By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, February 22, 2009
By Brad Gooch
Little, Brown. 448 pp. $30
In February 1951, Flannery O'Connor was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, the disease that had killed her father 10 years earlier at the age of 45; she died of it 13 years later at the age of 39. In between that diagnosis and her death, she wrote almost nonstop. It is a life's work slender enough to be contained in a single volume in the Library of America, yet it occupies a large place in any critical assessment of American literature and in the hearts of readers here and abroad. That O'Connor was one of the great writers of the 20th century is now beyond argument.
Of few writers can it more accurately be said that it is the work, not the life, that matters. Apart from her struggle against lupus, almost nothing of moment happened to her. But readers understandably have long been curious about this quiet woman who wrote such powerful, occasionally violent, frequently funny novels and stories, yet whose work is infused with the most passionate religious conviction.
The difficulty for would-be biographers has been that O'Connor's mother, Regina Cline O'Connor, outlived her by more than three decades and guarded her flame with a possessive zeal almost unmatched in the long history of literary flamekeepers. Precisely why she was so determined to shield her daughter's life from the eyes of strangers remains unclear to this day, but I can well recall thinking about attempting an O'Connor biography sometime in the 1980s and being most emphatically dissuaded by people in the know who said it was pointless even to inquire.
Now we have "Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor." No doubt O'Connor, who delighted in giving her characters unusual if not outlandish names such as Lucynell Crater, Hazel Motes and Francis Marion Tarwater, would be tickled to know that the author of her first full-scale biography is named Brad Gooch. A professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey, he has done an earnest, respectful but mercifully not hagiographic job. There are some odd aspects to it -- Gooch gives less attention than he should to O'Connor's relationships with her editor, Robert Giroux, and her agent, Elizabeth McKee, and his portrait of her mother is excessively polite -- but the book is for the most part lucidly written and neither excessively long nor riddled with extraneous detail.
Mary Flannery O'Connor was born to Regina and Edward O'Connor in Savannah in 1925. She was utterly devoted to her father, a man of charm and panache who tried to establish a career in real estate but was brought down by the Depression. Shortly before his death in 1941, his widow and their only child settled in Milledgeville, a small town in Georgia where members of Regina's family welcomed them. Mary Flannery, as she was known throughout her childhood in the venerable tradition of double-named Southern womanhood, attended the local schools and then Georgia State College for Women.
She did well there, but she didn't really begin to flower until she was awarded a scholarship at the University of Iowa and enrolled in its Writers' Workshop as soon as she got there. Still a small enterprise, basically a one-man band directed by Paul Engle, it bore little resemblance to the writing factory it subsequently became. She received close attention and instruction from Engle and various visiting luminaries, notably Robert Penn Warren, all of whom recognized her brilliance and were eager to help her, as they seem to have understood that writing was the entire purpose of her life.
Indeed, many years later she told a friend, "In my stories is where I live." As another friend told Gooch: "She was very serious about her mission in life, and had a sort of sense of destiny. She knew she was a great writer. She told me so many times. If I would have heard that from other people, I would have laughed up my sleeve, but not with her. We both agreed that she might never be recognized, but that wasn't the point. The point was to do what she thought she was meant to do." It wasn't easy, as O'Connor well knew. "What first stuns the young writer emerging from college," she wrote in 1948, "is that there is no clear-cut road for him to travel on. He must chop a path in the wilderness of his own soul; a disheartening process, lifelong and lonesome."
It says much about O'Connor that this penetrating observation was made when she was 23 years old; four years before the publication of her first novel, she knew exactly how much hard work and discouragement lay ahead of her. Yet she was in her way an optimist, not cockeyed but clear-eyed; she was stubborn and determined; and she had a rebellious streak that encouraged her to go her own way.
Only three books were published during her lifetime: "Wise Blood" (1952); the story collection "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" (1955); and a second novel, "The Violent Bear It Away" (1960). A second story collection, "Everything That Rises Must Converge," appeared shortly after her death in 1965. It was followed by "Mystery and Manners" (1969), a superb collection of speeches and other nonfiction; "The Complete Stories" (1971); "The Habit of Being," her selected letters (1979); and the Library of America's "Collected Works" (1988).
O'Connor's readership and reputation have grown ever stronger in the four-and-a-half decades since her death. No doubt this has much to do with the frequency with which her work is assigned in high school and college courses, but it also reflects her growing popularity in the general readership. Whether Gooch's conscientious, respectful biography will bring new readers to her work is doubtful, since literary biographies rarely sell as well as their authors and publishers wish, but readers who already know that work will be glad to have it. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.