The Faith of Flannery O’Connor

Brad Gooch sheds little light on it in an otherwise laudable biography.

Brad Gooch opens his new biography of Flannery O’Connor with a quote from his subject about biographies: “As for biographies, there won’t be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” For almost 45 years after O’Connor’s death, it looked like the revered Southern writer’s prediction would prove true. Although her place in American fiction has solidified and become more prominent with each decade—Gooch notes that as of 2008, her work has been the subject of almost 200 doctoral dissertations and 70 books—a thorough and authoritative biography of O’Connor had never been published.

In Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, Gooch has successfully refuted O’Connor’s self-deprecating appraisal of her life’s scope and the interest it would hold for readers. Far from limited to “the house and the chicken yard,” O’Connor’s life is shown in Gooch’s pages to have been one of constant, lively engagement with great ideas and the thinkers of her day. Putting to rest the notion that O’Connor was some sort of recluse or hermit— living as she did on her farm in rural Georgia during her most productive literary years—Gooch details the author’s many deep friendships, most of which were initiated and strengthened through her extensive correspondence, as well as the numerous lectures she gave around the country in the last years of her life, even as her physical health was rapidly deteriorating with the effects of hereditary lupus.

Gooch paints a detailed portrait of the world his subject inhabited, capturing the mundane particulars that furnished her imagination and the day-to-day minutiae that fueled her creativity. For the most part, he avoids the trap of cataloguing every miniscule fact about O’Connor that could possibly be extracted from surviving family and friends, and in general he does not hold up particular people, places, or events as the irrefutable “inspiration” for specific aspects of O’Connor’s fiction (although he does indulge in a bit of this kind of speculation, usually with plausible, if not thoroughly convincing, evidence, especially in the chapters detailing his subject’s childhood).

Neither does Gooch downplay or undercut the influence O’Connor’s Catholic faith had on her two novels and many short stories. In this way his work departs sharply from much of the critical and academic att ention O’Connor’s fi ction received, both during her lifetime and in the decades since her death in 1964. In addition to describing the details of O’Connor’s Catholic education and formation as well as the fervor of her adult faith, Gooch emphasizes the care the author herself took to explain her literary project, which she saw as inextricably linked to her sacramental Catholic worldview.

Gooch avoids the condescension and outright derision many of O’Connor’s contemporaries expressed in their attempts to distance the author’s Catholic faith from her fiction. He takes the author at her word when she declares, “I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic.” But while he respects the sincerity of her faith and details carefully the extent to which it infl uenced her intellectual life—Gooch provides extensive information on the breadth of O’Connor’s theological reading, her fervent admiration for the work of Teilhard de Chardin, and her philosophical indebtedness to Thomas Aquinas—the biographer never fully succeeds in showing his readers how his subject’s faith permeated and animated the fictional landscapes she created.

O’Connor’s faith is shown by turns to have been the cultural milieu in which she was raised, an abiding source of strength and encouragement as she began to spread her literary wings, and the intellectual stimulation she said she required to make her writing “bolder.” Gooch almost seems to consider her faith to be not unlike her penchant for rare and interesting birds; a sort of idiosyncratic quirk of a unique and formidable literary personality, without which O’Connor could never have been the writer she was.

As Gooch notes, O’Connor was very much influenced by the work of the French Thomist Jacques Maritain, whose book Art and Scholasticism became the foundation for much of her own writing on the nature of art and the Christian artist in particular. “Do not make the absurd att empt to sever in yourself the artist and the Christian,” Maritain admonished in his book. In her lecture “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” O’Connor would express the same sentiment: “If the writer is successful as an artist, his moral judgment will coincide with his dramatic judgment. It will be inseparable from the very act of seeing.” While her more secular friends often sought to explain away or ignore the spiritual underpinnings of O’Connor’s fiction— “The writing is one thing and the thinking and speeches are another,” her friend and correspondent Maryat Lee wrote dismissively of O’Connor’s explanations of her work—O’Connor herself was adamant that “I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that.”

Statements such as this are perfect jumping-off points for serious discussions of the sacramental nature of O’Connor’s fiction, of her powerful use of the grotesque and the freakish as demonstrations of transcendent reality in the material world. But Gooch is content to let these statements stand as the sole explanations of this very critical element of O’Connor’s work. He does not deny their importance, but he does not dwell on them or use discussions of particular stories and novels to demonstrate the profound influence of this sacramental, and deeply Catholic, vision.

Unfortunately, Gooch spends too little time discussing what O’Connor’s fiction was in relation to her faith, spending more time telling his readers what it was not—moralizing, didactic explications of the ins and outs of Catholic doctrine. It is not inappropriate to treat this aspect of O’Connor’s fiction thoroughly; she herself strongly criticized the sentimental proselytizing at the heart of most of what passed for “Catholic fiction” in her day. But just as O’Connor did not see her fiction as an opportunity for thinly-veiled catechesis, neither did she view it as her weapon in a personal crusade against vapid religious art.

The freedom to be a true artist while remaining a faithful Catholic was essential to O’Connor’s literary endeavors, and Gooch’s most successful discussions of O’Connor’s stories and novels are clear demonstrations of this fact. But his portrait of the artist ultimately is superfi cial. We never really see the way in which Catholicism animated O’Connor’s fiction; we’re just told that it never hindered it.

Gooch succeeds in bringing much of O’Connor’s life and personality into sharper focus than it ever has been before; no one who reads his book will mistake O’Connor for a reclusive “lady author” or a schoolmarmish spinster pedaling regional fi ction. He captures skillfully the humor, passion, and conviction with which O’Connor’s work is imbued and grounds these qualities in her rich, if brief, life. Readers curious about the enigmatic author whose short career yielded such strange yet powerful stories will find Gooch’s book a rewarding and interesting read.

But for all the care Gooch takes to paint a portrait of O’Connor and the world she inhabited, and despite the obvious respect with which he treats her Catholic faith, readers seeking to glean insight into the spiritual, sacramental grounding of O’Connor’s fiction will be disappointed in this biography. While he articulates deftly O’Connor’s own descriptions of the Catholic nature of her fiction and quotes generously from her essays and lectures on the subject, Gooch’s analysis of the theological underpinnings of the author’s work is too often limited to a nod to the “spiritual” elements of a particular story, or a description of the religious practice that inspired the author as she crafted a specific plot point or character.

Gooch shows that O’Connor possessed one of the most original and powerful literary imaginations of the 20th century, but his analysis of her fiction—in particular, its spiritual foundations— is ultimately unsuccessful.


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About Catherine Harmon 578 Articles
Catherine Harmon works in the marketing department for Ignatius Press.