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Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor Paperback – March 15, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Gooch (City Poet:The Life and Times of Frank O'Hara) offers a surprisingly bloodless biography of Flannery O'Connor (1925–1964), who, despite the author's diligent scholarship, remains enigmatic. She emerges only in her excerpted letters, speeches and fiction, where she is as sharp-tongued, censorious, piteously observant and mordantly funny as her beloved short stories. There is little genuinely interesting new material, but there are small gems—the full story of O'Connor's friendship with the mysterious A. of her letters, for instance. Perhaps mindful of the writer's dislike of being exposed in print, Gooch errs on the side of delicacy; he does not sufficiently explore her attitudes toward blacks and how the early onset of lupus left her sequestered on her mother's Georgia farm, without the male companionship she craved. Instead, he plumbs O'Connor's fiction for buried fragments of her daily life, and the revelations are hardly astonishing. Readers looking for more startling tidbits will be disappointed by this account that brims with the quiet satisfactions the author took in her industry (I sit all day typing and grinning like the Cheshire cat), her faith, friends and stoic approach to a debilitating disease. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Feb. 25)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From The New Yorker
Drawing on recently unsealed letters and an impressive array of interviews, Gooch provides the first major biography of Flannery O�Connor since she died in 1964, at the age of thirty-nine. He presents a writer influenced by the early death of her father and the retreat from city life to country; an Irish Catholic upbringing that evolved into an adult fascination with theology; and a Southern small-town culture whose matrons, including O�Connor�s mother, were happy for her success but put off by the unladylike nature of her work��Everybody here shakes my hand but nobody reads my stories.� Though she spent time in both the Midwest and the Northeast, lupus narrowed the circle of her life to a dairy farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she collected exotic birds. Gooch�s account is meticulous, but O�Connor�s sedate, chaste life is pale in comparison with her fantastic fiction�a contrast that underscores her inscrutable genius.
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That part of her life is still in tact in the book along with much elaboration that Gooch writes of that exposes and adds another dimension to who she was as a woman writer who had limits that she controlled despite preexisting illnesses that did not hamper her abilities if she could help it but also encountered boundaries that she crossed in her 39 years. Having been inspired to write a biography since exploring her work before and after graduate school, Gooch revels with the events that occurred in O'Connor's life, her works, and the story of how he came about to writing the next O'Connor biography, which appeared to be happenstance; in connection to O'Connor's friend Sally Fitzgerald already preparing to write a memoir of her dear friend, she passed away in the interim and left an unfinished manuscript, which Gooch would help to complete in six years. Beyond what readers already know, Gooch intertwines critical analysis and background information of her well known works but delves deeper inside O'Connor's personal and religious life, a devout Catholic and a native Southerner of the state of Georgia, born in Milledgeville, clearly lived within the world of literati and kept abreast with whirlwind associations that she wrote in letters and correspondences that she exchanged with close friends Maryat Lee, Betty Hester, Erik Langkjaer, Sally Fitzgerald, writers Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, and editor and publisher Robert Giroux, that helped to contribute to her creative and unique telling of the human condition of the characters engrossed between good and evil that would eventually find their way onto her typewriter at her homestead at Andulasia; with those underlying elements, O'Connor interweaved social and religious commentary within the storylines that are reflections of the turbulent period of the 1950s and early 1960s, the Civil Rights and Cold War era, in the South that also appear somewhat gothic in nature.
Flannery may invoke and surprise readers who may not be familiar with her life but may have had an inkling of what her stories may have been about. After reading this biography, perceptions may change on how readers have looked at O'Connor's works, and Gooch suggests that her writings are as comparable and notable as male Southern writer counterparts, William Faulkner and Walker Percy, indeed great American writers of the twentieth century. But whatever inclinations may arise, Flannery O'Connor helped to contribute to the great works of American literature.
But after starting this biography, I picked that book up again and read it at the same time. Fantastic! This biographer, Gooch, has done a great job of chronicling her life and times, so that as I read each story she wrote, I could then read what was going on. Not just with her, her friends, family, and health, but the cultures, religion, politics, and societies that influenced her. Life in southeastern America during the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s was radically changing during that time, in particular relations between blacks and whites. This biography and the historical details Gooch provides greatly illuminate O'Connor's fiction. Very enjoyable and enlightening when read together.
