Flannery O’Connor’s literary legacy was entrusted to her friends Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, and when the young writer Brad Gooch wrote Sally Fitzgerald about doing a biography on Flannery O’Connor, she responded politely that it was probably not a good idea, as she was writing a biography on O’Connor as well and there would be considerable overlap in their material. Gooch waited and waited for this biography to appear, but it never happened, and Sally Fitzgerald died in 2000, leaving behind an unfinished manuscript. So Gooch–a name I think O’Connor would appreciate–applied himself to the project, and the result is the first definitive biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor.
It is strange to have the nuts and bolts of Flannery O’Connor’s existence laid out in print after what I have envisioned her to be like, based on snippets I have heard throughout my life. This is my Flannery: A private old maid who did not drink and lived with her mother in Georgia. A woman obsessed with peacocks, who didn’t care what anybody thought of her, and often sewed clothes for her birds. A religious woman who used her powerful imagination to show God in the modern world, using freaks and unspeakable violence as her tools. An author so shy that she couldn’t bear to read her stories aloud while at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
This is Gooch’s Flannery: A woman who was silent when she nothing to say, but could be gregarious when surrounded by like minds. She planned a writer’s life on the East Coast until she became sick with lupus and had to return home to Georgia, where her mother could take of her. She was always a guy’s best gal pal and had her heart broken a few times. A woman who was the product of her times and collected racist jokes. She went to eat with her mother daily at the same restaurant, sitting at the same table, and her favorite dinner was fried shrimp. She sewed clothes for one of her chickens during college to avoid a hideous home economics project, where she was required to sew an outfit for herself. She liked rum. Her accent was so thick–they called her Flannel Mouth–that somebody else would have to read her stories out loud so they intelligible to other students. Her environment was narrow in Milledgeville, Georgia, and she used every scrap of her daily life in her her stories. (Her mother is set down true to life in "Greenleaf." The waiting room scene in "Judgment Day" comes from her own experiences in the doctor’s office.) She liked to watch TV and was a sports fan, especially enjoying football and stock car races.
Here’s my favorite bit from Gooch’s biography: Flannery hated photographs of herself so much (she said she had a "watermelon face") that she wanted her self-portrait with a peacock used for her author’s photo. Sadly, Harcourt wouldn’t cooperate with this request.
Flannery stripped of her mystique is still an admirable figure for me. Now, though, rather than imagining her as a prophet, I see her for what she really was: a writer, and a writer who worked damned hard at her craft, endlessly revising and polishing the gems that we have today.