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The Way of Distortion

A review of "Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor" by Brad Gooch

“I am one of those people who could die for his religion sooner than take a bath for it,” Flannery O’Connor wrote during the spring of 1958, after her rich Savannah cousin Katie Semmes had paid for a pilgrimage to the healing waters of Lourdes for O’Connor, who was suffering from lupus, and for her mother, Regina. O’Connor managed to pare down the original itinerary, eliminating Dublin (“I bet that’ll be real sickening”) and “Baloney Castle” (as she insisted on calling Blarney Castle in Killarney) from the original tour package. Not wishing to disappoint her ninety-year-old Cousin Semmes, O’Connor lined up early for the sunken marble pools at the famous grotto, put aside her crutches, and reluctantly submitted herself to the “medieval hygiene,” later writing to Elizabeth Bishop that “the supernatural is a fact” at Lourdes, “but it displaces nothing natural; except maybe those germs.”

Safely home at her mother’s farm of Andalusia, near Milledgeville, Georgia, O’Connor sighed, “My capacity for staying home is now 100 percent.” She had a routine physical examination to learn what further damage the lupus had done. “Quite startling to her,” as Brad Gooch writes in his brisk biography of O’Connor, was the news from her doctor of “an X ray showing that her hip had unexpectedly begun to calcify. She was now free to walk about her room without crutches.” Perhaps she shared the skepticism of Zola, whose novel Lourdes she was given on the trip, and who famously quipped that he saw a lot of abandoned crutches on the road from Lourdes but no artificial legs. Or perhaps she disliked the vulgarity of miracles on demand. In any case, it was not physical health that O’Connor was after, at Lourdes or anywhere else. “I prayed there for the novel I was working on, not for my bones, which I care about less,” she wrote.

Flannery O’Connor died in 1964, at the age of thirty-nine, of complications from the savage, literally self-consuming disease that is named for its accompanying rash, which was thought to resemble the tooth-marks of a wolf. O’Connor published two odd and meandering short novels, and wrote dazzling letters and a few subtle and self-explaining essays, many of which were given as talks late in her life. But none of these bodies of writing alone would ensure her reputation: it rests on the solid foundation of her remarkable short stories. Flannery O’Connor is one of the towering figures of the American short story. Perhaps only Poe, her favorite writer as a child, her idol Hawthorne, Stephen Crane, Henry James, Hemingway, and a handful of others belong in her company.

The short story is a genre in which, for mysterious reasons, Americans--along with Russian and Irish writers--have excelled. Perhaps it is because these are countries that, in their ragged and unsettled histories, have maintained oral storytelling traditions in tightly knit rural communities. It has often been pointed out that the American South, with its agrarian past and its experience of military defeat and occupation, has produced an unusually strong crop of short stories. At the same time, the writing of stories seems to be a talent, like a knack for chess or mathematics or lyric poetry, that lives and dies with youth. In the years before her death, O’Connor felt the well running dry; she wrote no new stories in 1962. “I’ve been writing eighteen years and I’ve reached the point where I can’t do again what I know I can do well,” she lamented, “and the larger things that I need to do now, I doubt my capacity for doing.”

Mary Flannery O’Connor was born in 1925 into a prosperous Georgia family. Her mother’s Cline relatives owned houses in Savannah and in Milledgeville, the old state capital in the middle of the state that Sherman occupied in his famous march to the sea, but which was best known during O’Connor’s life for its mental hospital. Although the family’s Catholic origins set it slightly apart in Georgia white society, it had the usual memories of Civil War officers and other Gone With the Wind trappings. “I sure am sick of the Civil War,” O’Connor once complained. Her hilarious “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” with its sardonic account of a fake Confederate general at the “preemy” of the film, is a vigorous attempt to put an end to any lingering nostalgia for the Lost Cause. Introduced at the premiere as General Tennessee Flintrock Sash of the Confederacy, George Poker Sash “had not actually been a general in that war. He had probably been a foot soldier; he didn’t remember what he had been; in fact, he didn’t remember that war at all.”

O’Connor grew up as the “only child living in a houseful of adults.” Her father, Edward O’Connor, was a good-natured real-estate agent and American Legion spokesman with a “touch of poetic inwardness,” according to Gooch, who doted on his daughter and tried to provide for his formidable wife the comfortable circumstances she was used to. He saw his finances devastated during the Depression, as the family moved from a comfortable townhouse in Savannah, next door to Cousin Semmes, to a cookie-cutter rental in a suburb of Atlanta where he thought prospects might be better. The last line of O’Connor’s great story “The Artificial Nigger,” about the misadventures of a country boy and his grandfather in interracial Atlanta, pretty much sums up her lasting feelings for the city: “I’m glad I’ve went once, but I’ll never go back again!”

