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Freaks and morality

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch. Little, Brown and Company, 2009. 464 pages.

“Whenever I am asked why Southern writers particularly have this penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

Taken from her lecture “The Catholic Novelist in the South,” this statement by Flannery O’Connor is perhaps her best-known aphorism. It is interesting to read beyond this statement in the same lecture, where the author explains herself more deeply.

She writes that the South is Christ-haunted, that “as a belief in the divinity of Christ decreases, there seems to be a preoccupation with Christ-figures in our fiction” (The same may be said of the fiction of Nathanial Hawthorne, which O’Connor admired, in its own focus on faith and Christian morals in a time when New England was leaving behind its traditional religious beliefs). She goes on to say that “the writer from the South may be writing about men in grey flannel suits and may have lost his ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now.”

O’Connor then said that “the South is struggling mightily to retain her identity against great odds and without knowing always, I believe, quite in what her identity lies.” At the time O’Connor offered these thoughts, the South was torn by racial strife and change, and was in many ways radically altered from the South which shaped O’Connor and her writing. Today’s South has become a place of cities, of immigrants both from the North and from other countries, a land in which the bloody history and cruelties of the past have been effaced in some ways by social change, a culture in which the customs of the past have shrunken before the standardization brought by a national media.

The South of Flannery O’Connor’s last years was not the South of William Faulkner’s youth, and the South of this new millenium retains only the vestiges of the the South described by O’Connor in her novel Wise Blood or in her short-story collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Our present situation does not preclude the existence of Southern writers — they are many, and range in subject and style from Lee Smith to Cormac McCarthy — but allows us to acknowledge the changes both in the South and in the preoccupations of her writers.

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For a close-up look of Flannery O’Connor’s South, readers may now turn to Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (Little, Brown and Company, ISBN 978-0-316-00066-6, $30). For readers unfamiliar with Flannery O’Connor, here is a splendid introduction to her life and work; those familiar with her fiction should also relish this biographical tour.

In the first half of Flannery, Gooch uses georgraphy as an outline for O’Connor’s life, following the writer through her childhood in Savannah and Milledgeville, where she graduated from the Georgia State College for Women in 1945; then to Iowa City and the University of Iowa, where she soon enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts graduate writing program, the first of its kind in the nation; to Yaddo in upstate New York, where she enlarged her circle of friends to include Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick; to New York City, where she spent most of her time writing Wise Blood; to rural Connecticut, where she babysat for her friends, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, while continuing to write; and at last to Milledgeville, where she lived out the rest of her life after being diagnosed with lupus.

Gooch’s book is especially valuable for its portrait of O’Connor’s friendships. From her justly renowned collection of letters, The Habit of Being, we know that O’Connor, who spent the last third of her life in Milledgeville, often ill and far away from the literary life of New York, valued companionship and the visits of friends. In Flannery, Gooch underscores this importance of her friends to O’Connor.

Nearly every page of this biography recounts conversations and letters between the author and her far-flung acquaintances, giving us a portrait of a woman who loved lively talk and stimulating thought. Many of these friends — Maryat Lee, Betty Hester, Louise Abbot — differed greatly from O’Connor in their morals and religious beliefs, yet her own tolerance and their fascination with her mind bound them together. Through these portrayals Gooch gives us the background and times in which — and some might say, against which — O’Connor wrote.

Flannery does have its flaws. The notes at the back of the book are matched to various pages, but are difficult to follow. Gooch often skims over the literary side of O’Connor’s work, though few readers will come to this book seeking deep criticism. From time to time, Gooch also uses vague or even juvenile language, describing Andrew Lytle, for example, as “a card-carrying Southerner” and labeling some of the reviews of O’Connor’s work as “mean.”

When O’Connor was five years old, a newsreel company visited her home in Savannah to record on film her chicken, a buff Cochin bantam, walking backwards. O’Connor, who had taught the chicken this trick, remained a bird lover her entire life, becoming obsessed in her later years with raising peacocks. Gooch astutely uses the chicken walking backwards as a central theme to the author’s life and to his book. He writes:

“And just as her Cochin bantam morphed into a peacock ... so this clever child performer grew into the one-of-a-kind woman writer, ‘going backwards to Bethlehem,’ who freighted her acidly comic tales with moral and religious messages, running counter to much trendy literary culture.”

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