three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
By: 
Brad Gooch
user_rating: 
0

A Life of Flannery O’Connor

A-FlanneryAn English professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey, Brad Gooch is also the author of City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara (1993). His short stories and essays have appeared in such magazines as the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

The Topic: Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925, precocious Mary Flannery O’Connor, the only child of adoring Irish Catholic parents, was immersed in Southern culture and religion from an early age. Despite claiming that she "didn’t know a short story from an ad in the newspaper," O’Connor was admitted to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and later accepted by New York’s influential literary community. A diagnosis of lupus, the same disease that claimed her father, forced O’Connor back to the family farm in Milledgeville, where, increasingly weak and dependent upon her mother, she worked feverishly until her death in 1964. Her slim but powerful oeuvre of two novels and 32 short stories nonetheless cements her reputation as one of the most gifted writers of the 20th century.
Little, Brown. 464 pages. $30. ISBN: 0316000663

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"This welcome biography of Flannery O’Connor is crisply written, fully researched and relatively brief. … Perhaps the most original contribution Gooch makes to our understanding of O’Connor is his thorough filling-in of her early life in Savannah and in Milledgeville, Ga." William H. Pritchard

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"At times, as though confounded by the paucity of available revelations, Gooch resorts to irrelevant architectural descriptions of buildings where O’Connor lived or accounts of the weather. … It is a poignant, inspiring story of one brave, dedicated, brilliant writer, isolated by illness and reserve, who lived most of her adult life in the looming shadow of mortality, turned her limitations into strengths, and gave us a small but vivid body of lasting fiction." Floyd Skloot

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Brad Gooch’s thorough and instructive biography attempts to dispel the enigma surrounding this relentlessly talented woman, whose disquieting novels and stories were informed by the clarifying vision of an unwavering faith. … Gooch traces the autobiographical elements in her fiction, but pays too little attention to the evolution of O’Connor’s unimpeachable style." Ariel Gonzalez

St. Petersburg Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Flannery opens many doors into the writer’s life, although it doesn’t finally answer the question of how this person came to write those large and startling stories—a sheltered Southern lady who wrote fearlessly about ignorance and violence, a believer who excoriated fundamentalism, an invalid whose stories land like a heavyweight’s punch." Colette Bancroft

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"There are some odd aspects to it—Gooch gives less attention than he should to O’Connor’s relationships with her editor, Robert Giroux, and her agent, Elizabeth McKee, and his portrait of her mother is excessively polite—but the book is for the most part lucidly written and neither excessively long nor riddled with extraneous detail. … Whether Gooch’s conscientious, respectful biography will bring new readers to her work is doubtful, since literary biographies rarely sell as well as their authors and publishers wish, but readers who already know that work will be glad to have it." Jonathan Yardley

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Gooch’s book lacks the dimension of strong literary criticism. O’Connor’s work does not come alive on this biography’s pages, except as Mr. Gooch traces the origins of incidents and ideas. But the tart O’Connor voice, witty and flippant, immune to vanity, is very much in evidence." Janet Maslin

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2.5 of 5 Stars
"These sources [correspondence and personal accounts] fill many pages, but what his book lacks are fuller discussions of O’Connor’s works. Only occasionally, as in his commentary on the background of the story, ‘Good Country People,’ do we get serious insight into O’Connor’s process." Bob Hoover

Critical Summary

The gifted O’Connor once stated that she would merit no biography because "lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy." Brad Gooch, however, has done a thorough job teasing out the details of O’Connor’s short life and enduring legacy. Although gracious and polite, Gooch was nonetheless admonished by critics for skimming over some of the more eyebrow-raising aspects of her life, such as the question of her sexuality and her contentious relationship with her mother. Others complained that Gooch neglected to properly analyze O’Connor’s work and the genesis of her distinctive style. Perhaps the gifted O’Connor will always elude our attempts to understand her, and readers unfamiliar with the author should turn to her work; however, her fans will come away from Flannery with a enhanced appreciation for her achievements.

Supplementary Reading

The Complete Stories | Flannery O’Connor (1971): Award Star National Book Award for Fiction "In my stories is where I live," O’Connor once stated to a friend, and the brilliant writer does indeed live on in the short stories collected here. By turns humorous, tragic, and grotesque, they all vividly evoke the darker side of human nature.