Books June 2009

Touched by Evil

The real spiritual drama in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction was even darker than the one she acknowledged.
Marc Yankus

For years I was under the impression that Flannery O’Connor was Irish—a Kerryman, perhaps—and without doubt a male link in the concatenation featuring Flann O’Brien and Frank O’Connor. The delusion belonged to the fog in which one’s early and unsystematic encounters with literature, and indeed the world, take place. My own fog was thickened by growing up in a Dutch town. The only sizable store of books in English was the American Book Center, a faintly indecent basement establishment mainly stocked, unless I misremember, with Mad comics and X-rated-looking publications. At the far end of the store was a wall of poetry (I now marvel, Why? Which hero was behind that?), and it was during half hours spent at that wall, wearing a figurative mackintosh, that I was blown away by Ariel without knowing that Sylvia Plath had killed herself, and fell under the spell of North clueless as to who Seamus Heaney might be.

The force of such pure shocks of language—made only more blissful by the merely flickering intelligibility, to my immature self, of versified English—features significantly in the work of O’Connor, which gives us characters who are, in their empty-headedness, unusually vulnerable to the thrilling mystery of religious speech. More generally, it’s a force that highlights one’s natural ambivalence about biography and the cloud it places between the reader and the words. The mystery of the unknown is lost; distractions creep in. It is questionable, for example, that an appreciation of V. S. Naipaul’s work is much improved by knowing the particulars of his marital nastiness, or that the value of such improvement exceeds its cost—namely, a diminishment in the autonomy that an artistic text formally, if feebly, claims for itself. Fiction necessarily insists on a separation between itself and an extrinsic world that includes the possibly vile, possibly virtuous author: Why, otherwise, create a self-contained body of words? How, other-wise, can a novel generate its moral authority?

The literary significance of mystery, the interrelations of fictive text and actual text-maker—these are particularly charged issues in the case of Flannery O’Connor. Her work (like that of Plath, a contemporary) is hard for a reader to approach without being dazzled by a high beam of personal myths—the reclusiveness, the lupus, the pathetically short lifespan (1925–1964). Now we have Brad Gooch’s Flannery, its subject’s first major biography and a more controlled illumination of the background to O’Connor’s two novels and two story collections. Note that nine further stories may be found in the Library of America’s exemplary O’Connor, a single, ingot-like volume that, in addition to the collected fiction, contains select essays, lectures, and letters, not to mention a penetrating chronology of the life. Therefore Flannery qualifies O’Connor, which is as it should be.

Externally, Flannery O’Connor’s life was, except in the matter of her physical travails, uneventful. As she noted with satisfaction, “Lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” After all, she was born into the Georgia bourgeoisie, a milieu rarely thought of as action-packed. The O’Connors, descended from mid-19th-century immigrants from Ireland, were unexceptional specimens of the middle class. The Clines, Flannery’s maternal line, were also Irish Catholic, but posher and more prosperous, though it is not clear from Gooch’s account precisely how their ethnic/religious identity affected their position in the local pecking order (a pity, because social nuances are important in O’Connor’s fiction). Flannery grew up—in Savannah and in Atlanta and, from 1938, in the Cline mansion in Milledgeville—with black servants floating around and a sense of herself as part of the genteel, bigoted, spottily educated stratum of landed whites. An only child, she was treated as a brilliant case almost from infancy. Though she was hopeless at math and spelling, everyone seems to have recognized that her confidence and strangeness—the young Flannery was sardonic, marginal, good at cartooning, obsessed with ducks and chickens—were the signs of giftedness. Hers was a well-nurtured, happy childhood, except that in 1941 her gentle, failed-realtor father died from lupus erythematosus, an incurable disease in which the immune system fatally attacks the sufferer’s vital organs.

The following year, Flannery went off to Georgia State College for Women—went off being slightly misleading, given that the college was a block from her home. There she began to write with growing seriousness. Although O’Connor is commonly perceived as an outsider artist—the crippled, eccentric scribbler—she was in fact from the beginning very much an insider. Her career ladder, with its institutional rungs, was a prototype of the ladder young writers still seek to scramble up. Indeed, they’d kill for the résumé:

1945–48: University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, winning prizes and fellowships. Magazines begin publishing her stories.

1948–49: Lengthy residence at Yaddo, stories in Partisan Review.

1952: First novel, Wise Blood, published.

1955: A Good Man Is Hard to Find (stories). Finalist, National Book Award, and a commercial hit.

1956 and onward: Fellowships and O. Henry Awards and lecturing invitations and grants (including $8,000 from the Ford Foundation).

1960: The Violent Bear It Away (novel). Finalist, National Book Award.

1965: Everything That Rises Must Converge (stories). Finalist, National Book Award.

1971: The Complete Stories. Winner, National Book Award.

1971—: Literary immortality.

Thus O’Connor never experienced professional hardship. Her belief in herself and sense of vocation were never shaken. She was famous and revered by her early 30s. (“How we did adore and envy them, the idols of our college years—Hemingway and Faulkner, Frost and Eliot, Mary McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty!” wrote John Updike. He was seven years younger than O’Connor.) She never lacked for a prestigious mentor (Robert Lowell, Philip Rahv, Robert Penn Warren) or for helpful friends. She never had to take a job. From 1951, she lived at Andalusia, the Georgia property (500 acres of fields and 1,000 acres of woods) co-owned and farmed by her mother, Regina, which turned out to be the perfect habitat for her imagination. Her personal needs were few: she seemingly never wanted, and therefore was never distracted by, children or by her lack thereof. Ditto, pretty much, lovers. Genuinely cerebral, she apparently received ample emotional gratification from her collection of exotic barnyard fowl (peacocks and swans as well as chickens), from her piety, and from her intellectual endeavors. She regularly entertained visitors and was sustained by the friendship of interesting and loyal correspondents, Elizabeth Bishop among them. In sum, she was a great writer but also a fortunate one. This bears emphasizing in light of her exceedingly unfortunate medical history.

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