Category: Archive

By God’s grace

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Thus began the literary career of one of the best writers of American fiction. Brad Gooch, the author of the new biography, does well to mine O’Connor’s life of anecdotes, like this, that illuminate so much about one of our most celebrated and enigmatic writers. He begins with a meticulous account of O’Connor’s youth, from her public debut at the age of five in a newsreel showcasing a chicken she had taught to walk backward, to her satiric aspirations as a college cartoonist. These early scenes–more than her education at Iowa, the cast of contemporaries, the writers’ retreats and prizes–reveal O’Connor. She is defined more by her resistance to these influences than by her acceptance of them. In recognizing this, Gooch successfully explores the engine that drove this mysterious, merciless writer who worked tirelessly on her fiction as if her life depended on it.
I had the pleasure of teaching O’Connor’s stories a few years ago to a classroom of University of Notre Dame seniors. After introducing her as a Roman Catholic writer whose stated purpose was the reveal the mystery of God’s grace in everyday life, they stared at me, horrified, as if I had just blinded myself with lye to make a point. They’d just read O’Connor’s most famous story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” in which an entire family is shot on the side of the road by an escaped convict. “She’d have been a good woman,” the convict says of the genteel southern grandma, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her everyday of her life.” I understood my students’ confusion. The religious literature to which I, too, was accustomed highlighted the uplift of faith, while O’Connor’s was preoccupied with the human doubt, hypocrisy, and violence that only rains more forgiving grace down onto her characters-driving them to further extremes. In this way, O’Connor wrote of the struggle between non-belief and conscience: “If you don’t hunt it down and kill it,” she wrote of the conscience in her first novel, “it’ll hunt you down and kill you.” This lesson very much defines the fierce theology that structured O’Connor’s fragile life, and her fiction.
In 1951, at the age of 25, before publishing a single book, O’Connor, doctors determined, was dying of lupus, which had killed her father a decade earlier. An elusive disease, lupus is an immune disorder that causes the body to attack its own connective tissue. She returned to Georgia to live with her mother, Regina, a woman on whom O’Connor patterned many of her characters, before killing them off in fantastic ways. Remarkably, these portrayals are not wholly spiteful. As one of her best friends explained, Flannery made her characters so ugly because she loved them.
O’Connor published her first novel in 1952, working tirelessly on the family farm in Georgia with little company outside of her peacocks. She dedicated the book, the allegorical “Wise Blood” to Regina. In it, a war veteran, Haze Motes, begins a church called “The Church Without Christ.” In his search for a new prophet, all he finds is a shrunken mummified body, stolen from a museum, wrapped in brown paper, and left out in the rain. Realizing he cannot escape God’s grace, Motes rejects the soggy corpse, blinds himself with lye and dies in a ditch. We can only guess what Regina thought of this book. She once wondered aloud to a dinner guest why her daughter didn’t write about “nice people.” O’Connor’s relationship with her mother, as Gooch respectfully recognizes, is one of the defining mysteries of her life that cannot be dissected. A respect for mystery that O’Connor would have appreciated.
Gooch’s effort is commendable not only for its vision, execution and detail, but also for its creative touches. Much like a novelist, he is able to take small, insignificant details and make them contribute to his portrait. For example, he gives the one-word weather report from the local paper on the day of O’Connnor’s birth: unsettled. “Flannery” is full of such associations, which add a disturbing deterministic aspect, though sometimes these narrative flourishes sacrifice meaning. He writes, near the end, “Flannery had spent her life making literary chickens walk backward.” I really wanted this sentence to make sense but, really, it doesn’t. These missteps, however, are forgivable. Gooch is clearly passionate about his subject, without deifying. He presents O’Connor’s flaws and contradictions with the relish and love she’d bestow on her own characters.
O’Connor’s fiction is filled with guns, violence, amputees, false prophets, and doomed children. She wrote through the slow deterioration of her own body, through operations, cortisone mania, and blood transfusions, relying more and more on crutches to walk, and was eventually confined to her bed, from where she rested twenty two hours a day so she could write for two hours. She published two novels and two short story collections and died in 1964 at the height of her powers. She was 39. When asked why Southern writers always showcase freaks, she replied, “Because we are still able to recognize one.” But freakishness is not assigned spitefully in her fiction; it is a sign of humanity and aspiration. And the point of her stories is not to accuse. As evidenced by her famous, warped self-portrait, painted after long illness and by her own versions of herself in her stories, she saw herself as a freak, too. The mean, the deceitful, the ill, the maimed and the criminal are all haunted by God’s grace. And if that’s hard to swallow, O’Connor sweetened the macabre with a wicked humor matched in American fiction only by Mark Twain. She was well-aware that humor is another mystery of God’s grace, revealed.

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