Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor [NOOK Book]

Overview

The landscape of American literature was fundamentally changed when Flannery O'Connor stepped onto the scene with her first published book, Wise Blood, in 1952. Her fierce, sometimes comic novels and stories reflected the darkly funny, vibrant, and theologically sophisticated woman who wrote them. Brad Gooch brings to life O'Connor's significant friendships--with Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Walker Percy, and James Dickey among others--and her deeply felt convictions, as expressed in her communications with...
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Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor

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Overview

The landscape of American literature was fundamentally changed when Flannery O'Connor stepped onto the scene with her first published book, Wise Blood, in 1952. Her fierce, sometimes comic novels and stories reflected the darkly funny, vibrant, and theologically sophisticated woman who wrote them. Brad Gooch brings to life O'Connor's significant friendships--with Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Walker Percy, and James Dickey among others--and her deeply felt convictions, as expressed in her communications with Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Bishop, and Betty Hester. Hester was famously known as "A" in O'Connor's collected letters, The Habit of Being, and a large cache of correspondence to her from O'Connor was made available to scholars, including Brad Gooch, in 2006. O'Connor's capacity to live fully--despite the chronic disease that eventually confined her to her mother's farm in Georgia--is illuminated in this engaging and authoritative biography.

PRAISE FOR FLANNERY

"Flannery O'Connor, one of the best American writers of short fiction, has found her ideal biographer in Brad Gooch. With elegance and fairness, Gooch deals with the sensitive areas of race and religion in O'Connor's life. He also takes us back to those heady days after the war when O'Connor studied creative writing at Iowa. There is much that is new in this book, but, more important, everything is presented in a strong, clear light." --Edmund White

"This splendid biography gives us no saint or martyr but the story of a gifted and complicated woman, bent on making the best of the difficult hand fate has dealt her, whether it is with grit and humor or with an abiding desire to make palpable to readers the terrible mystery of God's grace." --Frances Kiernan, author of Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy

"A good biographer is hard to find. Brad Gooch is not merely good-he is extraordinary. Blessed with the eye and ear of a novelist, he has composed the life that admirers of the fierce and hilarious Georgia genius have long been hoping for." -- Joel Conarroe, President Emeritus, John Simon Guggenheim Foundation
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Editorial Reviews

