This takes a little detective work. In a letter to her friend Betty Hester, Flannery O’Connor on April 13, 1963 outlined her schedule for the remainder of the month. On the 20th, she was to receive “a Franciscan Missionary Sister who proposes to write a paper. Then we are having a class … for an afternoon … .”
Since I did not see the Sister, it had to have been April 21, or later, that my classmates and I spent several hours sitting on Miss O’Connor’s front porch just outside Milledgeville, Georgia, washing down Cheetos with cold Cokes and talking about writing.
The exact date is problematic because I was too lazy to keep a journal at the time. A written record would have served little purpose, anyway. I was a country boy who had gone off to college, bumped up against Differential Equations and had found refuge in the English department. It was not until years later that I realized how fortunate we were to have been able to spend time with Flannery and her mother, Regina.
I was reminded of that long ago visit by the publication in February of a new biography by Brad Gooch. A splendid effort, “Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor,” is the most complete accounting of the Georgia author’s life yet published. And it is not that the basis for a biography hasn’t been available. As of 2008, the Modern Language Association lists 1,340 entries under O’Connor, including 195 doctoral dissertations and seventy book-length studies.
Gooch had access to that research plus hundreds of Flannery’s personal letters that were unsealed by Emory University in 2007. In addition, many people who knew the O’Connors and the Clines (Regina’s family) are still alive, as are many of Flannery’s friends and former classmates. Gooch spent months in Savannah, Milledgeville and Atlanta recording their recollections. Not only did he make excellent use of all his resources, Gooch is a superb storyteller.
The bare outlines of Flannery O’Connor’s life are well known. Born into an Irish Catholic clan in Savannah in 1925, she lost her father to lupus when she was fifteen. The malady would eventually claim Flannery when she was only 39 years old, her untimely death cutting short the career of a writer whose literary reputation continues to soar.
“With each passing year, her status as ‘minor’ has been adjusted upward, as her stories have been anthologized, and more high school and college students discover her work,” Gooch writes. “Among their professors, she has become a one-woman academic industry … .”
That’s true, as far as it goes, but Flannery O’Connor’s fame is not limited to the classroom. I constantly run into — for want of a better word — ordinary people who read her stories, passionately debate their meanings and remain fascinated by her life. Why no biographer before Gooch tapped into this widespread — and growing — interest is perhaps explained by the Fitzgerald Factor.
Sally Fitzgerald, a teacher of writing and an editor, would mentor and remain a close friend of Flannery until she died. In 1979, Fitzgerald edited and published the O’Connor letters then available under the title, “The Habit of Being.” The next year, she announced that she was working on a biography of Flannery, deterring any competing efforts. Fitzgerald died in 2000 at the age of 83, leaving behind a manuscript that has yet to appear.
Fitzgerald’s death and the suggestion of an editor three years later put Gooch on his way to Savannah and Milledgeville.
When someone familiar with Flannery’s stories discovers that I once visited with the O’Connors, they almost invariably ask three questions:
Q: What was Flannery like?
A: She was smart, funny and generous to young people interested in writing.
Q: How did Flannery and Regina get along?
A: There was palpable tension between them.
Q: What was its source?
A: Hell, life.
Look at the first set of photographs in Gooch’s book. First there is Flannery at two or three years of age. Then there is her father, Edward Francis O’Connor. Then there is a formal portrait of Flannery and Regina together.
Look again at Regina. She was a gorgeous woman with big, beautiful blue eyes. She was smart and industrious and came from a fine family. But after her husband died, she never remarried. Perhaps she never found a man who wanted a package deal: her and her bookish, socially awkward daughter.
Regina would eventually make her way back to her hometown of Milledgeville and take over part of the Cline family’s holdings, a working dairy farm named Sorrel Farm. She and her brother renamed the house Andalusia, and Regina assumed control. Over the years, she developed a reputation as an astute, hard-working businesswoman.
After graduation from what is now Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Flannery attended the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa for two years, then obtained an appointment to Yaddo, the artists and writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. There she met Pulitzer Prize winning poet Robert Lowell and assorted literary types before making her way to Manhattan. She lived off and on with the Fitzgerald family in Connecticut, where she could write in solitude.
In the early 1950s, Flannery’s stories were becoming widely admired, and her novel, “Wise Blood,” appeared to good reviews. She was in demand at writers’ conferences, and she was making regular appearances on college campuses, giving readings and holding seminars. She was on her way to building a literary life away from Georgia when the lupus struck and she was forced back to Milledgeville and into the house with Regina.
Neither wanted to be there, and it showed.
When our group of probably eight or ten third-year English students arrived at the family home, the O’Connors met us outside. Although Flannery was getting around then on elbow-length, aluminum crutches, she led the group to the back of the house to see her peafowl, perhaps the most famous flock of birds in Georgia history.
During the stroll, Regina was a constant presence, urging Flannery to be careful and take her time and not become fatigued. Later, as we were sitting on the porch, Regina went inside and came back with a sweater. Although Flannery insisted she didn’t want it, Regina just as strongly insisted she put it on. Eventually, Flannery snatched it around her shoulders like a teenager being embarrassed by her mother in front of friends.
Flannery mined the situation for all it was worth. A perfect example is her short story “Good Country People,” which is autobiographical almost to the point of embarrassment.
In it, Mrs. Hopewell, an optimist if ever there was one, is living on a farm with her one-legged daughter, Joy. The holder of a PhD, the supremely unhappy Joy has changed her name to Hulga. “She had arrived at it first purely on the basis of its ugly sound.”
Flannery’s first name was Mary.
“The doctors had told Mrs. Hopewell that with the best of care, Joy might see forty-five. She had a weak heart.”
Flannery was dying of lupus.
“One of (Hulga’s) major triumphs was that her mother had not been able to turn her dust into Joy … .”
“Mrs. Hopewell said that people who looked on the bright side of things would be beautiful even if they were not.”
And so it went, until Flannery went over the line. In “Greenleaf,” the protagonist is Mrs. May, who runs a dairy farm. Flannery has her gored to death by a neighbor’s bull.
When she was scolded by a friend for seemingly killing off her own mother, Flannery said, “She don’t read any of it anyway.”
For the rest of us, a good place to start is “Flannery O’Connor: The Collected Stories.”