by Brad Gooch
Little, Brown and Company, 2009, 449 pp., $30
Writing of the shock of her father’s early death from lupus, the illness that would later claim her own life at the age of 39, Flannery O’Connor described the power of God as “a bullet in the side.” It was not an accusation but a statement of mystery. A self-dubbed “13th-century” Catholic, O’Connor’s profession of the faith came in strange colors, from the first day to the last. As a young child, she furiously shadow-boxed with her unwanted guardian angels. At the end of her life, she was visited on her deathbed, she said, by a “celestial chorus” bawling out the drowning ballad “Clementine.” Those and other stories are now told in Brad Gooch’s beautiful biography, with 13th-century sensitivity to O’Connor’s “ribald humor, gargoyled faces and bodies, frontal action, threats of violence, and, most of all, the subtle tug of a spiritual quest in a dark universe animated by grace and significance.”
Gooch, an English professor at William Paterson University, is a sometime poet and novelist best known for his nonfiction: City Poet, a 1993 biography of Frank O’Hara widely considered interesting but cluttered, and a silly-looking self-help book called Finding the Boyfriend Within (1999). His latest effort elevates him to a whole new plane; and to the extent that it benefits from his maturity, we can be thankful it did not come sooner. Gooch explains in his acknowledgements that he had wanted to pen this book for some time but was rebuffed by O’Connor’s dear friend Sally Fitzgerald (as presumably others were as well), who claimed to be writing the definitive biography herself—she with the intimate memories and literally hundreds of personal letters. Fitzgerald passed away in 2000, biography unfinished.
First out of the gate was an ill-received 2003 attempt by Jean W. Cash to discern the secret of O’Connor’s life by staring at her train receipts; discounting that, Gooch’s full-dress biography is the first since her death in 1964, and has been greeted like the very book we’ve all been waiting for. But her life, in fact, was not particularly interesting. O’Connor herself understated the case somewhat when she predicted there would be no biographies of her because “lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy” (a remark that Gooch selected with a wink to be the epigraph). Still, the inner universe of such an author is much greater than the outer, and the extent to which the latter can penetrate the former is limited, though Gooch does a devotee’s job of chasing down the fragments of her life experience that he can find kaleidoscopically reflected in her work. The countless grateful reviews of Gooch’s biography suggest the presence in her writing of some essential mystery so compelling that any occasion to call it forth is happily observed.
O’Connor’s entourage includes the usual suspects: women’s studies, Southern gothic connoisseurs, some hopeful deicides supposing, like Blake did of Milton, that she was “of the Devil’s party.” At one point, interest in her was fueled by the rumor—since put to rest—of a torrid, cloistered love affair with her pen pal Betty Hester (known only as “A” in O’Connor’s published letters until Hester’s death in 1998).
But also in the throng are Catholics and other orthodox Christians—in many cases, one imagines, because they have been told she is devoutly one of them. O’Connor tells us this herself throughout her letters and essays. But few come away from their first contact with her two novels and thirty-odd short stories with precisely that impression.
The characters of these tales are a cast of human hobgoblins stumbling as best they can away from salvation only to run headlong into it, and find in it not respite but unremitting fire. “Even the mercy of the Lord burns”, observes Mason Tarwater, the crazed old prophet whose departed figure haunts The Violent Bear It Away (1960). Other memorable creations include Hulga Hopewell (“Good Country People”), a dour intellectual with a wooden leg whose dearly cherished cynicism is no match for the wiles of a horse-faced Bible salesman; Hazel Motes in Wise Blood (1952), the tormented herald of the “church Without Christ” who blinds himself in fealty to it; and “the grandmother”, a crotchety old biddy in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” who sees grace for the first time looking down the barrel of a gun, and “would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” The setting is a scorching Southern vista, and violence is the master principle. O’Connor has a Dostoyevskian penchant for cracking jokes in the midst of an apocalypse.
Gooch gently steps into the dogfight of competing interpretations with no dog of his own. Rigorous literary exegesis is not his job here, and he does not do it, but he does give glimpses of O’Connor’s gargoyles as if looking out the window of a moving train, any stop of which would be worth disembarking at for further exploration. His job, rather, is to recount her life. Avoiding the temptation to ally himself with one of the motley camps vying for her legacy, he does just what a biographer should do—he disappears.
Mary Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925, the only child of Edward O’Connor, a dreamy, struggling realtor, and the aptly named Regina Cline, a steel magnolia of the first degree. Mary Flannery was a lifelong bird lady. At the age of five she wound up in a bit of newsreel with a backwards-walking chicken—a story her biographer is as overly fond of repeating as she was. Assigned by her teacher to sew a dress for a home economics class, O’Connor stitched a full set of frippery for a duckling. But her true loves were her peafowl, which she enlisted to upstage her in official author photos.
O’Connor was first published not for her writing but for her cartoons—featuring multitudes of ducks—in various school papers, a practice which allowed her to indulge her affinity for the absurd as she labored briefly under the impression that, “I don’t know how to write.” But it was plain to her professors at Georgia state College for Women in Milledgeville that they had a screaming genius on their hands, albeit of an appallingly unladylike variety. A few years later, when Evelyn Waugh was asked for a promotional blurb to help publicize her first novel, Wise Blood, he returned the following: “If this is really the unaided work of a young lady, it is a remarkable product.” “Does he suppose you’re not a lady?” the outraged Regina shot back. “Who is he?”
By her second year at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she went after college, O’Connor was possessed of a clear sense of vocation. According to her friend Barbara Hamilton,
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.
The focus needed for this calling was absolute. She managed a couple of unrequited crushes with ironbound control, and always seemed vaguely alarmed when friends announced their weddings.
