Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor 
by Brad Gooch.
Little, Brown, 448 pp., £20, May 2009, 978 0 316 00066 6
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The protagonist of ‘The Enduring Chill’, a short story Flannery O’Connor began in the autumn of 1957, is a 25-year-old would-be writer called Asbury Fox, who has been forced to return from Manhattan to the family farm in rural Georgia on account of a mysterious illness from which he believes he is dying. His path-breaking play on ‘the Negro’ has not yet been written; he has, however, completed a letter to his mother that fills two notebooks, and which he means her to read after his death. ‘It was such a letter,’ we are informed, ‘as Kafka had addressed to his father.’

Asbury is one in a line of misguided, cartoonishly presented liberals whom the narratives developed in O’Connor’s brilliant but remorseless short stories and novels are designed to punish. Asbury is not suffering from some incurable artistic disease of the sort that struck down Kafka, but from undulant fever. Undulant fever is debilitating, but not lethal: ‘It’ll keep coming back but it won’t kill you,’ his reviled mother rejoices, while the hated Dr Block tactlessly observes: ‘Undulant fever ain’t so bad, Azzberry . . . It’s the same as Bang’s in a cow.’ ‘He must have drunk some unpasteurised milk up there,’ he hears his mother sigh as they leave the room.

In fact the disease-bearing milk was consumed not in New York, but while undertaking some research for his play in his mother’s cow barn the previous summer. In the course of this visit Asbury spends several days working with the black farmhands Morgan and Randall, in the hope of establishing a rapport with some representatives of the race whom he aims to dignify. First he persuades them to smoke with him in the cow barn, though this is against his mother’s orders. The next day, two cans of milk are returned because they taste of tobacco. Undeterred, Asbury tries out another means of bonding with the incommunicative pair. He pours himself a glass of fresh milk from one of the cans, and drains it. Randall watches him:

‘She don’t ’low that,’ he said. ‘That the thing she don’t ’low.’

Asbury poured out another glassful and handed it to him.

‘She don’t ’low it,’ he repeated.

‘Listen,’ Asbury said hoarsely, ‘the world is changing. There’s no reason I shouldn’t drink after you or you after me!’

‘She don’t ’low noner us to drink noner this here milk,’ Randall said.

Asbury continued to hold the glass out to him. ‘You took the cigarette,’ he said. ‘Take the milk. It’s not going to hurt my mother to lose two or three glasses of milk a day. We’ve got to think free if we want to live free!’

The other one had come up and was standing in the door.

‘Don’t want noner that milk,’ Randall said.

  Asbury swung around and held the glass out to Morgan. ‘Here boy, have a drink of this,’ he said.

Poor old Asbury doesn’t even like milk. His pleas to them to drink, to think free and to live free, fall on deaf ears, and he abandons his research after overhearing Morgan and Randall ponder his behaviour a couple of days later:

‘Howcome you let him drink that milk every day?’

‘What he do is him,’ Randall said. ‘What I do is me.’

‘Howcome he talks so ugly about his ma?’

  ‘She ain’t whup him enough when he was little,’ Randall said.

Seven years before O’Connor wrote ‘The Enduring Chill’, when she was herself 25, she too was forced to return to rural Georgia after around five years spent pursuing a career as a writer in the North. The parallel is one of the many in-jokes in O’Connor’s fiction. Like Asbury, O’Connor found herself desperately ill on a train journey south. Initially it was thought she was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, but tests in February 1951 revealed she had lupus, a disorder of the immune system, from which her much-loved father had died when she was 14. O’Connor’s mother, the formidable Regina, decided to keep the doctors’ verdict secret, and O’Connor did not learn of her condition until the summer of 1952, shortly after the publication of her first novel, Wise Blood. Her friend Sally Fitzgerald, the wife of the poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald, broke the news, which effectively terminated all dreams of escaping Andalusia, the farm outside Milledgeville run by her mother. There O’Connor spent the last 12 years of her life, raising peacocks and writing ferocious stories populated by backwoods prophets and club-footed hoodlums, mass murderers and one-armed con-artists, savage saints, drooling idiot boys, tattoo-freaks, wary xenophobes and hick racists: ‘Good Country People’, to borrow the title of a story in which a seemingly innocent Bible salesman seduces an ugly intellectual with a PhD in philosophy, and then steals her wooden leg, adding it to a collection of trophies that includes a woman’s glass eye acquired by the same means. ‘I don’t know where Mary Flannery met those people she wrote about,’ a Milledgeville aunt once commented in horror, ‘but it was certainly not in my house.’ Regina’s reaction can best be inferred from the advice Mrs Fox offers her ailing son in ‘The Enduring Chill’: ‘“When you get well,” she said, “I think it would be nice if you wrote a book about down here. We need another good book like Gone with the Wind.”’

