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The habit of seeing

Flannery O'Connor's brief life and slim output were nonetheless marked by piercing powers of observation

By Floyd Skloot
March 1, 2009
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In 1964, at the age of 39, Flannery O'Connor died from complications of lupus. She had lived with this autoimmune disease for 14 years, primarily confined to her mother's farm, Andalusia, in Milledgeville, Ga. At the time of her death, O'Connor had published only three books: the brief novels "Wise Blood" (1952) and "The Violent Bear It Away" (1960), and a collection of 10 short stories, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories" (1955). She had also completed an additional collection of nine stories, "Everything That Rises Must Converge," which appeared posthumously in 1965.

So O'Connor's enduring reputation as one of America's finest fiction writers rests on just a pair of novels totaling fewer than 500 pages combined, and 19 stories. Her collected works - including correspondence, occasional prose, and a few previously uncollected stories - were canonized in a 1988 volume from the Library of America.

The mysterious power of her writing, the harsh suffering of her life, the way art and life merge - O'Connor's story exerts an ongoing interest for people interested in literary endeavor. Although numerous academic studies of O'Connor have been published, most have focused on her as a Catholic or a Southern Gothic writer. Readers have had to wait a long time for this first major biography, "Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor," by Brad Gooch.

There are several reasons for this. O'Connor's close friend and editor, Sally Fitzgerald, had been compiling material for more than three decades and intended to write a biography, but she died in 2000 before finishing her manuscript. Besides, O'Connor's own widely read, richly detailed 624-page volume of letters, "The Habit of Being" (1979), amounted to an autobiography and, since her activities were so limited by illness, there seemed little left to add. Unless some sort of secret remained to be uncovered. There was certainly speculation about the never-married O'Connor's love life and sexuality, speculation fueled by the absence of romantic intimacy in her work and the existence of numerous female correspondents with whom she seemed quite close, including one known mysteriously throughout O'Connor's letters only as "A."

Other than confirming that "A" was a woman named Betty Hester, Gooch discloses no secrets; nothing sensational is exposed. Devout, withdrawn, an outsider both by nature and circumstance, O'Connor did not lead a life of action or physical engagement with the world. She did once kiss a man in the backseat of a car, after a long period of friendship and correspondence, but he married someone else. She did travel abroad once, near the end of her life, for a pilgrimage to Lourdes paid for by her family and accompanied by a group of Milledgeville women. For those who turn to literary biography for salacious details, "Flannery" will disappoint. It is the biography of someone who had very little chance to live in the conventional sense, to experience events.

Most of the best, most riveting, or enlightening statements in the book are from O'Connor's own, familiar letters, and the essential facts remain the familiar ones: the terse arc of her quiet life; her deep "thirteenth century" Catholic faith; her struggles as illness eroded mobility and endurance; her humor and capacity for friendship. Gooch, whose previous biography was of the poet Frank O'Hara, is also challenged by his subject's circumspection. 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.

What Gooch makes clear is that O'Connor was a world-class observer. It is astonishing to realize how much she made out of so little worldly exposure. For characters and situations in her work, she made rich use of her limited interactions: the people and life on the farm, and those she met during her brief pre-illness time at the Iowa Writers' Workshop or at or the famous Yaddo artists' colony, or in New York, where she spent a few months writing. Her bracing mixture of insight and tart expression yielded this comment about living among artists, for example: "After a few weeks at Yaddo, you long to talk to an insurance salesman, dogcatcher, bricklayer - anybody who isn't talking about Form or sleeping pills." Gooch is wise to let O'Connor speak for herself throughout "Flannery."

The story Gooch tells is amply shaded and evocatively detailed. Scholarly in its approach, informal in its writing, "Flannery" combines material gained from personal interviews with people who knew O'Connor, insightful readings of her work, and visits to the places where she spent her time. 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 is the author of the memoirs "In the Shadow of Memory" and "The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer's Life."

FLANNERY: A Life of Flannery O'Connor By Brad Gooch

Little, Brown, 448 pp., illustrated, $30

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