From Iowa she progressed to the literati enclave Yaddo in upstate New York, where—though by nature apolitical—she curiously became involved in a Red-baiting witch hunt of the leadership. As Robert Lowell, her new mentor and the instigator of the affair, put it, they “tried to blow the roof off.” The project backfired. Lowell went on to wilder adventures of his own, while O’Connor made her way to some important introductions in New York City, among them her instant champion Robert Giroux and her fellow Catholics Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, in whose home she lived for several years.
All the while, she was working on completing and revising Wise Blood, a process that she once described as “spending the day eating a horse blanket.” It finally debuted in 1952 to poor reviews—“they all recognized her power but missed her point”, Giroux complained. O’Connor, who quickly became used to being drastically misunderstood, declared that she would trade “a hundred readers now” for “one in a hundred years.” She was less willing to risk misunderstanding in Communist countries, and did not allow her work to be distributed there out of concern that her “freaks”—created as a good-faith critique of her countrymen—would be appropriated as “anti-American propaganda.” She was published in England and elsewhere and was about as well fathomed there as in New York, a milieu in which the South might just as well have been on some far distant planet. She was deemed, not unreasonably, by the Times Literary Supplement, to be “intense, erratic and strange.”
Strangeness notwithstanding, she was gaining traction on the home front with her incidental short stories, which Alfred Kazin called “severely perfect”: “She would be our classic.” “Our classic” was received in her hometown with some appreciative fêtes but also a general sense of dismay that she was not Margaret Mitchell; at one point Wise Blood was passed around concealed in paper bags. It was followed in 1955 by her collected stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and in 1960 by her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away. O’Connor liked to tell the story of a Texan man who went in search of the former in a bookstore and was informed by the clerk, “We don’t have that one but we have another one by that writer. It’s called The Bear That Ran Away With It.”
On her way home to Georgia for Christmas in 1950 O’Connor was struck ill. The diagnosis, unsurprisingly, was lupus—and strangely, by her mother’s orders, was then made known to everyone but her. At last Sally Fitzgerald, with the compassion of one adult to another in contrast to Regina’s pity for her child, finally let slip the secret. It is hard to believe that O’Connor did not at some level already know. Her father’s death had torn her heart out, so much so that she almost never spoke of him again. Could she really not have recognized the path before her?
For the next 14 years, death held O’Connor by one hand while she wrote with the other. She moved back to the family estate with her mother and continued on her business, as waggish as ever, but seeing—as young people seldom must—by the dark light of destiny. The small, redemptive possibilities of everyday existence were shut out from what she knew.
In her literary life as well, many of those close to her came to believe she was deliberately purblind. They felt, as Gooch relates it, “that she did not accept, and perhaps in some truly shuttered way did not even allow herself to understand, the implications of her writings.” Her friend Maryat Lee described her as “Jekyll and Hyde”, professing Christ unwaveringly but creating lurid scenarios in which He seemed as good as dead.
The word “grotesque” had first been floated in reaction to Wise Blood, and quickly attached itself to O’Connor’s work for good. At times she accused Northern readers of seeing all of Southern fiction as grotesque, “unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” Southern writers produce freaks “because we are still able to recognize one”: The South, as the locus of the nation’s spiritual drama, retained a visceral knowledge of fallenness. Though the theological accompaniments of Original Sin were no longer firmly attached, they were still rattling around. “While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted”, O’Connor said. “The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.”
Settling into the charge, she explained that she “[brought] such maimed souls alive” because “to the hard of hearing you shout, and to the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” Born into a society beginning to suppose that there is no such thing as sin, she undertook to impress the fact of sin upon it, doing so rather too successfully for some tastes.
She was trying to defend herself on this account one afternoon before a group of hospice nuns when she was surprised by a revelation. The nuns, knowing of her as the local Catholic talent, had entreated her to write the story of Mary Ann, a child in their care who had recently passed away. O’Connor rejected the idea but found herself grudgingly entranced by a photo of the girl at her First Communion: half of her face mangled by a fatal tumor, the other half bright and clear and hopeful. When the nuns up and wrote the book themselves, O’Connor coughed up an introduction and agreed to help them publish it. But why, they asked (having done a little homework), was the grotesque, “of all things”, her vocation? She recounted in the introduction how a friend who happened to be visiting supplied the saving insight: “It’s your vocation too”, he said. She continued:
This opened up for me also a new perspective on the grotesque. Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil, to look it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do not argue, but good is another matter. Few have stared at that long enough to accept the fact that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliché or a smoothing-down to soften their real look. When we look into the face of good, we are liable to see a face like Mary Ann’s, full of promise.
O’Connor might have known—for in her moral universe, it is love, not death, that terrifies. Hazel Motes, the self-blinded anti-Christian of Wise Blood, feels this in the abstract—”trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind”—pushing hard against a loving God because he is pulled harder. Rayber, the more anemic rebel of The Violent Bear It Away, is plagued by uncontrollable love for his “idiot child”—a “mistake of nature”, a living insult to his enlightened views, and the fragile, horrifying center of his life. These characters are not alone in drawing back before the power that tears them from their carefully arranged existences with the omnivorous force of an imploded star.
The fear of God has long since vanished from the American religious consciousness, and to the extent it is remembered, there is little wish to bring it back—explicitly, that is. For what there is of truth in the fear of God is reducible in form but not in substance. O’Connor’s gargoyles recover a fuller sense of it than the cowering away from wrath that self-made democrats find unbecoming: In a world where “the terrible speed of justice” is succeeded by “the terrible speed of mercy”, one has only to gaze in dreadful awe at the whole mysterious arrangement. In the courage to gaze, and the hope to understand how the grotesque might be wrung out by grace, Flannery O’Connor was second to none.