- The Worlds of Flannery O’Connor
On the feast of the Annunciation in 1925, the “one-word weather forecast in the Savannah Morning News was dramatic enough: ‘unsettled.’” Thirty-nine years later, on “a sunny Tuesday, with temperatures in the low nineties,” a requiem mass was celebrated in Milledgeville for the girl born on that unsettled day in March. Several “cars were parked that morning on Hancock and Jefferson streets, bordering the little redbrick church that stood on land given by Flannery’s great-grandmother. The building’s shutters were closed against the August heat.” The sanctuary was “full but not crowded.”
So writes Brad Gooch in Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, a rich detailed biography that moves gracefully from Savannah, the port town of O’Connor’s birth, to a Baldwin county hospital room in which the red wolf, lupus, issued its final summons to one of the South’s greatest short-story writers. Every aspect of Professor Gooch’s biography has this full—this novelist’s—attention to the palpable: to place and weather, to architecture and the urban scene, to dress and fashion, to the living rooms and landscapes of Iowa, Georgia, and New York—and even of Lourdes and Rome. This is a book, you might say, that takes great care “to render the highest possible justice” to O’Connor’s world. [End Page lxxvii]
That was in large measure Flannery O’Connor’s own great task. She took the phrase from Joseph Conrad and used it often in her speeches and letters. “When Conrad said that his aim as an artist was to render the highest possible justice to the visible universe,” O’Connor wrote, “he was speaking with the novelist’s surest instinct.” She insisted that “the beginning of human knowledge is through the senses” and that “the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses.” Gooch, for his part, has not forgotten this: we see and hear and are touched by O’Connor on nearly every page of this book. We see her in a plaid skirt or jeans, now on her crutches, now at her typewriter, now talking to her ducks or geese or peafowl or sparring with her mother, Regina. This biography appeals, as all writing must, to a world thick with things, a world wherein such fourteen-year-old prophets as Tarwater can trudge off, as O’Connor would have it, in the “bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus.”
Gooch starts sensibly, with a bit of action—with the New York camera crew that descended upon Savannah to capture on film a five-year-old girl who had taught one of her chickens to walk backward, a girl who would become a cartoonist in school, a writer later, and always a woman known in part by her birds; they, like everything else in a world that for O’Connor seemed infinite because it was limited, would pass in and out of her fiction as surely as they passed before her every day on her ancestral farm. For, as Gooch observes, the “separation between her life and her art was porous.”
One would be hard pressed to find a writer of whom this is not true, and Gooch has little difficulty teasing out of O’Connor’s work the correlative aspects of her life. In most instances, if not in all of them, his conclusions are compelling, as when he sees O’Connor’s quasi-suitor Erik Langkjaer as a thickly veiled prototype of Manley Pointer, O’Connor herself as a version of Hulga, and Regina as Hulga’s mother. (The breakfast scenes in “Good Country People” certainly invite such comparisons.) These are credible examples that go some distance not only in eliciting sympathy for O’Connor (Langkjaer says O’Connor did not know how to receive a kiss) but also in showing the humorous ironic distance she deftly managed to place between herself and her narrow—but at the same time wide-ranging—life on Andalusia, a life in which O...