Book Review - New biography shows Flannery O’Connor’s true colors

In her unique, off-putting novels and short stories, O’Connor crossbred humor, horror and piety; her output had such hybrid vigor that she virtually established the genre of the Southern grotesque. Her first novel, Wise Blood, critiques Southern religion by way of homicide, self-mutilation, mummies and gorilla suits. Her famous, oft-anthologized short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” begins with a mundane family road trip and ends with a psycho killer, as if The Trip to Bountiful received a surprise visit from No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh.

As Milledgeville, Ga.’s most famous resident for the majority of her brief life, O’Connor wrote unnerving tales that probably kept the town’s name synonymous with mental instability almost as much as the notorious Milledgeville lunatic asylum. Yet O’Connor lived the life of a genteel spinster, devout Catholic and famed bird fancier, having contracted lupus, a disease that claimed her father, narrowed her personal horizons and took her life in 1964 at the age of 39. O’Connor told a friend in a letter, “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.”

Brad Gooch uses that quote as the epigram for Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, the first biography of one of the South’s most iconic literary figures. “After spending five years with Flannery O’Connor, I see it more as a coy challenge than a statement of fact,” Gooch says of the remark. “Certain editors and people, including O’Connor’s friend Elizabeth Hardwick, asked me, ‘Do you think there’s a life there?’ She was perceived as the Emily Dickinson of Milledgeville.”

Gooch contradicts that perception, pointing out that O’Connor became a literary celebrity who kept a lively correspondence with major publishing figures of her time. But he acknowledges the challenges of chronicling O’Connor’s life in a biographical narrative. “She wasn’t a woman of action. She wasn’t a Truman Capote, sleeping with dozens of people and leading a tempestuous life. More enticing is the riddle of her mind, how she put things together.”

Despite the absence of gossipy drama, Gooch has crafted an engaging, richly detailed account of O’Connor’s life, in which the writer emerges as a vivid, quirky presence. Part of what makes Flannery so readable is that O’Connor’s distinctive persona emerges at an early age. While the subjects of many biographies don’t always come into their own until their late teens, O’Connor seems to be “herself” almost from the time she can walk. Gooch, like O’Connor before him, makes much of an anecdote that O’Connor was filmed by the Pathe newsreel company at age 5 for having taught a chicken to walk backward. Gooch uses the incident as an unforced metaphor for the way O’Connor went against the grain in her literary career, as well as early evidence of her avian attachments.

Seldom can authors or the people who write about them satisfactorily explain the origins of literary sensibilities, or answer the question, “Where did they get their ideas?” Nevertheless, Gooch intriguingly explores the influences that shaped O’Connor’s singular voice. “She faced death, from the early death of her father to her own death. For me, that was the biggest force in her life. There’s a lot of violence in her work, but as I point out in the book, there were a lot of killings and lynchings in Georgia at the time, especially on farms.”

O’Connor’s gift for cartooning in high school and college seems to anticipate her penchant for exaggerated personalities (and makes one wonder why Flannery’s photos include none of her cartoons). In addition, “She was contrary – very sarcastic, snarky and satirical as a girl, and had a way of looking through the wrong end of the telescope,” says Gooch. “She did embrace Catholicism, but a particularly medieval form of Catholicism: It’s a land of gargoyles and extremes. Also, living on the farm with her mother in her 20s and 30s was not necessarily the plan she wanted. She had thought that she’d go to New York and Connecticut and live a writer’s life. There was probably a lot of deflected anger in her life and towards her mother, which comes out in her work.”

Gooch discovered that, though O’Connor was nonplussed by the early, negative response to her writing – especially Wise Blood – she particularly wrestled with the religious implications of her pitch-dark work. While at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (a transplanted Southerner in a 15-pound muskrat coat), she went to mass every day. “This whole issue about writing about extreme people was something that concerned her. Once she asked the priest at her church, who said, ‘You don’t have to write for 15-year-old girls,’ which is great advice.”

An author’s untimely death takes an immeasurable toll on literary posterity, but can have an unexpected beneficiary: the biographer who comes along a few decades later. “People are still alive who knew her. I could still do more than 100 interviews with people who knew her. I talked or corresponded with 50 women who went to college with her and a lot who were in Writers’ Workshop are still alive.”

Gooch’s research coincided with Emory University unsealing O’Connor’s correspondence with her lifelong friend Betty Hester in 2007, portions of which had appeared in O’Connor’s collected letters, The Habit of Being. Gooch says that mysteries surrounding the letters turned out to be ill-founded. “In The Habit of Being collection, the letters have all these ellipses, and people thought the editors were covering up scandals. In fact, O’Connor repeated herself a lot in her letters, so they were just cutting out things that had been repeated.”

Gooch finds that one of O’Connor’s defining nonliterary achievements was that she raised 39 peacocks on the Milledgeville farm. “That act, and that particular bird, seem equally important to me. Peacocks are annoying – they make a lot of noise at night, they irritated her mother. They’re gawky-looking birds, but they could transform themselves due to their beautiful tails.” The peacock has long served as O’Connor’s “signature bird,” and if her fiction matches the glorious displays of the tail feathers, Flannery finds uncommon grace in the plumage that goes overlooked.