of that desire, of her ability to view her own desire with cold objectivity, an objectivity at the center of her faith and her art, her strength and her genius. Gooch’s conflation of O’Connor’s life and art is a profound misreading of an author who used modern realism to convey a vision of “thirteenth century” religious revelation, the scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas, in which faith seeks understanding through revelation but uses the knowledge provided by reason, a faith cultivated through the discipline of self-examination.
It also implies a profound misreading of her life. O’Connor was a human being who fell in love, fought with and found a way to live with her mother, was ambitious, suffered greatly. Gooch does a masterful job of bringing O’Connor to the page in these and other respects. But in viewing these things through a primarily psychological lens, he misses the centrality to her life of religious faith—a particular Irish Roman Catholicism of the Deep South, a strange hybrid of the mystical and the pragmatic, suspicious of its Protestant neighbors yet tinged with apocalyptic hellfire—and how it colored every aspect of her existence.
Humanism, which she saw as an attempt to banish religious mystery from our lives, to shrink our conception of experience to a merely human scale, was anathema to Flannery O’Connor. As she famously said, in response to Mary McCarthy’s concession that the communion wafer was a symbol of the Holy Spirit, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” By relegating her faith to this symbolic realm, albeit with great sensitivity and tact, by omission rather than statement, Gooch trivializes his subject.
Depicting O’Connor’s life and art in a culture she viewed as “hostile” to spiritual meaning is a daunting prospect. O’Connor was scathing toward hagiography and religious sentimentality of any kind. It is hard to imagine the biography that could encompass her faith, work, and emotional life, and the culture which shaped them—given the vanishing of the culture in which she lived, and the bias in favor of psychological representation of human experience which exists today. It is understandable that Gooch handled these central aspects of her life so gingerly. Flannery is a skillfully executed biography that should be welcomed and valued by her admirers—but it is still only part of her story.