“What kept me a skeptic in college was precisely my Christian faith,” author Flannery O’Connor confided to a young college student 15 years after she had finished college.
While some students “lose” their religious faith when they take a modern philosophy course in college, O’Connor went deeper into Catholicism. O’Connor’s classmates found it entertaining.
“We would run across campus, sometimes trying to hide our pajamas under our raincoats, to get to class. Flannery was always there bright and ready to argue with the professor,” recalled Helen Matthews Lewis, a classmate of O’Connor at Georgia State College for Women.
Even as a college senior, O’Connor was able to go to the blackboard and diagram the differences between St. Thomas Aquinas and modernism.
It is just one of the many details about O’Connor’s life collected by Brad Gooch in his new biography, “Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor” (Little, Brown and Company, $30).
“I was surprised at how early in life O’Connor had begun to take her faith seriously. She was a serious writer and a serious Catholic from very early on,” Gooch, an English professor at William Patterson University in New Jersey, told Our Sunday Visitor.
In a sense, O’Connor has two audiences. There are fans of her writing who see her as a major figure in 20th-century American literature, and there are those who appreciate her fidelity to Catholicism and see her as a future saint or doctor of the Church.
Neither group is exclusive, of course. In fact, it makes her that much more of a compelling figure. The challenge for a biographer is how to satisfy both sets of O’Connor admirers and compete for a reader’s time with the 70 other book-length studies of her and 195 doctoral dissertations.
“I tried to present her life of faith the way she presented it,” Gooch said. “She didn’t want to marginalize that aspect of her life, and neither did I.”
For the lack of a better term, O’Connor is sometimes described as a “literary nun” because she was devout, well educated in her faith, remained single and lived on the family farm in Milledgeville, Ga., not in New York City.
Gooch devotes about 25 percent of “Flannery” to O’Connor’s childhood, the Catholic family, community and schools in which she received her earliest formation.
O’Connor was born Mary Flannery O’Connor on March 25, 1925, in Savannah, Ga. She was named Mary because she was born on the feast of the Annunciation.
O’Connor had enough contact with nuns in school to be able to discern that her vocation was not to the religious life but as a layperson and artist.
“For her, writing was a craft and a spiritual vocation. She believed the writer was responsible for making the best story that she could make. In doing so, she was able to match piety with literary excellence,” Gooch said.
It was an idea she got from reading Jacques Maritain’s “Art and Scholasticism.” Maritain was among the greatest scholars of the 20th century on the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. This influential, but difficult, essay was Maritain’s attempt to apply the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas to art.
“It’s a very liberating concept. It’s much easier to draw evil characters. It’s difficult to write about love and compassion without it being dead on the page,” Gooch said. “She was able to have both in her stories.”
O’Connor also understood that the modern reader needed to be shocked to recognize spiritual themes. Subtlety just would not do in an overstimulated culture, which explains why many of her stories are filled with freaks and violence. Main characters blind themselves, get mauled by a bull, and whole families are murdered in cold blood.
When the Misfit kills the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and says, “she would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life,” the result is not just shock or black humor. The reader sees the grandmother receive grace right before she dies. The grandmother doesn’t recognize grace until she is staring down the barrel of a gun.
Gooch doesn’t attempt to explain O’Connor’s fiction by tracing parallels in her personal life, but he does point out places where her life and art overlap.
When she was diagnosed with lupus at 26, O’Connor had to re-evaluate her expectations for her life. Her father had died within three years of being diagnosed with the disease, so she really wasn’t sure how much time she had left.
“O’Connor said she was the Prodigal Daughter. She left Georgia with the intention of staying away, but had to return because of illness,” Gooch said.
“I have never been anywhere but sick. In a sense, sickness is a place more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow,” O’Connor once said.
She did travel to Europe for a few weeks, stopping in Lourdes, France.
“I prayed there for the novel I was working on, not for my bones, which I care less about,” O’Connor recalled about the trip.
“I find her inspirational in being so disciplined in her work. She was working on her last story on her deathbed, after receiving last rites,” Gooch said.
Lupus, an immune system disorder that can affect multiple organs, imposes severe physical limitations on the life of its victims. O’Connor accepted her limitations and reached out to the world from her sickbed. She wrote three letters a day and would apparently write back to anyone who wrote to her. Some of her letters were collected and edited by her friend Sally Fitzgerald and published as “The Habit of Being.”
Eventually, many of her pen pals would travel to Milledgeville to see her. She would sit on the front porch and talk about religion, literature and her collection of birds — mainly peacocks — running through the yard.
Hard work and grace
Still, O’Connor scholars want to know how O’Connor was able to be so creative. Unfortunately, no amount of analysis of what she read, who she knew and what they talked about answers that question. Gooch doesn’t speculate. He doesn’t need to.
It is pretty obvious that O’Connor received special graces from God and then worked hard to put them to good use. She was aware of this. Why else would she keep carbon copies of all her letters?
Consider the following stroke of good fortune. The modern philosophy professor that she argues with as an undergrad ends up getting her a scholarship for graduate school at the University of Iowa. Initially, O’Connor was a newspaper cartoonist and wanted to pursue journalism, but when she got to Iowa she transferred into the creative-writing program — known as the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. It was one of the first masters of fine arts (MFA) programs in the country. The director, Paul Engle, would bring in the best literary minds of the day — John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren. All of these writers/critics affirmed her talent.
Then she met poet Robert Lowell — a convert to Catholicism, but lapsed at the time. Lowell and O’Connor were both staying at Yaddo, an artist’s colony in upstate New York. Lowell went beyond merely affirming her talent; he became her advocate.
In the span of a few days, Lowell introduced her to publisher Robert Giroux, and Robert and Sally Fitzgerald. All three were Catholics and would become close colleagues and lifelong friends. Giroux would be her lifelong publisher. He had recently had a surprise Catholic best-seller with Thomas Merton’s “The Seven-Storey Mountain.”
Unfortunately, Lowell is known more for his bouts of mental illness than his poems. During their friendship, Lowell returned to the Church, and during bouts of mania he would canonize O’Connor, which made her uncomfortable.
But it was Lowell who brought her to the dinner party of Mary McCarthy and Bowden Broadwater where she uttered her often-quoted defense of the Eucharist, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”
When Lowell heard that O’Connor died, he wrote to Elizabeth Bishop, “in a blunt, disdainful yet somehow very unpretentious and modest way, I think she knew how good she was.”
Or more precisely, O’Connor knew how good God had been to her.
This article originally appeared in Our Sunday Visitor on April 15, 2009.