Top Ten Books of 2009, Number Eight
Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor
I'll admit I was afraid to read this biography. I love the work of Flannery O'Connor and I was afraid, as with so many other literary biographies (see the recent one on John Cheever, for instance), that I would walk away from it hating her.
Far from it.
There are no scandals in here. No gossipy "morsels." No catalog of hypocrisies or neuroses. And yet it's the least boring biography you'll read all year.
The book is valuable for several reasons.
One, it gives a sense of the background of O'Connor's religious devotion, her sense of the moral imagination, and how that shaped her fiction and essays.
Two, the author reveals something of how O'Connor actually wrote: how she conceived ideas (she didn't know about that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before she wrote it), how she developed her skills, and how she actually sat down to do it (two hours a day, same time, same place).
Three, even if you're not an O'Connor fan this book will give you a sense of a critical time in the history of the American South. Why does O'Connor call John F. Kennedy's critics "the secularist-Baptist combination, unholy alliance"? Why do William Faulkner and other southern writers seem so ambivalent about integration?
Four, the book is a good treatment of the role of place in providence, in shoring up the story of individual human lives. To know Flannery O'Connor is to know Milledgeville, Georgia. And to know Milledgville is to know something about human nature generally.
Gooch quotes O'Connor about whether she is a "southern writer": "When you're a Southerner and in pursuit of reality, the reality you come up with is going to have a southern accent, but that's just an accent; it's not the essence of what you're trying to do."
Five, the book is at places uproariously funny, because she so often was. O'Connor is quoted as talking about relatives who "think the height of Bohemianism is wearing slacks out of the house."
Six, the book gives a model of a believer who suffers with grace. O'Connor, who died at 39 after suffering with debilitating lupus, says: "Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who dont have it miss one of God's mercies." When told that the doctors expect her to improve, she replies, "I expect anything that happens."
Even if you've never read a line of Flannery O'Connor, you'll enjoy this biography. And then you'll want to read O'Connor. Pick up a copy, find a quiet hayloft to read it in, and, of course, always watch out for those travelling Bible salesmen.
Photo courtesy of worldcat.org.