Friday, March 20, 2009
The following review ran recently in the Houston Chronicle:
By Brad Gooch
Little, Brown, 416 pp., $30
Postwar American fiction in the 1940s, '50s and '60s was dominated by men, and particularly by Jewish men: Bellow, Malamud, Mailer, Heller, Roth. But Brad Gooch's new biography serves as a reminder that one of the most original and enduring of that era's writers was a Catholic woman.
Reading Flannery O'Connor's first novel, Wise Blood, Caroline Gordon discovered “a Catholic novelist with a real dramatic sense, one who relies more on her technique than her piety.” Other critics of O'Connor's debut were less discerning than Gordon, who became a friend and mentor to O'Connor. Time magazine called the book “arty” and the Saturday Review found it “sheer monotony.” As her editor, Robert Giroux, observed, many reviewers “recognized her power but missed her point.” O'Connor was unfazed, but the experience did skew her in the direction of writing short stories because, she said, “nobody pays attention to them.... When you publish a novel, the racket is like a fox in the henhouse.”
But in time, the clucks and squawks of the reviewers would subside, and the literary world would echo with praise for O'Connor's wry, dark, seriocomic tales of fallen, fallible, sometimes brutal but always redeemable humanity. After the reception of Wise Blood, she vowed to write about “folks” rather than “freaks” in her next book, but in truth, the two were rarely distinguishable from one another in her work.
Some of the original misunderstanding of O'Connor's work may have stemmed from the fact that she was a “regional” writer in the “Southern gothic” mode, a school of writing she characterized as “unhappy combinations of Poe and Erskine Caldwell.” She resisted being pigeonholed into a subgenre of Southern women writers, along with Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. (She admired Welty, but destested McCullers' works, calling her novel Clock Without Hands “the worst book I have ever read.”) She also disliked being compared to the South's most celebrated writer: “I keep clear of Faulkner so my own little boat won't get swamped,” she said, although Gooch points out passages in O'Connor's work that clearly reverberate with As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury and “Barn Burning.”
In the end, she found her own justification for regionalism in the Catholic theology she read so deeply and assiduously. Teilhard de Chardin saw the Incarnation as “a single event ... developing in the world,” an idea that, Gooch tells us, O'Connor integrated into her aesthetic: “a cosmic presence in local material lay behind her own arguing for regional writing.” She also took to heart the advice of Jacques Maritain: “Do not make the absurd attempt to sever in yourself the artist and the Christian.” Nevertheless, her work shocked many of those who otherwise shared her world view; T.S. Eliot remarked that he had been “quite horrified” by the O'Connor stories he had read: “She has certainly an uncanny talent of a high order but my nerves are just not strong enough to take much of a disturbance.”
Gooch has done an admirable job of telling the story of a writer whose life was not crowded with incident or studded with glamour. He richly evokes the milieus in which O'Connor lived and worked: from small town Georgia to the writing program at the University of Iowa to the writers' retreat at Yaddo, and back to Georgia again, where the reception to her first book, Wise Blood, was decidedly uneasy. Her cousin Katie Semmes had the publishers send copies of Wise Blood to priests in her parish, then “went to bed for a week” after she read it herself, “penning notes of apology to all the priests who received copies.” There were “lovely teas and luncheons” celebrating the author, at which, one observer noted, “Everybody was glad that she'd got something published, but one did wish that it had been something ladylike.” The local reaction was epitomized by O'Connor's mother, Regina, completely baffled by her daughter's work but fiercely protective of her nevertheless.
But best of all, Flannery gives us Flannery: keen-sighted, witty, devout and indomitable despite her long suffering from the disease, lupus, that took her life much too early, at the age of 39. This is one of those rare literary biographies that make the writer almost as fascinating as what she wrote.