Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, by Brad Gooch, Little Brown, 416 pp., $30
Fiction writers often resist biography because, among other reasons, it goes against the grain of what they do. Biographies seek to explain a life; novels and stories embrace metaphor. Flannery O’Connor, more than most writers perhaps, also believed mystery to be at the core of existence itself: “Mystery isn’t something that is gradually evaporating; it grows along with knowledge.” She could be famously stubborn when asked to penetrate that mystery, snapping at a television interviewer who asked her if she would “like to tell our audience what happens” in a story. “No I certainly would not,” O’Connor replied, “I don’t think you can paraphrase a story like that.”
It would be interesting to know whether O’Connor’s authorized biographer, Sally Fitzgerald, was held back by such considerations. Fitzgerald, one of O’Connor’s dearest friends, worked on her life of Flannery for more than two decades without ever finishing it. She did, however, play a crucial role in shaping O’Connor’s posthumous reputation by editing and introducing O’Connor’s work itself (most impressively, perhaps, the collection of O’Connor’s letters published in 1988 as The Habit of Being). Fitzgerald died in 2000 at the age of 83.
Brad Gooch, whose biography of Frank O’Hara, City Poet, was much admired, now steps into the breach with what is likely to be the definitive life of O’Connor for this generation of readers. He is well aware of the daunting complications for an O’Connor biographer. To begin with, she wasn’t afforded much of a life. O’Connor, the awkwardly shy only child of protective parents, grew up in Savannah, Georgia, as the Great Depression unfolded. Her adored father died of lupus when she was just 16, leaving her with a controlling mother who was innocent of any literary interests. After a brief but crucial escape to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1946, followed by brief stays at the artists’ colony Yaddo and at the Connecticut farm of writers Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. O’Connor was stricken in her early 20s by the same hereditary disease her father died of. She lived for the rest of her life with her widowed mother in Milledgeville, Georgia. Increasingly debilitated by the painful wasting of lupus, she died at the age of 39.
Gooch’s biography opens with O’Connor’s own caveat: “There won’t be any biographies of me, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” But she also knew that the heart of the matter lay elsewhere: “In my stories is where I live,” she once told a friend.
Another complication that might have dogged Fitzgerald’s unfinished biography is that both she and O’Connor were deeply marked by the generation of New Critics who, as Gooch points out, objected to “mining fiction for a series of psychological clues to a writer’s life” and advocated eschewing biography in favor of a close reading of the text alone. For the present generation of biographers and critics, life and art are more fungible. Postmodern biographers feel freer to throw themselves at the unanswerable questions that emerge from the intricate play between a writer’s life and the art that life produces. Gooch approaches this task with admirable delicacy, taking care to underline another of O’Connor’s caveats: “Any story I reveal myself in completely will be a bad story.”
Treading lightly over the minefield of either reading biography into a story or constructing biography out of fiction, Gooch instead shows us how O’Connor seized upon experience as raw material in constructing narratives whose shape was finally dictated by the demands of art. After the onset of her illness, O’Connor returned to Georgia and to the clutches of her indomitable mother; she put this part of her life to use in the story “The Enduring Chill.” In the fictional rendering, Gooch points out, O’Connor substitutes for herself a snotty young artist, but draws from her own remembered past in writing: “The train glided silently away behind him. . . . He gazed after the aluminum speck disappearing into the woods. It seemed to him that his last connections with a larger world were disappearing forever.”
The young man who serves as the protagonist of “The Enduring Chill” is, unlike O’Connor, a self-pitying hypochondriac, giving up on life because he’s failed as a writer. The larger point of the story, however, has to do with his spiritual poverty. As a modern would-be writer, he’s a prisoner of the idea that self is the ultimate subject.
Besides dealing sensitively with the vexed question of life and work, Gooch has done a splendid job of catching up the observations, memories, and speculations of O’Connor’s contemporaries—just in time in cases like that of the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, who died recently. If some of this material can seem a bit pedestrian, it is partly because O’Connor could be reserved in company, rarely revealing herself unless she felt entirely comfortable. In novelist Andrew Lytle’s writing workshop at Iowa, where discussion of fellow students’ writing was expected, O’Connor seldom spoke. When she did, she could be almost perversely opaque. Once, Gooch recounts, “when her mentor asked her to comment on a student’s story, she paused a beat, then in a deadpan voice she replied laconically, ‘I’d say the description of that crocodile in there was real good.’”
O’Connor may have been liveliest in her letters, which are full of dry wit and deliciously naughty portraits of her relatives and neighbors. When her work was compared to Kafka’s on a jacket blurb, O’Connor, in a letter to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, reported her mother’s reaction: “‘Who is this Kafka?’ she says. ‘People ask me.’ A German Jew, I says, I think. He wrote a book about a man that turns into a roach. ‘Well, I can’t tell people that,’ she says.”
Flannery O’Connor’s stories, which have taken their rightful place in anthologies of the best American stories of the last century, are among the darkest we have. Passersby exterminate whole families; a Bible salesman steals a girl’s artificial leg; people watch in unspeaking collusion while a Displaced Person has his back broken by a tractor wheel. But if her work is haunted by violence, it is also borne up by redemption. Grace abounds.
One comes away, after reading Brad Gooch’s excellent biography, with the impression of having spent time with a woman not only of remarkable talent but of extraordinary resourcefulness. Like Jane Austen, O’Connor seized upon her limited sphere, made assets of her deficits, and let nothing go to waste. Writing to a friend who had recognized a hint of himself in one of her stories, she dryly remarked: “Never let it be said that I don’t make the most of experience and information, no matter how meager.”