I had read an O'Connor novel and several short stories years ago and was curious to learn what kind of person could create the bizarre character Hazel Motes, a psychotic fanatic, who in a bout of religious frenzy swaddles his torso in barbed wire, a "Crown of Thorns" about his midriff ("Wise Blood"). What experience in a writer's past prompted the amputee Hulga (at age ten her leg was shot off in a hunting accident), who in her devious naivete tries to seduce a young drummer selling Bibles and ends up herself abandoned in a hayloft while her artificial leg winds up in the likewise devious young man's satchel ("Good Country People")? What writer would have her character Asbury ("The Enduring Chill") take such cruel delight "that she [his mother[ should see death in his face at once?" While I can't see how Gooch--or anyone else,for that matter--could entirely bring to light the woman behind those skewed tales and damaged characters ("freaks" Gooch calls them), I believe his biography comes as close as possible.
In "Flannery: A Life..." Gooch's exhaustive inquiry into the writer's life points to three prominent influences on her work, the first of which is her strong Catholic upbringing, deep faith, and extensive reading in theology which enable her to play devil's advocate to religion and create characters who are atheists, agnostics, blasphemers, and fundamentalist zealots.
A second influence at work in O'Connor's fiction is the debilitating disease Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) with which she was diagnosed at the age of twenty-five (and which had killed her father ten years earlier). Recurring bouts of SLE restrained Flannery from physical activity (crutches assisted her in the latter years)and forced her to alter her work routines. (In the months before her death in 1964 at the age of thirty-nine, Flannery was able to work only two hours daily.) That she was able to complete two novels and most of her thirty-one short stories in the fourteen years she battled lupus is not just amazing, but a true testimony to her dedication and love of her craft. The heavy doses of corticosteroids used to treat her disease also led to periods of creative fire that Flannery feared would burn up her brain.
The ante-bellum South, its attitudes and values, was the third influence on Ms. O'Connor's works. Her upbringing and residence in a household governed by her mother, the southern belle Regina, and constant intercourse with relatives and numerous family friends who visited and took meals with the O'Connors gave Flannery a rich pool of experience from which to draw her characters. Her sharp eye and ear for character and story found fertile ground in the Georgia family farm at Andalusia and the small town of Milledgeville; both sites contributed to the gothic dark and twisted "Deliverance" nature of her tales.
"Flannery: A Life..." is a book well-researched. Gooch interviewed O'Connor's classmates, close personal friends, fans and colleagues (the biography reads like a literary Who's Who of early 20th Century American Lit: poets Bishop, Lowell, Tate, Jarrell; authors Porter, Welty, McCullers, Faulkner and the publisher Robert Giroux, a few of many). Gooch's well-chosen excerpts from the letters of close friends Sally Fitzgerald and Betty Hester highlight Flannery's caustic wit and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. His quest for information also led him to visit O'Connor's haunts: Iowa City (Iowa Writers' Workshop) the artists' colony Yaddo, New York City, Savannah and Milledgeville--even Lourdes which Flannery visited in 1958 (and took "the cure"--to no avail--in its healing waters).
A note of interest to me were references to O'Connor's fascination with the stories of Hawthorne (his "romances"). I could see that Hawthorne's sense of the sinister in stories like "Young Goodman Brown" and "The Minister's Black Veil" was likewise pervasive in Flannery's own works, the short story "The Displaced Person," for instance.
The six years Brad Gooch spent researching and writing "Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor" yielded helpful chapter notes. The index was adequate ( I couldn't find "Lourdes," however, a significant omission seems to me). The author's generous, perhaps to a fault, use of quotes from the multitude of people in Flannery's life led to some ambiguity: I found myself wandering back up the page from time to time looking for who said what to whom. The two photo sections I enjoyed, especially those of Flannery and her beloved peafowl. Given the attention the author devoted to O'Connor's sometime aspiration of becoming a cartoonist, I was curious why Gooch failed to include any samples of her cartooning and other artwork (only one photo shows a Flannery self-portrait in the background).
In his O'Connor biography Gooch reveals a talented, though eccentric writer, a woman of great bravery and true dedication to her craft, who though plagued with illness most of her adult life, revealed to her readers her own personal South with a gothic twist. In his "Acknowledgments" the author states his test for writing a book "...was to write one I wanted to read but could not find on the shelf." Thanks to Mr. Gooch this book is on the shelf today, and the fans of Ms. O'Connor who read it will have a better understanding and appreciation of her fiction.