Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor, by Brad Gooch
Whenever someone asks me about my favorite authors (in the plural, as there cannot be just one), Flannery O'Connor always makes the list. I was first introduced to her work during a college course called "Faulkner, O'Connor, and Morrison" where we studied the work of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Toni Morrison. That class is responsible for my appreciation of Flannery and Southern fiction.
So when I heard that a new biography had been published about Flannery, I knew I had to read it, and I am so glad I did. Prior to reading Gooch's new book, I was familiar with O'Connor's stories and I knew that she died at age 39 from lupus. (I didn't know it was the same disease that her father Edward died of at age 45, when Flannery was 15. People who know me in real life will understand my staring at the page for several minutes upon reading that.) Other than those basic facts, I really didn't know much about her life. For example, I'd always been under the impression that Flannery was somewhat of a recluse and an invalid at Andalusia, the dairy farm in Milledgeville, Georgia where she lived with her mother, Regina, and her beloved flocks of chickens and peacocks. (Hence the cover of the book.)
Rather, Gooch writes that Flannery often had visitors at Andalusia, spending hours talking literature and religion with contemporary authors and theologians. She kept up a vigorous and intellectual correspondence with many people and Gooch includes portions of these letters within the narrative of his book. She also gave many lectures and talks at various colleges and universities, visited friends in other states, and traveled abroad to Lourdes.
Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor encapsulates Flannery's life from her birth in 1925 until her death in 1964. As a child, Flannery often wrote and drew and during her school years, had a passion for cartooning. (Another fact I was not aware of.) She was a cartoonist during her time at Georgia State College for Women and had planned on a career as a newspaper political cartoonist, winning a journalism scholarship to graduate school at Iowa State. Once there, however, Flannery asked to be considered for the esteemed Iowa Writers Workshop, as she felt she was not a journalist. She submitted several stories and was immediately accepted. Following Iowa, she went to Yaddo, an artists colony in New York, where she worked on her first novel, Wise Blood, a novel that was six years in the making - only to not be well received. Her short stories are what she is best known for, and endure nearly 45 years since she died.
It does make one wonder about what would have been - how much richer the world of literature would have been - had Flannery not died in 1964, had her volume of work been more. She would have just turned 84 this past March and could have potentially still been alive. It is a little sad and bittersweet to think about what we truly lost in her death.
Still, Brad Gooch's Flannery is a meticulously researched and richly detailed portrait of one of America's best writers. It's a very well-written book, but not a light read. Towards the end, much of the discussion about theology and Flannery's conversations with others about religion, her views, and her criticisms of religious writings went over my head; similarly, in some cases, there seemed to be too much extraneous detail. On the other hand, there are so many references - and connections to her life within those stories - that it makes me want to go back and re-read them, as well as her letters.
Avid Flannery O'Connor fans will likely want to do the same because inevitably, at the end of the day, this truly gifted author still continues to influence, amaze, and inspire.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.
Jenclair from A Garden Carried in the Pocket (don't you just love that blog title? I certainly do.)
New York Times Book Review 2/26/09
New York Times Book Review 2/22/09
Washington Post 2/22/09