Flannery O’Connor famously claimed that “there won’t be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.”
Happily, Brad Gooch has begged to differ. As if to refute O’Connor’s self-deprecatory remarks, his Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (2009) deftly illustrates the fascination to be found in a woman who, by choice and later by illness, lived to a large extent an interior life–a life of letters and a life of the mind.
Gooch’s work about the Southern writer of “freaks and folks” is comprehensive and illuminating, but above all it is interesting, a quality derived not only from its source material but its excellent composition. Not only does he chronicle notable events, but he closely examines O’Connor’s writing process and habits (generally a slow writer, she sat in the same spot every day and wrote for expressly two hours), her spiritual development and influences (chiefly Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Merton, Jacques Maritain, and Teilhard de Chardin), her diverse and colorful friendships, and the many dimensions of her satirical-but-shy personality.
Gooch also delves nicely into Flannery’s difficult but loving relationship with her mother, a great literary and emotional influence, and a woman who never understood her daughter’s work. “Can’t you make her write about nice people?” O’Connor’s mother once asked a publisher. Gooch is at his biographical best when he lets incidents snap and crackle in O’Connor’s own voice, borrowed from her journals and letters–effectively letting O’Connor narrate and comment upon much of her life and work.
In flagrant contradiction of a current biographical trend, Flannery is, generally speaking, not a posthumous tabloid tale–the “juciest” bit being the anecdote about O’Connor throwing herself at textbook salesman Erik Langkjaer, who bears a striking resemblance to the diabolical Manly Pointer of “Good Country People.”
Gooch treats O’Connor with grace and humor–as is fitting, she was uproariously funny–yet he does not lack a critical eye. He treads carefully and thoughtfully through one of the most heated O’Connor debates– her complicated stance on race. Gooch reminds us that O’Connor is repeatedly described as “liberal” compared to the rest of Milledgeville, Georgia in her views on race relations, asserting that integration was good and necessary—even voting for a presidential candidate who supported integration.
Yet he allows that O’Connor treated the issue of racial equality with a “complex ambivalence” which occasionally resulted in a patronizing attitude toward people of color. This ambivalence evidenced itself the form of offensive racial jokes (made primarily to antagonize her white, wildly liberal friend, Maryat Lee). “O’Connor’s position,” Gooch concludes, “basically fell close to William Faulkner’s. Segregation was an evil, Faulkner stated; but if integration were forced upon the South he would resist…his behavior toward African Americans was always cordial and kindly…but it was also ‘patronizing; he belonged to a patron class.” In her writing, Gooch notes that O’Connor approached African American characters “from the outside” because she didn’t “feel capable of entering the mind of a Negro,” but that she also “presented blacks with dignity” and hoped that “the races would converge.”
Flannery lacks little in any area; it covers the breadth and scope of a woman had many deep friendships, lectured and traveled extensively throughout the East, the South, and the Midwest, made a pigrimage to Europe, wrote some of America’s best short stories, and lived well. It is also an excellent read if only for its account of race and religion in the South in the 1960’s. Thus, whether one is or isn’t a fan of Flannery O’Connor’s work, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor is well worth the read. ‘