Flannery O’Connor: An Appreciation

(After reading Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch, I wrote this appreciation/review.)

I find that there is something inherently satisfying, as a writer, reading about another writer’s life – even when that writer is stratospherically in another universe of literary skill and reputation. And in Brad Gooch’s thorough and admiring 2009 biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (amazingly, the first comprehensive book-length biography of O’Connor), the reader is given a large picture window through which to view the author’s life.

That picture window gives us a view mostly of O’Connor’s life at Andalusia, the family “farm” in Milledgeville, Georgia, where O’Connor lived most of her sadly shortened adult life, and where the author honed her craft through shrewd observation and painstaking work habits. However, biographer Gooch, praised for his previous biography City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara, also gives the reader a comprehensive and fascinating glimpse into O’Connor’s formative childhood, adolescent, and college years. Although it may be that those of us who have never spent any time in the American south are more susceptible to being charmed by southerners and their (to us) quirky lifestyles, family relationships, and un-imitatable ways of speaking.
O’Connor was an only child whose father died of lupus, a wasting disease that came to ravage her at a young age as well and cause her premature death at the age of thirty-nine. However, it seems that young Flannery developed her wry, sardonic humor and her creative bent at a very early age. She spent childhood hours drawing – especially any type of bird – an early interest in birds and drawing and painting sustained her throughout her life. Gooch describes O’Connor’s college years and entry into graduate school in Iowa, “She hoped that the experience would either verify her suitability for little else but the job of teaching ninth-graders in Podunk, Georgia – the horizon line for most women majoring in English at GSCW – or that she would discover a happier means of making a living.” (p. 116)

Once she arrived at Iowa, she serendipitously found like-minded comrades in the Writers’ Workshop, in 1945 in it’s own beginning stages. Gooch points out that O’Connor was insecure but persistent in working on her writing. He shares an interview she later gave about her time at Iowa, “When I went there I didn’t know a short story from an ad in the newspaper.” (p. 127)

Perhaps what this biography of O’Connor does best is dispel the myth that the writer was a reclusive invalid; a plain, spinsterish woman who lived with her difficult mother in their isolated ancestral home – a southern Gothic image if there ever was one. Indeed, most of this book painstakingly lays out, through correspondence and interviews, the many fulfilling relationships that O’Connor cultivated during her life.

She entertained many fellow writers at Andalusia, and carried on voluminous correspondences with many others (including Elizabeth Bishop, Katherine Anne Porter, Robert Lowell, and Allen Tate), as well as traveling to speaking engagements around the country, even when she was reduced to using metal crutches to get around because of her illness. Gooch also presents numerous examples of O’Connor’s strong Roman Catholic faith, and its influence on her work; and her lifelong interest in theology. Both are offered as constant underpinnings to her overall life philosophy and her writing.

A reviewer in Publisher’s Weekly remarks that Gooch’s biography is, “…surprisingly bloodless,” and regrets that O’Connor, “…despite the author’s diligent scholarship, remains enigmatic.” Some critics have found fault that a more exhaustive critical/academic analysis of O’Connor’s work in relation to her life is not offered up. I would disagree with these critics. I found after finishing the biography, that I had a much more nuanced understanding of the work of one of our most famous American authors. And it was largely due to Gooch’s fine presentation of letting O’Connor’s own words – in both her correspondence and her stories – speak for themselves.

Upon finishing Gooch’s biography I re-read several of O’Connor’s short stories and found that I had a new appreciation for them. I could even more clearly hear the author’s voice and sense her imagination and wry humor at work in every sentence. O’Connor lived through a tumultuous time of racial tensions in the south, and the rest of our country, yet her fiction never strays from her unique, and often “grotesque” and violent vision.

Drawing upon exhaustive interviews and an examination of a cache of previously unseen letters to one of O’Connor’s closest confidants, Betty Hestler, as well as Gooch’s close scholarly analysis of the famous author’s work, this is a finely drawn portrait of a complex and intriguing woman writer with a first rate wit and mind.

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