Originally Published on March 27, 2017
In the biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, author Brad Gooch provides a deep dive into the life and mind of one of America’s greatest short story writers. O’Connor’s grotesque tales astounded and often confused the public when they debuted in the fifties. She was noted for her fierce wit, biting humor, and her often naive characters who were doomed with violent endings. Gooch does a thorough job of detailing O’connor’s Catholic faith, her fight with Lupus, and the relationships that inspired her large than life stories.
The opening chapters lay the basic facts of O’Connor’s early life in Savannah and Atlanta, but the story really picks up as we follow Flannery through her stint at the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, where she really started seriously honing her craft while working on her first novel Wise Blood and started making connections with other fledgling writers of the period.
After her time at Iowa, Flannery was accepted to Yaddo, the artist colony in upstate New York, where she crossed path with diverse writers such as Patricia Highsmith and the poet Robert Lowell. (Little is said about her thoughts on Highsmith, but it’s amusing to think of the two women sharing meals at the retreat during their six week overlap.) As a conservative Catholic, Flannery was not too pleased with the carousing, drinking and marijuana use that often took place, denoting that at Yaddo, “the help was morally superior to the guests.”
In 1952, while in her late twenties, O’Connor was diagnosed with Lupus and returned home to her mother’s farm Andalusia, where she surrounded herself with peacocks and wrote with a fierce discipline even as the disease slowly enveloped her daily life. In later years, she walked with a cane but still mustered the strength to visit colleges for speaking engagements, and even made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France to bathe in the “miraculous waters.”
Gooch provides insights to the inspiration for her stories, such as her longstanding friendship with a textbook salesman, which was based on their intellectual discussions on faith and wound up with one simple kiss, before he moved away and married. She turned her relationship with the salesman into one of her classic stories, Good Country People, where a Bible salesman (spoiler alert) does the unspeakable. Of her writing process, Flannery noted, “I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten to twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was going to happen, I realized that this was inevitable.”
What I found particularly insightful was learning more about Flannery’s perspective on writing these colorful grotesque parables which have become a staple of Southern writing. “O’Connor said that modern writers must often tell “perverse “stories to “shock a morally blind world. “To the hard of hearing you shout,” she said, “and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
The residents of Milledgeville gave Flannery mixed reviews. While excited to have a local celebrity, some locals feared they’d wind up in one of her stories. Throughout, we come to understand the relationship between Flannery and her mother Regina, who was supportive of her daughter though apparently flummoxed at her stories. She once asked Flannery’s editor, “Mister Giroux, can’t you get Flannery to write about nice people?” Giroux had to stifle his laughter when he realized the mother was serious and realized that Flannery sat frowning across the table. Still, Flannery and her mother attended mass religiously every day, and her mother cared for the writer in her final years. A friend noted later in a journal, “I’m convinced that she used Regina in some way as part of her worship. Regina was her cross. She was Regina’s cross. It worked.”
Flannery’s Catholic faith did not hold her back from issuing statements of bold humor. Flannery quipped often one of my favorites being, as Gooch describes, “When asked about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Flannery replied, ‘It’s a wonderful children’s book.'”
Flannery comes to life throughout this compelling biography, and I learned much about her insights in writing bold Catholic stories with perverse characters who struggle in their daily lives. Her balance of writing about morals and faith may best be summed up with her proclamation of a favorite Southern City, when she said, “If I had to live in a city, I think I would prefer New Orleans to any other – both Southern and Catholic and with indications that the Devil’s existence is freely recognized.”
If you haven’t read Flannery O’Connor, I recommend reading her short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, before reading the biography Flannery. If you choose the biography first, I’m sure you’ll be reading Flannery’s fiction afterwards.