For the first twenty years of her life, O’Connor managed to resist pretty successfully the predations of formal education. She disliked about equally the strict nuns of parochial school and the lax practitioners of “progressive” education. The Irish nuns in St. Vincent’s Grammar School for Girls in Savannah, she complained, were “competent at most to wash dishes,” and taught you “to measure your sins with a slide rule.” The nuns were not pleased that O’Connor brought snuff to school and castor-oil sandwiches to discourage other kids from sharing her lunch. When Ed O’Connor fell ill during the mid-1930s, and Flannery was no happier in parochial schools in Atlanta, mother and daughter moved to the Cline mansion in Milledgeville, while Ed visited on weekends.

O’Connor did not find the “eclectic and experimental” Peabody School in Milledgeville, the “lab school” for the Georgia State College for Women, any more congenial. “I went to a progressive highschool where one did not read if one did not wish to,” she wrote with her usual wayward spelling and attitude from Bartleby. “I did not wish to.” At Peabody High School, with its “activities” rather than classes, students could, according to O’Connor, “integrate English literature with geography, biology, home economics, basketball, or fire prevention.” She refused to participate in the Home Economics class, where the official “activity” was sewing. On examination day, when a finished outfit was required, Flannery arrived with her pet duckling “and a whole outfit of underwear and clothes, beautifully sewn to fit the duck.”

Ed O’Connor died of lupus a month after his forty-fifth birthday in 1941. The following year, Flannery entered Georgia State College for Women, a block from her house in Milledgeville. She found a niche early on as the campus cartoonist, developing her typical characters, “a short, fat girl and her tall, thin sidekick, bouncing caustic remarks off each other,” and a monogram of her initials in the shape of a chicken. When wartime WAVES in uniform--Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services--arrived on campus for military training, O’Connor found, Gooch notes, “her most reliable cartoon topic”: “There followed two years of girls butting their umbrellas along the backs of marching Waves’ legs; girls clinging to tree trunks, like cats, to escape a drilling platoon; girls sneaking to check if Waves carried gunpowder in their handbags; or using Waves for archery practice.” When O’Connor received a graduate scholarship to study journalism at the University of Iowa, she thought she might be a professional cartoonist. Interestingly, Philip Guston was on the art faculty at Iowa, one of several painters of the Abstract Expressionist generation (Franz Kline was another) who began their careers as cartoonists.

When O’Connor left home to study at Iowa, she thought she was leaving the South for good. The writing workshop, now a familiar feature of any creative writing program, was invented by Paul Engle at Iowa, and O’Connor was one of the first significant writers to benefit from its rituals of group commentary and revision. Engle’s friends were the poets and novelists of the New South--backward-looking, self-styled “Agrarians” such as Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and Andrew Lytle. These writers shared a conviction that the Old South, in its resistance to mercantile capitalism, had certain cultural traits in common with Puritan New England; and O’Connor adopted some of their heroes, including Hawthorne (whom she read for the first time at Iowa) and Poe, as her own. A young protege of Tate’s, the poet Robert Lowell, gave a reading at Iowa and encouraged O’Connor to apply for a residency at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs. During the spring of 1943, O’Connor found herself sucked into Lowell’s maniafueled campaign to rid Yaddo of communist influence. Believing that the spread of communism posed a threat to her own emerging Catholic views, she proudly referred to this shameful episode of red-baiting as “our action” at Yaddo.

O’Connor followed Lowell and his new flame, Elizabeth Hardwick, back to New York, where she met his friend Robert Fitzgerald, who had begun his landmark translation of the Odyssey. It was while O’Connor was living with the Fitzgeralds in a farmhouse in Connecticut that she received the devastating news that she had the same disease that had killed her father, and she reluctantly returned to Milledgeville--”for life, as it were,” as Henry James describes the fate of his resigned heroine in Washington Square. “By early 1953, “ Gooch notes with perhaps a touch of biographer’s disappointment, “Flannery had settled into a schedule and rhythm that remained unvaried for the rest of her life.” She found in raising peacocks and painting portraits--executed in a naive style redolent of Frida Kahlo--some of the color that she had relinquished in coming home.

