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Review: Flannery O'Connor biography by Brad Gooch illuminates a Southern paradox

Brad Gooch opens his fine new biography of Flannery O'Connor with a peculiar little tale. In 1930, when O'Connor was a 5-year-old in Savannah, Ga., she taught a chicken to walk backward. The Pathe newsreel company sent a cameraman from New York to film girl and bird, leading to her first fleeting moment of fame. O'Connor later called the newsreel "a comic distinction shared with Roy Rogers' horse," but it's the kind of foreshadowing that she would use in her stunning fiction: a vision of a girl who finds the bizarre in the everyday, and makes everyone else see it, too. That's just what she would do, with sublimely ruthless artistry, in two novels (Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away) and 31 short stories, including such classics as A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Good Country People and The Displaced Person. O'Connor was, to use one of her own phrases, a large and startling figure in 20th century American literature, her originality and influence at first glance at odds with the popular notion of her brief and sheltered life on a dairy farm in Georgia.

The comforts of home

Gooch's well-researched, warm biography does many things, and not the least is dispelling those images of her as the "reclusive Emily Dickinson of Milledgeville." O'Connor did indeed spend most of her life in that town, but she knew the wider world as well and had important friendships with some of the great literary lights of her time.

Mary Flannery O'Connor was born in Savannah in 1925, into a large Irish Catholic Southern clan, the only child of Edward and Regina Cline O'Connor. She grew up immersed in Southern culture and Catholicism, absorbing and, from an early age, questioning their hierarchies, although her faith would remain always at the heart of her life and art.

Gooch (also the author of City Poet, a biography of Frank O'Hara) paints a vivid picture of her girlhood in Savannah and then, as the family's fortunes declined with the Depression, in Atlanta and finally in her mother's hometown, Milledgeville. That town in the 1930s and '40s was not quite the backwater some readers might imagine. The elementary and high schools O'Connor attended and Georgia State College for Women, her alma mater, were proudly progressive for the times, and she soaked up a notable education.

It didn't take her far from the bosom of her family of strong women, though. After her father's death from lupus in 1941, O'Connor and her mother lived with a collection of female relatives in the Cline mansion, two blocks from the college campus. "I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation," she wrote later. "In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both."

As a little girl Mary Flannery produced what one friend recalls as "pages and pages of handwritten stories" (about ducks; her fascination with poultry was lifelong). In college she was known as a clever cartoonist. By the time she graduated she was writing fiction in earnest and earned a fellowship for graduate school at the University of Iowa.

The displaced person

She meant to study journalism, but within weeks had made a fateful change. She submitted a few short stories to Paul Engle, head of the storied Iowa Writers Workshop. Engle found them "imaginative, tough, alive," and admitted her to the demanding program immediately.

There she forged what would be long friendships with such literary greats as Robert Lowell, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate and his wife, Caroline Gordon, a novelist and critic who became one of O'Connor's most important mentors.

Iowa honed O'Connor's craft as well as giving her distance from her subject matter, what she called the "freaks and folks" of the South. That process continued at the upstate New York artists' colony at Yaddo where O'Connor's circle expanded to include Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Hardwick and critic Alfred Kazin, who wrote, "No fiction writer after the war seemed to me so deep, so severely perfect as Flannery."

O'Connor was publishing with increasing frequency, earning critical attention, living for a while in Manhattan, then in Connecticut with the family of poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald. At 25, she was a brilliant young writer, brilliantly launched.

Before she left Connecticut for a Christmas visit to Milledgeville in 1950, she blamed a heaviness in her arms on having just retyped the entire manuscript of Wise Blood. Days later, she was hospitalized, and doctors told her she was dying of lupus, the autoimmune disease that had killed her father.

A circle in the fire

She would live for almost 15 years, but the diagnosis was a crucible. It contracted her world: She weakened easily and eventually needed crutches, and she soon realized she would be dependent on her formidable mother. Gooch writes with humor and sensitivity about that relationship. Regina was clearly the inspiration for many of the domineering, even downright scary women that populate O'Connor's stories, but she also did everything she could to make it possible for Flannery to pursue her career despite her illness.

The lupus limited O'Connor physically, but looking into the face of death stoked her imagination to a white-hot flame. She made herself at home at Andalusia, the family farm near Milledgeville, filling it with flocks of exotic birds, including her beloved peacocks, whose fabulous tails she called "maps of the universe." And she found material for her fiction literally in the back yard.

Gooch writes movingly of O'Connor's stoic acceptance of her illness and fight to continue to write. After a rich relative insisted on sending her to Lourdes in search of a miracle, she confided in a letter to a friend that in the healing waters she had prayed not to recover her health but to finish her second novel.

Gooch passes lightly over the question of O'Connor's sexuality. He documents a couple of attachments to men that didn't go far — one of which inspired the grotesque pseudo-seduction of Good Country People — and also discusses her long friendships with several women who were bisexual or lesbians. But the woman who emerges, although she enjoyed a rich range of friendships and family relationships, seems to have chosen a nunlike distance from romance for much of her life.

Flannery opens many doors into the writer's life, although it doesn't finally answer the question of how this person came to write those large and startling stories — a sheltered Southern lady who wrote fearlessly about ignorance and violence, a believer who excoriated fundamentalism, an invalid whose stories land like a heavyweight's punch. That unanswerable question echoes in a quote Gooch includes from her longtime publisher, Robert Giroux: "Flannery was a paradoxical person and a paradoxical writer. It's what fascinates us. It's a natural human reaction when a person is so contradictory."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor

By Brad Gooch

Little, Brown, 448 pages, $30

Review: Flannery O'Connor biography by Brad Gooch illuminates a Southern paradox 02/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 28, 2009 3:30am]
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