By MOIRA BUCCIARELLI, Special To The Bulletin | Published March 26, 2009
“Flannery, A Life of Flannery O’Connor” by Brad Gooch. Little, Brown and Co. (New York, 2009). 464 pp., $30.
This week marks the birthday of Flannery O’Connor, a writer whose startling fiction belied a deep Catholic faith and razor-sharp intellect. O’Connor, who died of lupus when she was just shy of 40, would have turned 84 on March 25, 2009.
A new biography by author and English professor Brad Gooch profiles this much misunderstood and much beloved native of both the Church and the South.
Whether you believe that God or the devil is in the details, Gooch’s book, “Flannery, A Life of Flannery O’Connor” doesn’t lack for details. The research is meticulous and dutiful. Gooch takes O’Connor’s advice to writers to heart, when she stated that all writing must include the “texture of existence that surrounds you.”
Yet at times the texture Gooch provides, perhaps because he is loath to discard a hard-earned fact, weighs as heavily on the reader as O’Connor’s 14-pound muskrat coat. Does knowing the weight of her coat, or that she had a preference for bottled water while she attended the Iowa writers workshop, really add to our understanding of the person or the art?
The zeal for detail can cut both ways, though, and I am grateful for Gooch’s ability to connect real life experiences to allusions within O’Connor’s work. It is fun to find out that the Cyclorama in the Grant Park neighborhood of Atlanta was behind Enoch Emery’s excitement about the ‘MVSEVM’ in her novel “Wise Blood.” (Her family lived in Buckhead at the tail end of the Depression, and they attended Christ the King.)
An earlier O’Connor biography, by Jean Cash, covers similar ground. But with the blessing of the O’Connor estate and honest shoe-leather fact-finding, Gooch has new nuggets to offer.
One is the poignant entry from a freshman year college diary, where the 17-year-old O’Connor makes a rare reference to her father’s death from lupus, just two years earlier. In this one paragraph, she has already grasped the language and themes that would define her later fiction:
The reality of death has come upon us and a consciousness of the power of God has broken our complacency like a bullet in the side. A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with grief, but even above grief, wonder. Our plans were so beautifully laid out, ready to be carried to action, but with magnificent certainty God laid them aside and said, “you have forgotten—mine?”
Gooch takes his time and builds the arc of her life slowly, giving the reader a feel for the ups and downs of her friendships, the pain, unpredictability and duration of her illness, and the range of her views on social issues of the day.
Any biographer makes choices about what to leave in and what to leave out; one curious choice Gooch made was to soft-pedal the importance of O’Connor’s faith. His degree in medieval and Renaissance literature makes him no stranger to O’Connor’s religious terrain.
“I was completely interested in the Catholicism, and that drew me to O’Connor, that kind of 13th-century medievalism, the Thomism … but in the bigger world, you say ‘Flannery O’Connor’ and people still say, ‘who is he?’ So you kind of have to do the ABCs here,” responded Gooch.
O’Connor’s art was not “apologetic” in the classic Christian sense; her aim was to create writing that was true in the artistic and the moral sense. If a character or the course of action was not believable, then the work was not literature that would last.
In addition to writing short stories, novels and lectures, O’Connor also wrote book reviews for the Georgia Catholic Bulletin. From 1956 to her death in 1964 she wrote about 12 reviews a year. In one review she wrote, “Virtue can believably triumph only in completely drawn characters.” She was unafraid to pan so-called Catholic novels whose morals trumped their literary qualities.
While O’Connor valued freedom of thought, she was careful not to review books on the Catholic Index (those forbidden by the Church). She once wryly commented on her wish for a Church-authorized “reverse Index” of books Catholics should read. Her work for The Bulletin was a personal campaign to encourage a Catholic life of the mind.
Gooch’s book makes you wish O’Connor was with us still. We miss her hard-driving intellect, her fearless eye that found no human setting too unholy for art or for grace, her frightening rationalism tempered by a deep respect for “mystery,” her Augustinian view of the soul’s wayward lurch, and her cutting wit—all a much-needed blast to the narrow and humorless rhetoric we hear today.
O’Connor described herself as a “Christian realist”; she once painted a frank self-portrait with her lupus-swelled face, next to a pheasant. She showed it to visitors. Gooch too allows us to see her, clearly.
Moira Bucciarelli is a freelance religion writer living in Decatur and a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Church.