O’Connor’s Georgia could hardly be further from the Tara of Margaret Mitchell. O’Connor has much fun mocking elegant diction and manners, and the Southern obsession with bloodlines: ‘I know you’re a good man,’ the Grandmother tells the psychotic Misfit, who is on the run from the federal penitentiary, in ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’: ‘You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!’ ‘Yes mam,’ the Misfit courteously replies, ‘finest people in the world . . . God never made a finer woman than my mother and my daddy’s heart was pure gold.’ Nevertheless, he orders his sidekicks to shoot her son Bailey, his wife, their two young children and their newborn baby. As gunfire sounds in the woods, the Grandmother cries:

‘You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I’ll give you all the money I’ve got!’

  ‘Lady,’ The Misfit said, looking beyond her far into the woods, ‘there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip.’

As is the case with so many of O’Connor’s rebel-heroes, the Misfit’s dilemma is essentially a theological one: ‘Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,’ he explains to the Grandmother,

and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him.

Pitying the agony such thoughts induce in him, the Grandmother reaches out and touches him on the shoulder. At this, the Misfit springs back ‘as if a snake had bitten him’, and shoots her three times in the chest. ‘She would of been a good woman,’ he later muses, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’

In a letter of 1955 to Betty Hester (the correspondent known simply as ‘A’ in the 1979 edition of O’Connor’s letters, The Habit of Being), O’Connor recorded the great impact on her as an adolescent of ‘The Humorous Tales of E.A. Poe’, by which she meant Volume VIII of the 1904 ‘commemorative’ edition of Poe’s work. Poe spent the majority of his formative years in the South (in Richmond, Virginia), and his ghoulish wit, his genius for the grotesque narrative that simulates a waking nightmare, lurks behind many of the twisted parables with which O’Connor indicted not just the South – she believed the North to be in a far worse moral state – but modernity in general. But while Poe, like the phoney Bible salesman in ‘Good Country People’, might have bragged, ‘I been believing in nothing ever since I was born,’ O’Connor’s stories and novels are, at heart, motivated by a relentless, compulsive quest for some decisive moment of spiritual revelation. She was born and raised a Catholic, and seems never to have wavered in her faith, even visiting Lourdes in 1958 – though more, she insisted, as a pilgrim than a patient – and getting a special blessing from Pope Pius XII at a Sunday audience in Rome. She attended mass every morning, was delighted when friends such as Betty Hester were received into the faith, and thought long and hard about what it meant to be, as the title of a lecture she frequently gave put it, a Catholic novelist in the Protestant South.

Her fiction doesn’t, however, exempt the Catholic Church itself, or at least its pastors, from indictment. The priest Asbury orders his mother to summon to comfort him on his supposed deathbed is a narrow-minded dogmatist, blind in one eye and deaf in one ear and with a grease spot on his vest, who refuses to engage either in intellectual chat about James Joyce or religious debate about the identity of God. A bird-shaped stain on the ceiling above Asbury’s bed assumes the role of spiritual catalyst at the story’s conclusion, tearing ‘the last film of illusion’ from his eyes and bringing him face to face with the ‘purifying terror’ that the Misfit felt would have made a good woman of the Grandmother: ‘A feeble cry, a last impossible protest escaped him. But the Holy Ghost, emblazoned in ice instead of fire, continued, implacable, to descend.’

The prophet-figures who dominate O’Connor’s two novels, Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960), are, to put it mildly, religious nonconformists. Hazel Motes, in the former, preaches the Church of Christ Without Christ from atop his rat-coloured car, bemusing a handful of listeners with his radical doctrines: ‘I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.’ In an author’s note to a second edition of the book, O’Connor described Hazel Motes as ‘a Christian malgré lui’. What is extraordinary about the story is the way she transforms her hero’s resistance to his religious destiny into a series of self-inflicted punishments that rival those suffered by early Christian saints at the hands of their persecutors. He fills his shoes with stones, blinds himself with quicklime, winds barbed wire around his torso. His landlady, who hopes, for some obscure reason, to marry him, points out that such mortifications belong to the past, ‘like boiling in oil or being a saint or walling up cats’ – a sly reference to Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’. ‘There’s no reason for it. People have quit doing it.’ ‘They ain’t quit doing it as long as I’m doing it,’ Motes responds, adding, in explanation, that he’s ‘not clean’. That O’Connor wants her readers to interpret Motes’s obsessive pursuit of ‘cleanness’ as spiritually exemplary is made clear when he collapses and dies shortly after embarking on a pilgrimage to nowhere; his ‘deep burned eye sockets’ are like those of a desert hermit, and the landlady’s baffled meditation on the gaunt features of his corpse ends up evoking the pictorial tradition of the ascension into heaven: ‘she saw him moving farther and farther away, farther and farther into the darkness until he was the pin point of light.’

Wise Blood is very funny, as well as horrific. The Violent Bear It Away is just horrific. Like Hazel Motes, the 14-year-old Francis Marion Tarwater rebels vehemently, but in vain, against his prophethood. The cleansing process again involves extreme acts of violence; Tarwater baptises, then drowns, his young idiot cousin in a lake, and is himself raped by a lavender-shirted pederast who gives him a lift in his lavender and cream-coloured car. The novel’s meanings are so luridly signalled it almost resembles a medieval allegory. By the end of the book Tarwater has earned, like Motes, ‘singed eyes, black in their deep sockets’, eyes that look as if they’ve been ‘touched with a coal like the lips of the prophet’, and therefore will ‘never be used for ordinary sights again’. In other words, he has suffered enough to embrace his vocation, to see through the sham façades of modern life; undoubtedly some violent martyrdom awaits him, but he ‘moved steadily on, his face set towards the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping’.

In her teens, as well as reading Poe, O’Connor spent much time toiling over linoleum-block cartoons, and it was as a cartoonist that she made a name for herself at Georgia State College for Women, where she was art editor of the school magazine, Colonnade. She felt confident enough of her abilities as a caricaturist to send her work to the New Yorker, from which she received back ‘a lot of encouragin’ rejection slips’. In 1945 she accepted a scholarship to study journalism at Iowa University, her idea being to attempt a career as a political cartoonist. Soon after her arrival there, however, she paid a visit to Paul Engle, the director of the fledgling Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her Georgia accent was so thick that he was unable to work out what she was saying, so he gave her a pad, on which she wrote: ‘My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writers’ Workshop?’ Impressed by the samples she submitted, Engle accepted her onto the course, and within six months she had had her first story, ‘The Geranium’, accepted for publication.

She developed fast. In her 1955 letter to Hester she confessed: ‘When I went to Iowa I had never heard of Faulkner, Kafka, Joyce, much less read them. Then I began to read everything at once.’ She absorbed the theories of the New Critics from Austin Warren, who was at work with René Wellek on A Theory of Literature and teaching at Iowa at the time, and became familiar with the ideas of Southern Agrarians such as John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, whose wife, Caroline Gordon, would become an astute reader of drafts of O’Connor’s stories, and a staunch literary advocate. T.S. Eliot, the great hero of the New Critics, and of the Agrarians also, inevitably loomed large too, and in an application for a grant to continue work on Wise Blood on completion of the course, O’Connor compared Hazel Motes’s search for a spiritual home to Eliot’s in The Waste Land.

From Iowa she moved to the artists’ colony at Yaddo, where she got caught up in Robert Lowell’s fevered attempts to have the institution’s director, Elizabeth Ames, dismissed for being a secret Communist. O’Connor was, by all accounts, and despite her ingrained shyness and acute scepticism, mesmerised by Lowell, whose exuberant but erratic embrace of the doctrines of Catholicism during this period led him to declare her – and many others too – a saint. Lowell was struck, as her teachers and fellow students at Iowa had been, by the monkish simplicity of her life, and her devotion to the craft of writing. Even in her early twenties, Lowell wrote to Elizabeth Bishop shortly after O’Connor’s death, she ‘knew she wouldn’t marry, would be Southern, shocking and disciplined. In a blunt, disdainful yet somehow very unpretentious and modest way, she knew how good she was.’ He occasionally lured her away from her desk to play ping-pong, but on the whole she kept a disdainful distance from the alcoholic excesses and sexual escapades for which the colony was famous.

Lowell’s later apostasy was a source of great grief to O’Connor. ‘He is one of the people I love,’ she explained in a letter to Hester, ‘and there is a part of me that won’t be at peace until he is at peace in the Church.’ Certainly her own peace, and the courage with which she faced a foreshortened future once lupus was diagnosed, depended largely on her unequivocal faith. Her life on the farm with the somewhat testy Regina was not easy, and many critics have remarked on the number of irritating mother-figures in O’Connor’s fiction who come to grisly ends: Mrs May in ‘Greenleaf’ is gored to death by a bull, while in ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’ Julian’s mother, an inveterate racist (as Regina seems to have been), gets punched in the face by a black woman and suffers a stroke; Thomas accidentally shoots his mother dead in ‘The Comforts of Home’, and in ‘A Circle in the Fire’, Mrs Cope (like Regina, a widowed mother with a daughter) has the woods that surround her farm set ablaze by three vandals from the city. One of O’Connor’s friends, Maryat Lee, believed the simmering mutual antagonism between mother and daughter played a crucial part in a larger scheme of suffering, forgiveness and redemption: ‘I’m convinced that she used Regina in some way as part of her worship. Regina was her cross. She was Regina’s cross. It worked. They both basked now and then in the glow of it.’

The life and writings of Flannery O’Connor offer a piquant contrast to Brad Gooch’s previous biographical subject, the poet Frank O’Hara – though both came from Catholic families of Irish origin. O’Connor disliked cities, and boasted to a friend of a spell in Manhattan: ‘I didn’t see much of the city when I stayed in New York . . . I didn’t go to a single play or even to the Frick Museum. I went to the natural history museum but didn’t do anything the least cultural.’ She hated parties, and seems to have been wholly uninterested in sex – a very mild flirtation with a college textbook salesman is about all the romance this meticulous and respectful biography has to offer. And nothing too sensational seems to lurk behind Hester’s insistence on being known only as ‘A’ when O’Connor’s letters were published; in 1956 she confessed to her new friend that she had been dishonourably discharged from the army for a lesbian relationship, about which she felt ‘unbearably guilty’. O’Connor was unfazed, and pooh-poohed the notion that this distant scandal might have repercussions for her own reputation. Their friendship prospered, until in 1961 Hester fell under the spell of another female novelist, whose writings first shook, then toppled her faith: ‘This conversion,’ O’Connor noted tartly, ‘was achieved by Miss Iris Murdoch.’ Like Lowell, Hester ended up leaving the Church, much to O’Connor’s distress.

‘As for biographies,’ O’Connor once observed, ‘there won’t be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.’ From 1955 on she had to make use of crutches, but still managed to get around on the college lecture circuit, and even agreed to be interviewed for an arts programme on television. While undoubtedly her profile was lower than that of the other two main contemporary proponents of Southern Gothic, Truman Capote and Carson McCullers (both of whose work she detested), she was by no means publicity-shy. Her letters are lively and affectionate, though also at times, as one would expect, on the caustic side; they help Gooch to develop a convincing sense of her beliefs and literary enthusiasms, while interviews with surviving friends and visitors to Andalusia allow him to re-create her day-to-day doings on the farm and in and around Milledgeville – though it’s true that these don’t make for ‘exciting copy’ by anyone’s book.

O’Connor’s peculiar, disturbing stories still, however, exert a pull that nothing in her biography or letters really succeeds in explaining. It’s a pull rather like that of the tattoo parlour for O.E. Parker in the story she completed just before her death in the summer of 1964. The last of her hapless visionaries, Parker has accumulated tattoos on almost every tattoo-able inch of his body. He is married to a shrewish, fundamentalist wife, and after crashing his tractor – distracted by thoughts about the tattoo he might choose for his back – and losing his job, he goes to the city and gets emblazoned with a large Byzantine Christ. His hopes that this might mollify the ferocious Sarah Ruth are soon quashed. The savage comedy of his return home reveals O’Connor at her most vivid and unsparing. Parker removes his shirt:

Look at it!’

‘I done looked,’ she said.

‘Don’t you know who it is?’ he cried in anguish.

‘No, who is it?’ Sarah Ruth said. ‘It ain’t anybody I know.’

‘It’s him,’ Parker said.

‘Him who?’

‘God!’ Parker cried.

‘God? God don’t look like that!’

‘What do you know how he looks?’ Parker moaned. ‘You ain’t seen him.’

‘He don’t look,’ Sarah Ruth said. ‘He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.’

‘Aw listen,’ Parker groaned, ‘this is just a picture of him.’

‘Idolatry!’ Sarah Ruth screamed. ‘Idolatry! Enflaming yourself with idols under every green tree! I can put up with lies and vanity but I don’t want no idolator in this house!’ and she grabbed up the broom and began to thrash him across the shoulders with it.

Parker was too stunned to resist. He sat there and let her beat him until she had nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ. Then he staggered up and made for the door.

  She stamped the broom two or three times on the floor and went to the window and shook it out to get the taint of him off it. Still gripping it, she looked towards the pecan tree and her eyes hardened still more. There he was – who called himself Obadiah Elihue – leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.

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