Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor

In 1958, Flannery O’Connor wrote to her friend Betty Hester: “As for biographies, there won’t be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard don’t make for exciting copy.” Brad Gooch’s new biography is only the second to appear in the five decades since O’Connor’s death of lupus in 1964, at age 39 (the first, by Jean W. Cash, appeared in 2002), perhaps confirming that many scholars were inclined to agree. But to take O’Connor’s self-deprecation at face value is to miss the larger cosmic joke: Just as she was able to turn the raw materials of a midccentury small-town southern milieu into stories with the moral and philosophical weight that the writer Thomas Merton could only compare to Sophocles, throughout her deceptively quiet life (spent mostly on her mother’s dairy farm in Georgia) the writer herself was fiercely engaged with the writers, thinkers, and culture of her time.

Not to give short shrift to the chicken yard. It was, in fact, a chicken that brought Mary Flannery O’ Connor her first brush with fame, a condition that, as a successful adult writer, she would later brush off as “a comic distinction shared with Roy Rogers’ horse and Miss Watermelon of 1955.” As a remarkably self-possessed five-year-old, Mary Flannery somehow came to the attention of the Pathé newsreel company, who sent a cameraman to the O’Connors’ backyard in order to film a chicken that she had trained to walk backward.

The chicken was uncooperative and died shortly afterward, but the the backward-walking chicken became one of O’Connor’s earliest entries in what would become a lifelong obsession with comically doomed characters (the story itself was so important to her that two decades later, Robert Lowell would record their first meeting in a letter to Elizabeth Bishop that identified O’Connor only as the girl who once had a chicken who walked backward). In it, Gooch sees all of the elements of her grown-up fiction: “This clever child performer grew into the one-of-a-kind woman writer, ‘going backwards to Bethelehem’ who freighted her acidly comic tales with moral and religious messages, running counter to so much trendy literary culture.”

O’Connor’s family life in Georgia didn’t easily fit into any southern clichés. Irish Catholics occupied a liminal space in the South (as Gooch points out, “Catholics were explicitly banned, along with rum, lawyers and blacks under the Georgia Trust in 1733″), and in O’Connor’s time they were divided into middle-class “lace-curtain” Catholics and lower-class “shanty” Catholics. O’Connor’s family was decidedly of the lace-curtain sort. The infant Mary Flannery O’Connor was paraded around town in a gold-monogrammed perambulator, took swimming lessons at the fanciest hotel in town as a young child, and arrived at her private school in an electric car with a little vase of artificial flowers on the sideboard. In her extended family, there were an unusual number of independent, wealthy businesswomen, including the family matriarch, Cousin Katie Semmes; Flannery’s mother ran a dairy and later cattle farm after her husband’s death from lupus at 45.

Even as a child, Mary Flannery was taken seriously: She called her parents Regina and Edward and had her own listing in the town phone book from the time she was in preschool. At age 12, she vowed not to get any older. As she later wrote to Betty Hester: “There was something about ?teen’ attached to anything that was repulsive to me. I certainly didn’t approve of what I saw of people that age. I was a very ancient twelve; my views at that age would have done credit to a Civil War veteran. I am much younger now that I was at twelve, or anyway, less burdened. The weight of centuries lies on children, I’m sure of it.”

She retained this quality of a wise child or old soul; as an adult, she liked to jokingly refer to herself as “13th century.” What did she mean by it? Robert Giroux, her publisher said, “She was completely intellectual and cerebral. She was a thinker. And in those days encountering a philosophical woman thinker was rarer.” After completing four years at the Georgia State College for Women (which, she pointed out, would qualify her “only for a job in Podunk, Georgia, earning $87.50 per month”) while living at home with her family, she made the seemingly bold move to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Iowa. This was followed by several years living with her literary peers in Manhattan, at Yaddo and with poet Robert Fitzgerald and his family in Connecticut. In this crowd, O’Connor often stood out for her perceived innocence, sexual and otherwise (Robert Lowell once described her as “our Yaddo child”), and her Catholic piety (Elizabeth Hardwick said she was “like some quiet, puritanical convent girl”), and she was sometimes condescended to because of her “barbarous Georgian accent” (which Paul Engle, who would become her writing teacher, found so impenetrable that at their first meeting, he asked her to write him a note instead). But her writing commanded respect. As Gooch points out, she occupied “the fortunate spot, shared by Lowell but few others, of having crossed a Mason-Dixon line of literary politics — published by the Sewanee and Kenyon Review, associated with conservative, even reactionary writers, as well as by Partisan Review, the provenance of left-leaning, often Jewish New York intellectuals.”

O’Connor may have remained a southern literary expat indefinitely, had her health not intervened. In 1950, she crossed the Mason-Dixon Line to visit her mother for Christmas and ended up more or less grounded for good — at 25, she was suffering from lupus, the same autoimmune disorder that had killed her father. She would spend the 15 years until her death on her mother’s Milledgeville farm, where, as she wrote, “There is no one around who knows anything at all about fiction or much about any kind of writing for that matter. Sidney Lanier and David Whitehead Hickey are the Poets and Margaret Mitchell is the Writer. Amen.”

But when she wasn’t taking trips between the house and the chicken yard, she engaged in lively intellectual correspondence — both on the page and with guests who made the pilgrimage to Milledgeville — and published the two novels and the bulk of her short stories. When her first novel, Wise Blood, came out, she was feted at teas hosted by ladies who were later scandalized enough by the book’s contents to stash their signed copies in the attic. She wrote to her friends the Fitzgeralds about her mother’s reaction to reviews comparing her daughter’s work to Kafka: “Regina is getting very literary. ‘Who is this Kafka?’ she says. ‘People ask me.’ A German Jew, I says, I think. He wrote a book about a man who turned into a roach. ‘Well I can’t tell people that,‘ she says.” (Gooch fittingly, notes: “My daily ‘Google Alert’ for ‘Flannery O’ Connor’ attests that the phrase ‘like something out of Flannery O’Connor’ is now accepted shorthand, like ‘Kafkaesque’ before it, for nailing a funny, dark, askew moment.”)

While O’Connor’s sojourn in the North, where her conservative piety often clashed with the views of her liberal, secular friends, may have highlighted her iconoclastic character, it was her equally uneasy life as the strange, overeducated spinster daughter in a southern family that gave her a the particularly comic, allegorical lens through which her fictions present the world. Even her illness, in the end, proved useful. As she wrote to Betty Hester, “I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense, sickness is a place more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Success is almost as isolating and nothing points out vanity as well.”