Janet Maslin
O'Connor has been long overdue for the major biography that Mr. Gooch has written. Flannery reveals not only why its brilliantly persnickety subject warrants such attention but also why it has been so slow in coming…What makes Flannery so valuable is the degree of intimacy with which it captures O’Connor's sensibility
—The New York Times
Jonathan Yardley
[Gooch] has done an earnest, respectful but mercifully not hagiographic job…the book is for the most part lucidly written and neither excessively long nor riddled with extraneous detail…Whether Gooch's conscientious, respectful biography will bring new readers to her work is doubtful, since literary biographies rarely sell as well as their authors and publishers wish, but readers who already know that work will be glad to have it.
—The Washington Post
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.
Kirkus Reviews
Taut biography of the iconic Southern short-story writer and novelist. Building on scholarly research and O'Connor's work, biographer/novelist Gooch (English/William Paterson Univ.; Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America, 2002, etc.) delivers a sound appraisal of the author best known for her racially charged, tragicomic, unsentimental portraits of the South. The only child of devoutly Catholic parents, O'Connor (1925-64) was raised among affluent whites in Milledgeville, Ga., where the local penitentiary, insane asylum and elite Georgia State College for Women (she was class of '45) helped shape her literary landscape. In 1946, O'Connor gained admission to the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her perfectly pitched sagas about religious fanatics and backwoods eccentrics quickly established her as a writer of uncommon talent and reach. O'Connor's blithe use of the epithet "nigger" in her fiction and vast correspondence also made her a controversial figure in American letters, then and now. Stricken with lupus in her mid-20s, she retreated to Andalusia, her family's sprawling farm on the outskirts of Milledgeville. There, under the dutiful, if challenging care of her widowed mother, she crafted such scintillatingly sardonic stories as "Good Country People," "Revelation" and "Everything That Rises Must Converge." She also began to breed the exotic peacocks now routinely linked with her name. Gooch offers little that has not been previously examined in scores of works on the larger-than-life author, dead at 39. Nor does he indulge those who like juicy gossip in their literary bios. He gives short shrift to the speculation surrounding O'Connor's ardent correspondence with lesbianjournalist Betty Hester, and quotes the Danish-born textbook salesman who befriended her in the '50s dismissing rumors of their alleged sexual liaison. Unlike its subject, respectably tame. Agent: Joy Harris/Joy Harris Agency
Booklist
Gooch comfortably traces [Flannery O'Connor's] fiction to its real-life roots in a meticulous yet seemingly effortless writing style, resulting in the definitive biography as well as providing the impetus for general readers to return to O'Connor's timeless fiction.
Elissa Schappell
O'Connor lives and breathes—and spits fire—in Brad Gooch's portrait of the too short life of the peacock-loving writer who dealt in the dark grotesqueries of human nature.
Vanity Fair
David Ulin
Gooch is brilliant on [O'Connor's] fiction, passionate and smart, able to contextualize both the individual pieces and the scope of the career.
Los Angeles Times
Janet Maslin
Rapt, authoritative...What makes Flannery so valuable is the degree of intimacy with which it captures O'Connor's sensibility.
New York Times
Adam Begley
Excellent...Mr. Gooch's is patient and tactful with the publicity-shy and dauntingly complex O'Connor. His book is a welcome introduction to the quiet, narrow life of a fiercely funny and unnervingly powerful writer.
The New York Observer
Floyd Skloot
The story Gooch tells is amply shaded and evocatively detailed...It is a poignant, inspiring story of one brave, dedicated, brilliant writer.
The Boston Globe
Time
"It's incredible that this is the first biography of the great Southern writer Flannery O'Connor.... As Brad Gooch shows, her life was as dark and rich and dense with meaning as her fiction is."
The New Yorker
"Impressive. . . Gooch's account is meticulous."
Charles Matthews
This is one of those rare biographies that makes the writer almost as fascinating as what she wrote.
The Houston Chronicle
Joyce Carol Oates
In his engaging, sympathetic, and yet intellectually scrupulous biography of O'Connor, Brad Gooch provides the ideal biographical commentary.
New York Review of Books
Charles Matthews - The Houston Chronicle
"This is one of those rare biographies that makes the writer almost as fascinating as what she wrote."
Joyce Carol Oates - New York Review of Books
"In his engaging, sympathetic, and yet intellectually scrupulous biography of O'Connor, Brad Gooch provides the ideal biographical commentary."
Janet Maslin - New York Times
"Rapt, authoritative...What makes Flannery so valuable is the degree of intimacy with which it captures O'Connor's sensibility."
David Ulin - Los Angeles Times
"Gooch is brilliant on [O'Connor's] fiction, passionate and smart, able to contextualize both the individual pieces and the scope of the career."
Booklist (starred review)
"Gooch comfortably traces [Flannery O'Connor's] fiction to its real-life roots in a meticulous yet seemingly effortless writing style, resulting in the definitive biography as well as providing the impetus for general readers to return to O'Connor's timeless fiction."
Adam Begley - The New York Observer
"Excellent...Mr. Gooch's is patient and tactful with the publicity-shy and dauntingly complex O'Connor. His book is a welcome introduction to the quiet, narrow life of a fiercely funny and unnervingly powerful writer."
Floyd Skloot - The Boston Globe
"The story Gooch tells is amply shaded and evocatively detailed...It is a poignant, inspiring story of one brave, dedicated, brilliant writer."
Elissa Schappell - Vanity Fair
"O'Connor lives and breathes--and spits fire--in Brad Gooch's portrait of the too short life of the peacock-loving writer who dealt in the dark grotesqueries of human nature."
From the Publisher
"Gooch comfortably traces [Flannery O'Connor's] fiction to its real-life roots in a meticulous yet seemingly effortless writing style, resulting in the definitive biography as well as providing the impetus for general readers to return to O'Connor's timeless fiction."—Booklist (starred review)

"Rapt, authoritative...What makes Flannery so valuable is the degree of intimacy with which it captures O'Connor's sensibility." —Janet Maslin, New York Times

"Gooch's biography is a marvel of concision but skimps on nothing.... If O'Connor's writing glows with edged comic genius, biographer Gooch is himself no slouch. If a library is to have only one book on Flannery O'Connor, this should be it. Highly recommended."—Library Journal

"Gooch is brilliant on [O'Connor's] fiction, passionate and smart, able to contextualize both the individual pieces and the scope of the career."—David Ulin, Los Angeles Times

