Walking Backward

At the beginning of her novel The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’Connor describes a wild backwoods prophet, Old Tarwater, reading an article about himself written by his nephew, Rayber. A schoolteacher with a penchant for progressive ideas, Rayber has published a quasi-Freudian journal article arguing that his uncle has undergone a process of self-redemption. “His fixation of being called by the Lord had its origin in insecurity. He needed the assurance of a call, and so he called himself.” The old man is given to repeating excerpts from Rayber’s essay, which he would “spit out of his mouth, like gobbets of poison.”

Reading some of the reviews occasioned by the recent publication of Brad Gooch’s much-anticipated biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, certain parallels come to mind. In her review of Gooch’s book in the New York Times, Janet Maslin ticks off “some of the best-known facts” about the acclaimed Southern writer: she raised peacocks, lived like a recluse on her mother’s farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, and died of lupus at age thirty-nine. “Her racial attitudes were uncharitable at best, and they showed up in her work. And she combined the sexual knowingness of a twelve-year-old with a gender-bending fusion of Southern gothic and luridly medieval sensibilities in her mordant, theologically inspired storytelling.”

Oddly, after cataloging O’Connor’s quirks, Maslin concludes that “not one of these things readily lends itself to biographical inquiry.” One would have thought they would provide the biographer with a veritable field day.

Brad Gooch’s book has little of the smugness of Rayber’s—or Maslin’s—language. It is, in fact, rather “gentlemanly,” as one early reviewer pointed out. And yet the result is remarkably lame. That is a great disappointment, not only because O’Connor deserves better, but because Gooch had a unique opportunity to provide the perspective of a sympathetic outsider, something to counteract the tendency toward hagiography on the part of O’Connor’s legion of fans.

As a writer with no discernible religious beliefs, Gooch (whose previous biography was of the gay poet Frank O’Hara) might have engaged O’Connor’s traditional Catholic vision with a bracing skepticism. If the true test of O’Connor’s fiction is its ability to speak to those who do not share her intensely held convictions, then a reader like Gooch could serve as litmus. But he never dips the paper into the solution.

Flannery’s narrative, which clocks in at a brisk 374 pages, opens with a famous incident from O’Connor’s childhood: the Pathé newsreel company came to Savannah, Georgia, to film one of its quirky human-interest stories, about a little girl named Flannery who had taught a chicken to walk backward. Gooch rightly sees this episode as capturing O’Connor’s contrarian, pranksteresque spirit. When he points out that her fiction is full of characters, like the Misfit from “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” who “operate their souls in reverse,” he appears on the edge of suggesting the immense philosophical and psychic vistas that her craft and vision open up. But all he can manage is to speak of “her acidly comic tales with moral and religious messages, running counter to so much trendy literary culture.”

Gooch’s failure to engage is constantly reflected in language that merely limps along. Sentences like this are typical: “Staying, otherwise, mostly to herself, O’Connor expressed her inner life through her birds.” Or, writing of the novel Wise Blood, completed as she was feeling the first symptoms of the disease that would eventually kill her: “Now reflecting physical pain, and compunction, her novel was growing doubly deep, and far more ambitious.” Even Maslin notes that Flannery “lacks the dimension of strong literary criticism.”

The one theme Gooch seems to circle back to over the course of the biography is his belief that O’Connor’s fiction was fueled by a fear of death. While it is true that many of her characters meet violent and untimely ends, death is hardly the point. O’Connor was less fearful of death than she was of pride. Her stories obsess about individuals—from progressive intellectuals to angry widows—who seek to control their fates, rebelling against not only death but creaturehood itself.

A much richer vein for Gooch to mine would have been O’Connor’s awareness of her own fiercely self-protective nature. Unlovely and ill, a brilliant intellectual trapped in a provincial backwater, O’Connor had plenty of reasons for creating an aggressive persona, sharp-tongued yet evasive. More important, as even some admirers admit, O’Connor’s narrative voice occasionally descends into a certain harshness of judgment that undercuts the complexity of her characters. Gooch probes the outskirts of her persona and presence as narrator, noting that O’Connor was capable of satirizing herself in characters like Julian from “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and Joy/Hulga in “Good Country People,” but he never penetrates to the core of the problem.

In contrast to, say, Janet Maslin’s outright ideological animosity, Gooch comes across as a passive-aggressive Rayber. He rarely pauses for sustained evaluation but insinuates his criticisms in passing. You have to look carefully to catch phrases like “extreme theology” and “Jansenist aspect,” “a simple view of communism as evil” and “sexuality sublimated in religious expression.”

Gooch quotes the Southern writer Andrew Lytle, who said that at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop O’Connor “scared the boys to death with her irony.” Reading Flannery, it is hard not to wonder why Gooch isn’t more scared.

For decades would-be biographers deferred to O’Connor’s friend and confidant Sally Fitzgerald, who died in 2000 with her own O’Connor book unfinished. So here we are, nearly half a century after O’Connor’s death, awaiting the major biography she deserves. In the meantime, there is the strand on O’Connor in Paul Elie’s excellent braided narrative, The Life You Save May Be Your Own (which also covers Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy). And there are always O’Connor’s letters, collected in The Habit of Being. They don’t tell the whole story, but they tell most of it, with an honesty and compassion that take us beyond the persona to a writer who believed she had answered a call that came from outside herself.


Related: "What Flannery Knew," by Paul Elie

Published in the 2009-05-08 issue: 
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