One of the words most frequently used to describe the great Savannah, Georgia-born author Flannery O’Connor is “paradoxical.” Exactly why that word is such an appropriate one is demonstrated with informed passion and masterful skill in Brad Gooch’s finely-layered biography: Flannery, A Life of Flannery O’Connor.
The fact that the mystery O’Connor’s life and work continues to draw increasing attention in 2011 is amazing when considering how steeped it is in the language of her times—the very racially charged South of the mid-1900s–– and when noting her early death from lupus at the age of thirty-nine.
Reversing the Accepted Order of Things
Gooch begins his story by revisiting a moment that would remain a reference point of both humor and symbolism throughout O’Connor’s remarkable life. He takes us to the author’s childhood home in Savannah, just off Lafayette Square, where in 1930 she received a visit from a news cameraman “to record her buff Cochin bantam, the chicken she reputedly taught to walk backward.” While a chicken may have been the first bird to enhance her public profile, in her personal essay about the incident, The King of the Birds, O’Connor noted “My quest, whatever it was actually for, ended with peacocks.”
Her childhood penchant for reversing the accepted order of things might be read as nothing more than weird if attributed to another five-year-old. Because it is O’Connor it may instead be viewed as one early hint of a creative sensibility that in time would create and coax characters into acting out challenging dilemmas of the human condition as she observed it. Biographer Gooch’s narrative is particularly astute when it comes to his evocation of how that sensibility recognized its own value and instinctively preserved itself within “a regulated and meticulously organized world within a world.”
Her survival tactics included the creation of poems, cartoons, and booklets in which she presented portraits of Edward O’Connor, her adored businessman father, and the resilient Regina Cline O’Connor, her mother. They also included somewhat restrained rebellions against the authority of the nuns, at St. Vincent’s Grammar School for Girls, whose job it was to help shape her character into one reflecting modern Catholic grace and values.
Like nearly all Americans who grew up during the 1930s, Flannery O’Connor’s childhood was marked by the economic ravages of the Great Depression. Her father lost first his real estate business, then a succession of jobs until he was forced to accept a position in Atlanta in 1938 and moved his family to Milledgeville, where in time his daughter would become one of its most famous citizens. Even more notable than the family’s financial ups and downs was Edward O’Connor’s death from lupus at the age of forty-five in 1941. His daughter was then fifteen.
Each turn of fate in Flannery O’Connor’s life as recounted by Gooch seems to have reinforced her personality with powerful measures of theological insight, focused creativity, and humor. A couple of years following her father’s death, she noted: “A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with grief, but even above grief, wonder.” Most people stop at the “grief” part and allow themselves to simply wallow in it until ready to move on. The mystery of the “wonder” continuously pushed O’Connor forward.
At the age of twenty-five, in December 1950, she was told she was suffering from a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis, but learned two years later, Gooch reveals, that her true condition had been hidden from her. Sally Fitzgerald, one of her closest friends, informed her she was suffering from the same disease that had killed her father. By the time she learned her actual condition, O’Connor had already distinguished herself as an aspiring writer at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop and as one from whom great things were expected at the famous Yaddo Artists’ Colony. Her status as a professional author rested mostly on a number of short stories that had been published in prestigious literary journals and on her now classic 1952 novel Wise Blood, published just a month before learning about her medical fate.
Such “devastating knowledge” might have reduced another sensitive soul to a simmering puddle of depression from which they might never have recovered. As Gooch points out, “She did not know whether she would be allotted the same three years of borrowed time as her father, following his diagnosis, or if indeed ‘the Scientist’ possessed a miracle cure. She had her doubts.”
She also had her faith and intellectual passion, both of which helped her to confront the enemy known as lupus. (Gooch’s report on how doctors treated individuals with the disease in the 1950s is particularly interesting in light of the Food and Drug Administration’s recent approval of a drug called Benlysta as a treatment option; the authorization marked the first time in fifty-four years a new drug has received such an endorsement.)
Please Click to Read: Events, Books Highlight Flannery O’Connor Legacy part 3: The N-Word Factor
author The American Poet Who Went Home Again
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance