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Between the House and the Chicken Yard

ISSUE:  Spring 2009

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, by Brad Gooch. Little, Brown and Company, February 2009. $30

Thirty years ago, a young Brad Gooch got in touch with Flannery O’Connor’s old friend Sally Fitzgerald, who had just edited a posthumous collection of O’Connor’s letters, The Habit of Being. Gooch—at the time, the author of a single chapbook of poetry—proposed to write a biography of O’Connor, and wondered if this would interfere with Fitzgerald’s own plans in that direction. The answer was yes, though Fitzgerald was kind enough to add: “Should I ever feel the need of an assistant, I will certainly think of you and your proposal.” Time passed. Finally, in 2003, Gooch—by now the author of an acclaimed biography of Frank O’Hara, City Poet, and several other books—was casting about for another project, when it occurred to him that Fitzgerald had died three years before, at eighty-three, without ever publishing her biography. One possible reason was suggested, ominously, by the elusive subject herself: “As for biographies,” O’Connor had written, “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.”

Undaunted by this caveat, Gooch has seen fit to use it as the epigraph of his biography, from which the reader may infer one of three basic possibilities: (1) Since what mattered most to O’Connor (and all good writers, but especially O’Connor) was her work, Gooch intends to focus on that; (2) Gooch has discovered fascinating, lurid aspects of O’Connor’s life that belie her statement that nothing, essentially, ever happened to her; (3) Gooch accepts that O’Connor’s life was rather dull, but will focus on it anyway (that is, instead of her work) because, well, he admires O’Connor, and she deserves a decent biography.

The answer appears to be (3), oddly enough, though Gooch has done an honorable job trying to vivify a life that was, indeed, “spent between the house and the chicken yard”—at least from the age of twenty-six, when O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus and went home to live with her mother on a farm near Milledgeville, Georgia. Her daily routine? “Like all good farm folk,” she reported, “we get up in the morning as soon as the first chicken cackles.” A devout Catholic, O’Connor would then read her morning prayers from A Short Breviary, drink coffee, and attend seven o’clock mass with her mother; the rest of the morning—for two or three hours, as long as her uncertain store of energy would permit—O’Connor wrote fiction, inviolably, whereupon her afternoons were spent wearily communing with guests or her beloved peacocks. Thus O’Connor described her life in a letter from 1961, three years before her death at age thirty-nine, though as Gooch points out, “she could just as easily have written that report during her first few months on the farm, or any time since.”

As that statement suggests, Gooch doesn’t lack humor toward his task, thank God, and seems to grasp that his position is rather like that of the photographers and journalists who visited O’Connor during her lifetime because she was, after all, a writer of genius. She would answer their questions guardedly, in an all but impenetrable Deep South accent, and show off her peacocks (“She wanted them to upstage her”). Gooch himself seems grateful for those peacocks and other fowl: He opens with a prologue about the way O’Connor, age five, had appeared in a Pathé newsreel because she taught a chicken to walk backwards; the episode imparts something of her iconoclasm, but is also, quite simply, one of the few noteworthy things that ever happened to her. And without birds or some other winsome diversion, things had a way of getting sticky. “An interviewer’s nightmare,” as Gooch describes her, O’Connor once appeared on a television show called Galley Proof, wincing at the host’s cigarette smoke and answering questions with a kind of irascible reticence: “When asked about the genesis of Wise Blood, she replied, ‘Well I thought I had better get to working on a novel, so I got to work and wrote one.’” Next question.

O’Connor’s origins explain her demeanor, if not her genius. An adoring father gave her the confidence to find her own stubborn, ironical way in life, such that her loneliness became more a matter of choice than the unavoidable lot of a “pigeon-toed, only child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you complex.” And perhaps her tendency to bite was somewhat due to her mother, the formidably genteel Regina, who might have liked a daughter who mixed better in decent company. That lupus returned O’Connor to her mother’s care for the remainder of her life was “both a godsend and a challenge,” as Gooch puts it. The basic tableau of their life—gabby, solicitous mother and sullen misfit child—may have been trying for both on a daily basis, but as fodder for O’Connor’s writing (fictional and epistolary) it was priceless. “Regina is getting very literary,” she wrote a friend, around the time that her first novel, Wise Blood, was bringing a bit of cultural buzz to Milledgeville. “‘Who is this Kafka?’ she says. ‘People ask me.’ A German Jew, I says, I think. He wrote a book about a man that turns into a roach. ‘Well, I can’t tell people that,’ she says.” Regina was hardly alone in her bewilderment. Townsfolk who had known “Mary Flannery” as a lifelong oddball were nonetheless taken aback by Wise Blood: Katherine Scott—the author’s freshman composition teacher at Georgia State College for Women—sent the novel flapping across the room when she read about Mrs. Watts the prostitute (“the friendliest bed in town”), while a local doctor more temperately observed, “I enjoyed [the book], but I know one thing. She don’t know a damn thing about a whore house.”

That was probably true, and readers (like me) who hope to find revelations or even well-founded gossip about something resembling a sex life will be disappointed. Some thought O’Connor was indifferent to the subject—except as sin, perhaps, in the abstract—and certainly it was in her interest to cultivate indifference; but once, when a friend remarked that she would have liked to borrow some of O’Connor’s creativity, the latter replied, “I’d exchange it for your ability to attract men.” Her one physical encounter with the opposite sex, it seems, was an awkward kiss from a textbook salesman named Erik Langkjaer, who found himself kissing teeth instead of lips: “So I had a feeling of kissing a skeleton,” he recalled, “and in that sense it was a shocking experience.” Doubtless this was uncertainty rather than reluctance on O’Connor’s part, given that she subsequently indulged in a bit of oblique, peacock-related wooing of the young man: “Did I tell you that I call my baby peachicken Brother in public and Erik in private?” At length, alas, Langkjaer informed her of his engagement to another woman, and O’Connor consoled herself by writing one of her best stories, “Good Country People,” about a raffish Bible salesman who seduces an ungainly young woman so he can abscond with her wooden leg.

An inscrutable irony served O’Connor’s purpose both in life and art, as a means of detaching herself from uncomfortable matters, including the fools she preferred not to suffer. She would have no truck, for instance, with the fornication and pretentious shoptalk of the Yaddo artists’ colony, affecting a wistful desire to chat with “an insurance salesman, dog-catcher, bricklayer—anybody who isn’t talking about Form or sleeping pills.” As for chatting about race relations—and Southern writers were apt to be canvassed on that point—she liked to keep people guessing. “Momma and me got a nigger that drives us around,” she would announce, deadpan, or else regale a friend with her vast repertoire of racial jokes, especially if the friend happened to be a Northern liberal. As one acquaintance conceded, O’Connor was “a cultural racist” who was annoyed by the sort of Yankee piety that impelled, say, the white journalist John Howard Griffin (of Black Like Me fame) to darken his skin and travel the South. “If I had been one of them white ladies Griffin sat down by on the bus,” O’Connor quipped, “I would have got up PDQ, preferring to sit by a genuine Negro.” And while she regarded blacks as fellow “children of God” who would ultimately “converge” with whites, both socially and spiritually, she wasn’t about to trouble the water in Milledgeville by meeting with James Baldwin (“Might as well expect a mule to fly as me to see James Baldwin in Georgia”), and she took a dim view of folks who objected to the word “nigger” in her stories: “The people I was writing about would never use any other word,” she accurately observed.

One can hardly stress enough that work was what mattered to O’Connor, whether as art for art’s sake, or the conversion of heathens, or the salvation of her own immortal soul. Taken to Lourdes by loved ones who hoped to arrest her lupus, O’Connor grudgingly allowed herself to be immersed in the waters because she needed divine help with The Violent Bear It Away (“I prayed there for the novel I was working on, not for my bones which I care about less”). Her writerly seriousness was such that she was even willing to endure the lifelong mentorship of Caroline Gordon, a fellow Catholic who wrote long, hectoring letters invoking the aesthetics of Henry James, Flaubert, Yeats, et al., and caviled in person over the use of “seems” versus “as if.” “When [Gordon] is doing something like that she is most nearly herself,” said her apprentice with cheerful submission. A born stylist, O’Connor was probably more in need of friendship than advice. Her main challenge as a writer—or so one would think—was finding story material in a life that was mostly about religion, lupus, peacocks, and a problematic relationship with her mother. As it happened, though, she was rarely at a loss, reaping all sorts of données from the Farmer’s Market Bulletin or the weekly Union-Recorder, whose item about a promotional stunt (“Shake Hands with Live Gorilla”) would provide a key element of Wise Blood. Chekhov explained his creative process by snatching up an ashtray—any pearl would do to make a story—and one suspects it was something like that for O’Connor, too: “I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it,” she explained with respect to that Bible salesman in ‘Good Country People,’ “but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized that it was inevitable.”

With such a capacious imagination, such a singular sense of the macabre, it seems almost a shame that O’Connor considered it her bounden duty to write, always, from a Catholic perspective (“Do not make the absurd attempt to sever in yourself the artist and the Christian” was a line she marked heavily in her copy of Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism). I would submit that her stories are most successful insofar as they remain ambiguous—that is to say, not too overtly religious. I can’t remember how old I was when I first read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” but it didn’t remotely occur to me that the author was Catholic. And really one needn’t formulate a theme at all in this case (apart from something vague about the consequences of nihilism): One marvels at the sheer virtuosity—the sustained sense of foreboding, the exact visual details verging on the grotesque (“the grandmother raised her head like a parched old turkey hen crying for water”), the flawless diction (“It’s no real pleasure in life”). For a would-be writer, the story bears constant rereading as a lesson in craft: Nothing can be added or detracted without diminishing the effect—the gradual curdling of comedy into horror that would cause O’Connor’s audiences, when she read the story aloud, to lapse into stunned silence after the first tentative giggles. Less successful are the more explicit allegories such as “The Artificial Nigger”—with its little sermon at the end, lest one miss the point. “To the hard of hearing you shout,” O’Connor famously declared, “and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” Given my druthers as an agnostic reader, I’d prefer squinting to being shouted at.

Gooch does a good job connecting the dots between O’Connor’s work and life, and his occasional aperçus in this regard (“she, too, had lost ‘a wooden part of her soul’ in the encounter with Erik [Langkjaer] … [which] may have constituted a kind of grace”) suggest a lively grasp of her artistic intentions; all the stranger, then, to find so little in the way of extended critical discussion. Perhaps Gooch figured that plot-summary would suffice, more or less, given the abundant attention that O’Connor’s work has received elsewhere, and yet this seems like writing about Churchill and giving his politics short shrift. We are left with O’Connor’s life, such as it was, along with a lot of incidental detail proving that Gooch is an industrious if not very discriminating researcher. If he mentions O’Connor’s high school, rest assured he will also mention that its “up-to-date layout included twenty-three classrooms, two lecture halls, seven science labs, an auditorium, cafeteria, gym, armory, shooting gallery.” Really? A shooting gallery? Such ozone is so relentless that one begins to groan whenever the setting changes. The summer of 1944: “The D-day invasion had taken place with 155,000 Allied troops landing on the beaches of Normandy, opening a wedge in the Nazi domination of continental Europe.” Or (my favorite): “Flannery was oblivious to most of the changes that were making New York City the ‘first city’ of the postwar world: its population, during the administration of Mayor William O’Dwyer, approaching the 1950 census figure of 7,891,957; construction beginning along the East River of the UN Secretariat, the world’s first glass-walled skyscraper.” If this were, say, a biography of Truman Capote, I wonder if Gooch would feel the need to inform us so assiduously about matters to which his subject was, after all, “oblivious.”

Which is not to say one shouldn’t research matters incidental to one’s subject, only that such research belongs mostly in the subtext, as a way of seeing things in the round. In this respect the biographer should strive to be “like God in the universe,” as Flaubert would have it, “present everywhere and visible nowhere,” while the reader (ideally) senses a kind of negative capability at work, whereby even paradoxical information seems somehow inevitable. At any rate it’s the reader’s part to google the population of New York circa 1950, if she or he is so inclined. That said, however, I hasten to add that Gooch can be quite seamless in relating episodes that are inherently dramatic—that needn’t, in other words, be inflated with Google gas. For example, when he writes about what happened at Yaddo in the spring of 1949: Robert Lowell (in the grip of religious mania, on the brink of a colossal breakdown) demanded the dismissal of Yaddo’s director, Elizabeth Ames, on the grounds that she harbored communists. This witch hunt had always struck me as merely despicable, but Gooch puts it in perspective: “[M]ore conservative Southern Agrarians,” he writes, “and modernists such as Eliot and Lowell—with sympathies for religion, and a visceral response to Communist atheism—still distrusted these reformed ‘fellow travelers.’” So Lowell’s fanaticism was at least sincere, and coincided nicely with that of Flannery O’Connor, who was only a little more temperate about things than the bipolar poet. Returning to Georgia afterward, she berated her old history professor (“Why didn’t you teach me about Communism?”) and wrote to a friend that the iniquities of Yaddo had “confirmed” her belief that the devil “[had] a family.” This while Lowell decompressed in a padded cell.

In this case Gooch tells us almost everything we need to know, and little we don’t; still, I was left wanting at least some slight, Flaubertian hint as to his own point of view. Elizabeth Ames a member of the devil’s family? I mean to say, what? Religion seems to have distorted O’Connor’s vision like a pair of coke-bottle glasses: useful (up to a point) in “draw[ing] large and startling figures,” perhaps something of a hindrance in everyday life. Without the catharsis of art, anyway, she might have been something of a monster, rather than the shy, lucid person who was content to let peacocks upstage her. “When I look at my birds I often think of Yaddo and how well a few of them would go with the place,” she wrote Mrs. Ames in 1958, sweetly declining an invitation to return. Probably her work had gone well that day.


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