FEATURED: FLANNERY by Brad Gooch [Vol. 2, #10]

March 6, 2009

 

Far Beyond the House and Chicken Yard

A Review of
Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor.
by Brad Gooch.

By Chris Smith.

 

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor.
Brad Gooch.

Hardcover: Little, Brown and Co., 2009.
Buy now from:
[ Doulos Christou Books $24 ] [ Amazon ]

 

A recent viral internet post has declared Flannery O’Connor among its list of “Stuff Christian Hipsters Like.”  While I can understand why such Christian Hipsters would be attracted to her dark, grotesque stories of sin and redemption, I am more convinced than ever – after reading Flannery, Brad Gooch’s authoritative new biography – that there is little in Flannery herself that such trendy folks would find “hip.”  A sheltered, southern woman from an aristocratic family, with “medieval” sensibilities and a cultural racism (334) befitting her situation in mid-twentieth century Georgia, she hardly fits the bill.  Gooch, however, spins an engaging narrative that is sure to draw in all its readers –   hipsters or not.

            The product of Gooch’s lifelong “infatuation” with Ms. O’Connor’s work and five years of research and writing, Flannery contradicts O’Connor’s opinion that a compelling biography of her life would never be written “because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.”  Gooch’s framework is the standard story of O’Connor’s life, developed largely from her autobiography-in-letters, The Habit of Being.  However, there are some parts of her story, like her brief and mildly romantic relationship with the Danish book salesman Erik Langkjaer, that are fleshed out in more detail here for the first time.  Readers who are deeply familiar with O’Connor’s stories will appreciate the way in which Gooch connects characters and circumstances in her writings to the similar people and experiences in her life from which she drew inspiration.  Gooch emphasizes that all of her stories were deeply rooted in the culture of Georgia within which she spent the vast majority of her short life.  Although her depiction of a place and its local culture is not as systematic as, say, that of Wendell Berry’s Port William, the particularity of place in her works is a theme that is often overlooked.

            Another striking aspect of her life that emerges in Gooch’s biography is how distinctively Christian, and specifically Roman Catholic, her life was.  Her Catholicism is hardly a secret, but what Gooch draws out is the great extent to which her life was ordered and formed by her faith.  Up until the last year of her life, she would daily attend the 7AM morning mass in her hometown of Milledgeville.  Even when she lived away from her home – e.g. at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa or the Yaddo artist colony in upstate New York – she rigidly attended mass in the local parish. 

Her characterization of her self as medieval, and the prevailing influence of Thomist philosophy on her life were undoubtedly, as Gooch notes, products of her passion for a life ordered at every turn by the way of Christ and the tradition of the Church.  Similarly, one of the most compelling facets of Flannery’s personality that is prominent in Gooch’s biography – and I suspect, one that would appeal to Christian hipsters – was her commitment to her values, however anti-social or counter-cultural they might be.  As a result of her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and at Yaddo, she had many friends who were writers and artists living bohemian lifestyles.  However, she never seemed to be swayed much by such self-indulgences and preferred rather to order her life around the disciplines of the Church and writing.

            Christians – of the hipster variety and otherwise – will also appreciate the ways that Gooch draws out Flannery’s relations to and interactions with the works of significant Christian thinkers of the twentieth century, including Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Day, Jacques Maritain, Walker Percy and especially in the last years of her life, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  She seemingly recommended Teilhard’s work to most if not all of her friends, especially those of the Roman Catholic faith.  She was especially drawn to the larger prophetic vision of Teilhard and this vision of convergence would play a vital role in her story “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” the title of which she borrowed verbatim from Teilhard.

            The power of Gooch’s work is not in the novelty of his material, but rather in his poignant storytelling and in his clear depiction of her works emerging naturally out of her life,  and particularly her Christian faith.  While there is probably a grain of truth in some other reviewers complaints about the length of Flannery, Gooch even when providing deep levels of detail, never seems to get bogged down there, and this narrative flow contributes to the readability of the book.   He shows us that, despite her protestations to be contrary, she led a life much more robust than the confines prescribed by the “house and the chicken yard.”  This robustness was due in large part to her immersion in the tradition of the Church.  The story of Flannery O’Connor’s life, particularly as portrayed in Gooch’s new book, is one in which we would do well to attune ourselves.