The successful storyteller, like the poet, must have an utterly distinctive angle of vision and a razor-sharp stylistic edge, unmistakable from the first line laid down. Gooch makes it clear that O’Connor arrived at her peculiar temperament early on, and with the encouragement of doting parents and discerning friends such as Lowell and the Fitzgeralds, she maintained it. Even as a child, Gooch records, she was regarded as “contrary, a prankster, determined, funny, creative, and focused.” He begins his book with a wonderful prologue titled “Walking Backward”:

When Flannery O’Connor was five years old, the Pathe newsreel company dispatched a cameraman from its main offices in New York City to the backyard of the O’Connor family home in Savannah, Georgia. The event, as O’Connor wryly confessed in an essay in Holiday magazine in September 1961 ... “marked me for life.” Yet the purpose of the visit from “the New Yorker,” as she labeled him, wasn’t entirely to film her, outfitted as she was in her best double-breasted dark coat and light wool knit beret, but rather to record her buff Cochin bantam, the chicken she reputedly taught to walk backward.

Gooch notes that the buff bantam is not the only character in O’Connor’s menagerie who walks backward. Hazel Motes, the disenchanted army vet who returns to the South to wreak havoc in O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, is described as “going backwards to Bethlehem”--the prototype, Gooch suggests, for “a number of memorable O’Connor creations who decide to operate their souls in reverse.” His religious phrasing presumably means that characters such as the bigoted and self-righteous Mrs. Turpin in the late story “Revelation,” who is attacked in a doctor’s waiting room by an enraged Wellesley student, are granted some glimmer of understanding despite their reluctance to see their own failings. When the Wellesley girl whispers to Mrs. Turpin, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” Mrs. Turpin, reasonably enough, consults the pigs in her barn. “How am I a hog and me both?” she wonders.

But the bantam walking backward is also a trickster who has been taught a freakish and funny skill; and freaks and fun are features of any successful O’Connor story. Asked why Southern writers “have a penchant for writing about freaks,” O’Connor responded that “it is because we are still able to recognize one.” O’Connor’s stories do not have the willful and humorless power to shock of, say, Diane Arbus’s photographs of midgets and giants. O’Connor’s distortions are comic rather than tragic: she has to be one of the funniest of all American writers. “I am always having it pointed out to me that life in Georgia is not at all the way I picture it,” she wrote, “that escaped criminals do not roam the roads exterminating families, nor Bible salesmen prowl about looking for girls with wooden legs.”

O’Connor embraced the non-realist tradition of the “grotesque,” as she found it in Hawthorne and in contemporary Southern writers such as Faulkner and Welty. The approach of such writers will “obviously be the way of distortion,” she observed. “It’s not necessary to point out that the look of this fiction is going to be wild, that it is almost of necessity going to be violent and comic. “ Distortion is so fundamental to O’Connor’s fiction that it is tempting to see, in her early commitment to cartooning, some first crystallization of her mature vision. Her much-admired similes often have a clear link to cartoons, as in this passage from Wise Blood:

He went past long blocks of gray houses and then blocks of better, yellow houses. It began to drizzle rain and he turned on the windshield wipers; they made a great clatter like two idiots clapping in church. He went past blocks of white houses, each sitting with an ugly dog face on a square of grass.

The afterimage of dogs and clapping idiots stays with us even as the car in the rain fades from memory.

Largely missing from Gooch’s account--because largely missing from O’Connor’s life--are the usual biographical matters of love affairs, jobs, travels, and so on. “There won’t be any biographies of me,” O’Connor wrote, “because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” What passed for “dating” in O’Connor’s life tends to follow the same depressing pattern: an intense emotional attachment to a sensitive young man accompanied by unsatisfactory physical contact followed by rupture and a sense of betrayal on O’Connor’s part. It is not pleasant to read accounts of what it was like to try to kiss the oddly passive Flannery O’Connor—“a feeling of kissing a skeleton,” according to one suitor, who quickly married someone else.

Sex scenes in O’Connor’s fiction, as critics love to point out, are perfunctory and vague, as in Hazel Motes’s loss of virginity in Wise Blood:

Since the night before was the first time he had slept with any woman, he had not been very successful with Mrs. Watts. When he finished, he was like something washed ashore on her, and she had made obscene comments about him, which he remembered off and on during the day.

