Tuesday March 17th, 2009

Mary Flannery, Quite Contrary

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch
Little, Brown, 464 pp., $30.00

In Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, there is a striking photograph of O’Connor at two or three. She is sitting in a white dress, a white bow perched on her head, staring at an open book in her lap, one hand over her heart. There is a disconcertingly adult frown of concentration on her face — a frown disproportionate to her age and size. Looking at the picture long enough provokes the feeling that in a minute or two the child will turn to you, two fingers pointing skyward, as if it is 1327, not 1927, and solemnly declaim a line from the Gospels. The image is frightening and then suddenly funny — just like her stories. A caption for this picture of strangely serious infancy might be taken from O’Connor’s letters. “I was a very ancient twelve; my views at that age would have done credit to a Civil War veteran,” she told a friend. “I am much younger now than I was at twelve or anyway, less burdened. The weight of centuries lies on children, I’m sure of it.”

The photograph is a reminder that O’Connor never became as young as she might have been. At 25, with Wise Blood soon to be published, Iowa and Yaddo behind her, Robert Lowell a champion, she was diagnosed with lupus, the disease that had killed her father. She moved home to Milledgeville, Georgia, and took up residence at the farm her mother had inherited, settling into a life more circumscribed than she had intended — aluminum crutches for arthritis of the hip, cortisone shots to fend off the disease, travel a weakening hardship. But she wrote and read incessantly, lectured when she could, and sent off hundreds of letters — hilarious, perceptive, inimitably voiced letters in which self-pity never makes an appearance. “I stayed away from the time I was 20 until I was 25 with the notion that the life of my writing depended on my staying away,” she told a friend who was contemplating leaving the South. “I would certainly have persisted in that delusion had I not got very ill and had to come home. The best of my writing has been done here.” And she wrote right up until her death, at 39.

Mystery, famously, was a favorite word of O’Connor’s — it was her word for the point at which human understanding falters and must trust that God’s mercy is at work. The life she lived contained some mysteries — some contradictions and irregularities that are not easily explained. She was a devout Catholic, but Christ’s love did not move her to believe that the South should change its ways as quickly as the civil rights movement wanted. Neither did Christ’s love keep her from making cracks about her mother Regina’s literary ignorance, or about a group of nuns who wanted her to write a tribute to a girl in in their care who died from a cancer of the face. “I told the Sisters that if that child was a saint, her first miracle would be getting a publisher for their book,” she said, fearing their desire for hagiography (though she eventually led them to Robert Giroux). She had two close friendships with women who fell in love with her, but she did not return the feeling, or seek marriage with a man. Lourdes gave her the creeps, but she asked the priest who functioned as her spiritual director if eating meat on Fridays should always be considered a mortal sin. She would sling goofy cornpone in her postscripts: “If you feel porely, get yourself a jar of GEVRAL. You take it in milk & put some coffee in it. It is for old people. I love it. Geriatrics!” Then, in a talk on faith and the novel, she’d straighten up and turn professorial with assurance and ease: “But the real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is. The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that.” And sometimes these two voices combined to write a sentence like this: “If [Graham] Greene created an old lady, she would be sour through and through and if you dropped her, she would break, but if you dropped my old lady, she’d bounce back at you, screaming ‘Jesus loves me!’”

The letters, collected by her friend Sally Fitzgerald and published in 1979 as The Habit of Being, are so thorough a document of a consciousness that reading them one feels a biography may be unnecessary. Fitzgerald had long been working on a biography herself, which she left unfinished at her death in 2000. Those who have read O’Connor might be familiar with Fitzgerald — the schoolmarmish figure who took it upon herself to tell the young writer she had lupus because her mother had hidden the diagnosis from her, and who years later forced a grumbling O’Connor to get in the pool at Lourdes because she had been taken there by a rich old cousin. Fitzgerald’s Flannery probably would not have been the Flannery who toasted “Geriatrics!” so perhaps we have been saved from something.

Gooch’s biography will not be the definitive version — there are distracting flaws — but he does get on with the comically frowning child of that photograph, and he brings her to vibrant life. O’Connor wrote of what she called freaks, and Gooch demonstrates how, growing up, she cut an odd figure herself — a pigeon-toed girl among Southern belles. He also shows how she cultivated that oddity, and flew it like a flag because she was Mary Flannery O’Connor, the doted-on daughter of well-heeled, well-respected Savannah Catholics. (She dropped the Mary because, as she said, “Who was likely to buy the stories of an Irish washerwoman?”) Gooch has great fun showing that Mary Flannery was an acquired taste that even her teachers sometimes soured on. “Even then, she was a genius,” Gooch quotes one of her college professors as saying. “Warped, but a genius all the same.”

From cousins and classmates he’s collected anecdotes about her career as a wise child whose preferred weapon against an uncomprehending audience was a withering look. At six years old, when she and other truants had been lined up against a blackboard to explain why they had not attended an early church service for children, a classmate said O’Connor told a nun that, “the Catholic Church does not dictate to my family what time I go to Mass”. As a teenager, O’Connor refused to join in on what her peers considered age-appropriate fun; she would rather sew clothes for her pet chickens. At a tea her freshman year at Georgia State College for Women, O’Connor wore tennis shoes with the required long dress, and when asked why she was sitting in a corner, replied, “Well, I’m antisocial.” At the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, she scared the men with her irony and the girls with her allergy to pleasantries. A Workshop member recalls that one night, while leaving class in the freezing cold, she noticed Flannery shivering and said, “Not quite your Southern weather,” only to receive “one of those dirty, dirty looks. I didn’t mess with her much.”