"Excellent...Mr. Gooch's is patient and tactful with the publicity-shy and dauntingly complex O'Connor. His book is a welcome introduction to the quiet, narrow life of a fiercely funny and unnervingly powerful writer."—Adam Begley, The New York Observer

"The story Gooch tells is amply shaded and evocatively detailed...It is a poignant, inspiring story of one brave, dedicated, brilliant writer."—Floyd Skloot, The Boston Globe

"It's incredible that this is the first biography of the great Southern writer Flannery O'Connor.... As Brad Gooch shows, her life was as dark and rich and dense with meaning as her fiction is."—Time

"Impressive. . . Gooch's account is meticulous."—The New Yorker

"This is one of those rare biographies that makes the writer almost as fascinating as what she wrote."—Charles Matthews, The Houston Chronicle

"In his engaging, sympathetic, and yet intellectually scrupulous biography of O'Connor, Brad Gooch provides the ideal biographical commentary."—Joyce Carol Oates, New York Review of Books

Library Journal
Reading the biographies of both O’Connor and Lowell might disappoint some of Carlene Bauer’s fans as the fictional license she took will be fully revealed. O’Connor and Lowell were friends, but never lovers, and Frances’s life progresses in ways O’Connor herself never had the chance to experience. However, others might enjoy learning more about the lives of these two powerhouse artists. Mariani’s biography of Lowell covers the expected features of his relationships, illness, and life history (including his position as a member of one of the oldest European families in the U.S.), but is most notable for its attention to Lowell’s poetry, work habits, and reading life. Gooch’s biography of O’Connor details her life and illness, her circle of friends, her Southern roots and religious devotions, as well as her profoundly influential and controversial work and its legacy.

(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

The Barnes & Noble Review
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." --Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer has worked as an editor and staff writer at Salon, Legal Affairs, and Paper magazine. Her reviews and features on books have appeared in Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, The Believer, Kirkus, and The New York Times Book Review.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316040655
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 2/25/2009
  • Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 474,566
  • File size: 537 KB

Meet the Author

Brad Gooch

Brad Gooch is the author of the acclaimed biography of Frank O'Hara, City Poet, as well as other nonfiction and three novels. The recipient of National Endowment for the Humanities and Guggenheim fellowships, he earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University and is Professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Walking Backward 3

Part 1

Chapter 1 Savannah 13

Chapter 2 Milledgeville: "A Bird Sanctuary" 51

Chapter 3 "MFOC" 82

Chapter 4 Iowa 117

Chapter 5 Up North 148

Part 2

Chapter 6 The Life You Save 189

Chapter 7 The "Bible" Salesman 222

Chapter 8 Freaks and Folks 259

Chapter 9 Everything That Rises 297

Chapter 10 "Revelation" 338

Acknowledgments 375

Notes 387

Index 437

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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 20, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Excellent Biography of Flannery O'Connor

    Before I begin, I must tell you, I have never read anything by Flannery O' Connor. I may have glanced at a story of hers in high school but that was so long ago. This might have hampered my enjoyment of Gooch's novel if it had been less interesting and badly written but, thankfully, Flannery was an interesting read in itself.

    I was a bit worried when I started reading because of my lack of knowledge about Flannery O'Connor. I was surprised when I immediately became engrossed in Flannery's life. I became attached to her and I wanted to know more about her. She was quite the quirky character. I often found myself laughing out loud at something she said or did. She was quite the character and I really enjoyed getting to know her.

    Flannery was an extremely well-written book. It was one of the few biographies that I have read that managed to be informative but not overbearing. I thought it was a really balanced portrayal of Flannery O'Connor. The pictures also enhanced the material in the book. They provided an excellent visual reference point. Sometime I find that pictures are chosen for aesthetics rather than to serve a purpose but that definitely was not the case with this biography. When I wanted to get a mental image of a place that O'Connor frequented, I looked in the picture insert. I did at points become confused as to who was who because of the constant parade of people through O'Connor's life but after a while the names became familiar and easy to remember when they were referenced again.

    For someone who has never read a word of Flannery O'Connor (that she can remember), I really became attached to her. I want to read her works now. And I think I will. Someday.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2009

    Excellent biography

    I gave this as a gift to someone very fond of American literature, someone who's read a lot of O'Connor (including another biography), and she raved about it--couldn't stop reading it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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