The Artist as Invalid
Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor
Little, Brown and Company, 2009
Baptised into the Catholic faith 18 days after her birth, American writer Flannery O’Connor attended Mass almost daily for much of her adult life. She was diagnosed with lupus erythematosus at the age of 25, and she suffered chronic inflammation, fatigue, organ failure and various less severe but equally distracting symptoms for the remaining 14 years of her life. Together, but perhaps not in equal measure, this fierce religiosity and physical frailty made O’Connor one of the most significant American writers of the 20th century. Known best for her 32 short stories, she also wrote two novels and countless book reviews and lectures. But the circumstances of her life, which today seem so purposively plaintive, were to her almost banal. “There won’t be any biographies of me,” O’Connor insisted in what Brad Gooch takes for the epigraph of his new biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, “because lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.”
Gooch’s biography of O’Connor is the first in the 40 years since her death, and one hopes that others will follow. Where Sally Fitzgerald—a longtime friend and occasional editor of O’Connor’s, who never finished the biography she planned—might have managed to measure the writer’s life against her work, Brad Gooch is most successful at assessing the body of work that O’Connor left behind. Yet he too often takes the writer at her word, and he mistakes O’Connor’s personal modesty and private humility for a true account of her life.
Forced home to Andalusia, the 500-acre family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, by her illness, O’Connor surrounded herself with peacocks, mallard ducks, bantam chickens, pheasants and quails. Though her disease left her unable to travel extensively for most of her life, O’Connor maintained famous friendships with Robert Fitzgerald, Katharine Anne Porter, Robert Giroux, Allen Tate, Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Her mother, Regina, became her regular caregiver, and together the two hosted hordes of New Yorkers and national celebrities for long weekends.
O’Connor found familial affection and friendship in her life, but failed at romantic relationships and was largely blind to the injustices of segregation and the swelling social justice and civil rights movement around her in Georgia. Sex and society, two aspects lacking in her own life, are also largely absent from her fiction, where more than a fixed style, O’Connor created, in her own words, “freaks and folks”. These grotesque, Southern Gothic personalities survive their creator, including the maleficent Misfit from “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1955); the one-armed vagrant Tom T. Shiflet of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” (1953); the fleshy, fastidious Mrs. Turpin in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (1965); and the fiercely atheistic antagonist Uncle Rayber of The Violent Bear It Away (1960). O’Connor’s exceptional characters, living in every story and breathing on every page of her prose, are always cold and dark; their inner lives, like their creator’s, are considered unworthy, impenetrable subjects.
Perhaps the best examples can be found in O’Connor’s first published book, Wise Blood (1952), which features the prophet Hazel Motes and mystic Enoch Emery. Like the characters that were to follow, Emery and Motes are uncomfortably strange and strangely beautiful. The descendant of “a circuit preacher, a waspish old man who had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger”, Hazel Motes returns to Tennessee after some time in the Army determined to liberate his fellow Southerners from the tyranny of religion by preaching a new gospel for the Church Without Christ. Enoch Emery, orphaned of both family and faith, uses his “wise blood” to find meaningful materials in the world: stealing a museum mummy to serve as the “New Jesus” of Hazel Motes’s Church and then robbing an actor of his Gonga the Gorilla costume in order to transfigure himself.
When asked to review Wise Blood, Evelyn Waugh responded, “Why are so many characters in recent American fiction sub-human?” And like O’Connor’s own mother, who asked why she could not just “write about nice people”, T.S. Eliot rebuked the recommendation of a friend that he read more of O’Connor, replying that he had read a few of her stories and was “quite horrified” by those he read. “She has certainly an uncanny talent of a high order but my nerves are just not strong enough to take much of a disturbance,” he said.
Brad Gooch very thoroughly collects these sorts of contemporary opinions and records the passive feuds between O’Connor and her Southern peers. This is no small task, for O’Connor’s refusal to discuss craft or to acknowledge her influences, like the threadbare facts of her life, make writing her biography difficult. She disparaged Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams for making her “sick”, dismissed Carson McCullers and Walker Percy and barely acknowledged the significant influence that William Faulkner had on her writing.
A few of her now-famous lectures pierce this obstinacy, and Gooch does a fine job of mining her non-fiction, especially “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South” (1963), “The Church and the Fiction Writer” (1957) and “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” (1955), for insights. But he is more interested in fiction than in facts: chasing local Georgia lore; tracking the full O’Connor family genealogy; and hunting down every man, woman, and child O’Connor ever kissed. Pleasing flourishes in another biography, their primacy in this one makes obvious Gooch’s failure to interrogate O’Connor’s rich religious faith. Intimated by her fiction and extolled in her letters and lectures, Roman Catholicism was for O’Connor something more than a worldview. The Eucharist, she wrote, “is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable”.
Gooch gives that declaration and others like it meager attention, only documenting O’Connor’s devotion to Scripture and the writings of Aquinas, François Mauriac and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Ultimately, he takes her at her word that “if the writer is a successful artist, his moral judgment will coincide with his dramatic judgment. It will be inseparable from the very act of seeing.” But a biography ought to make some determination of its subject’s success, and in the case of an author, use her life to elucidate her work rather than limiting itself to the work that survives her. More than collecting sights seen and stories told, it must perform “the very act of seeing”, however mystical the vision.
Casey N. Cep is a graduate student at Magdalen College, Oxford. She agrees with Flannery O’Connor that “the things we see, hear, smell and touch affect us long before we believe anything at all”.