Gooch has an affection for Mary Flannery of the Inevitable Scowl, and in these early chapters, he makes it easy for readers to get a kick out of her, too (he’s helped along by our being well out of the way of her dirty, dirty looks). He preserves O’Connor’s drawl as well as her timing, which has the ring of screwball comedy, and the anecdotes suggest that O’Connor, who in college hoped to publish cartoons in The New Yorker, enjoyed drawing herself as a caricature of tomboy ennui, circa 1944. Although Gooch doesn’t articulate the parallels, he seems to be writing out of a sense that there was indeed a likeness between O’Connor “the contrary girl,” as he calls her, and the intractable children of her fiction. One looks at the toddler in the photograph and thinks of Mary Fortune, the nine-year-old girl in “A View of the Woods,” who bossed her grandfather with the unshakable fervor of a prophet.

Once O’Connor leaves Iowa for Yaddo, however, the book begins to lose power. The letters begin here, and Gooch does not provide enough insight into her life or work to make his book as necessary, or as entertaining, as her own account of the years that follow. After she graduates from college, it’s not clear what version, or versions, of the writer he wants us to see — he has a handle on O’Connor the girl, but not O’Connor the artist. He does write a sensitive chapter about the unrequited love O’Connor had for the handsome textbook salesman believed to be the inspiration for the plot of “Good Country People,” and gives a thoughtful reading of her complicated views on race, but he does not weave these discussions into a larger narrative that illuminates what she might mean to American religious and literary life. (For that, a reader might be better served by The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Paul Elie’s 2003 book about O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy.) Gooch’s gentle touch, as the book goes on, begins to read like timidity born of adoration, and one wishes that he was a more authoritative and rigorous interpreter of his subject and her words.

When he does attempt interpretation, he can be wobbly. O’Connor’s stories are filled, he says, “with the eraser marks of all these dead fathers,” and such inelegant phrasing is dismaying. Aquinas is described as having “lofty, lucent prose” — which is like saying Plato has a learned, witty style. And he is easily beguiled by trivia. In order to show how protected a child O’Connor was, he takes a paragraph to describe the crib she slept in — a model called the Kiddie-Koop — and then tries to wring some greater significance out of it: “the brand name,” he writes, “too neatly predicting her identification with fowl as her friends.” Too neatly, indeed. He also leads the reader to believe that O’Connor had no use at all for Iris Murdoch, whose novels played a part in longtime correspondent Betty Hester’s leaving the Church. He quotes O’Connor as describing Murdoch’s A Severed Head and The Flight From the Enchanter as “completely hollow,” but she had a more charitable opinion of her work than Gooch lets on. What she says after calling those books hollow is: “I wouldn’t attempt to figure out what she’s getting at. But if she writes another book I will certainly read it….” And then after that letter comes this: “Many truths are represented by Iris Murdoch but that her truth and her morality are superior to the teachings of the Church I disbelieve.” It’s hard to take Gooch’s book seriously when he pays attention to her crib but not the context of her criticisms.

What we see in Gooch’s book is a very proud girl who might have rightly been called spoiled. She grew up into a woman who returned many times to the words charity, grace, and mystery, and yet she never apologized for her views on race, nor seems to have confessed to a wish to feel more tenderly toward her mother, whom she loved but struggled with. There might be something resembling contrition in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” which Gooch quotes from. “Hep me not to give her so much sass,” prays a little girl, looking to be kinder to her mother. “Hep me not to talk like I do.” How could O’Connor talk like she did, swinging between eye-rolling asides and humbled acceptance, when Christianity asks that you swallow the one to broadcast the other? Just what did she ask for in her prayers? “My type of spirituality is almost completely shut-mouth,” she said, and in her letters she didn’t dwell on the exact nature of her sins beyond using the words selfish and proud; she didn’t elaborate on what she needed from God, or admit that her disease was anything she would call suffering. She would give a friend advice on how to pray, but never use the word “I” when doing so. She would talk of prayer in the abstract, and at those moments the letters turn into writing that feels as spiritually sound, and profound, as anything written by Thomas Merton or Simone Weil, or even Augustine and Kierkegaard.

If there is a reason to revere her as one might a saint — she was livid when Robert Lowell, during his first manic episode, tried to tell people that she was one — it is because she offers true spiritual wisdom alongside an ongoing tussle between sass and submission. She did not flagellate herself with self-seriousness; she did not stop making jokes because Jesus didn’t tell any. That she was both so funny and so faithful seems a miracle, because so many Christians still have not realized that, as she wrote, “the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy”.

Gooch does not penetrate these mysteries. Perhaps no one ever will. “It is what is invisible that God sees and that the Christian must look for,” she wrote. “Because [the Christian] knows the consequences of sin, he knows how deep in you have to go to find love.” How did she find that love? What drove her to want it? It may be none of our business — or bidnis, as she liked to say.

Carlene Bauer is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, will be published by HarperCollins in July.