“She would put a man in bed with a woman,” her Iowa teacher Andrew Lytle reported, “and I would say, ‘Now, Flannery, it’s not done quite that way.’” After reading Wise Blood, a Milledgeville doctor remarked, “She don’t know a damn thing about a whore house.” But these criticisms are somewhat off the mark: for O’Connor, sex was another comic arena, not an occasion for worked-up “realistic” detail.

More interesting were her ties to women, several of whom were passionately in love with her, including someone referred to as “A” in her published letters and, after her suicide in 1998, revealed as Betty Hester, a writer from Atlanta with religious interests. Hester confessed to O’Connor that she had been kicked out of the Army for having inappropriate relations with women. O’Connor placidly replied that lesbian sex was no worse than any other sin; and she apparently rebuffed Hester’s overtures to push their relationship beyond an intimate friendship.

Gooch’s respect for O’Connor’s religious commitment leads him to a rare misstep in his discussion of Betty Hester. O’Connor had sent Hester an article about Simone Weil, the Jewish-born French philosopher who was drawn to Roman Catholicism but refused to be baptized into the Church because, among other perceived failings, of its embrace of the Hebrew Bible. (Weil thought the spirit of the New Testament at its purest, as in the Fourth Gospel, was Greek.) Weil’s spiritual hesitations, as described in the article, reminded O’Connor of Hester’s, and she wrote of her fantasy of writing a novel based on the “comical life” of Simone Weil.

According to Gooch, O’Connor sent Weil’s books to Hester and encouraged her to read them, but it is clear from the exchange of letters in The Habit of Being, edited by Sally Fitzgerald, that it was Hester who first read Weil and sent her books to O’Connor, who, while “very much obliged” to Hester for sending the books, found that “much of what she writes, naturally, is ridiculous to me.” If she had actually read Weil carefully, O’Connor would have found a far more compelling account of affliction than what she admired in the vaporous, pseudo-evolutionary speculations of the French philosopher-scientistmystic Teilhard de Chardin.

Like others before him, Gooch overestimates O’Connor’s theological sophistication. It may be that the “cycle of hours and days had a religious significance for Flannery,” as Gooch claims, amid the monotony of Milledgeville. But his hush-hush tone makes it sound as though she were a nun at her passionate devotions: “Immediately on waking, she read the prayers for Prime, prescribed for six in the morning, from her 1949 edition of A Short Breviary.” Gooch can be unintentionally funny in charting her supposed spiritual development: “She began to look beyond the apologetic Thomism of her formative years, while noting the absence of an indwelling Christ in Buber’s God as Other. “

The truth is that O’Connor liked the Catholic Church because she didn’t have to think about it. Just as she once claimed that she wanted to remain twelve forever, with none of the complications of puberty, she thought the Church was most trustworthy around the thirteenth century. When someone said at a Manhattan dinner party that the communal wafer was a powerful symbol, she said: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” She knew that postwar Protestant thinkers such as Karl Barth and Paul Tillich were more impressive than anything that contemporary Catholics could offer, but she clung to Romano Guardini and Teilhard like flimsy floats in a strong current.

Attempts to find this or that Christian idea embodied in her stories are doomed to failure, or to tedium at best. Who wants to believe that the interpretive key to her stories lies in the earnest theological musings of Jacques Maritain or Thomas Merton? She wanted to escape what she called in her essays “determinism,” the notion that “the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man.” She was all for mystery and freedom, which she thought the Church--at least the thirteenth century Church--made room for, but she found them in Hawthorne and Faulkner as well.

O’Connor’s most powerful characters are honest non-believers like Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, with his “church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified,” and the murderous Misfit, in her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” who breaks out of prison and terrorizes a family on vacation. O’Connor relishes these figures for their lack of hypocrisy, and for the linguistic richness that ensues from their liberation from respectability. (It was Weil’s refusal to embrace Catholicism that made her seem to O’Connor a plausible character for a novel.) Kafka said there is hope, but not for us. “I don’t say he wasn’t crucified,” Hazel says, “I say it wasn’t for you.”

Like something straight out of Dostoevsky, the Misfit’s cascading rants are so interesting that we are sorry when they come to an end:

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can--by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said....

He shoots the annoying grandmother three times through the chest. “She would of been a good woman,” he says deadpan, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

O’Connor’s stories seem to come from the same rich trove of nasty invention as traveling-salesman jokes, chickens and all. “Good Country People” is a joke of this kind, with a Bible-salesman seducing a Heidegger-reading girl with a wooden leg. Gooch is sorrowful that O’Connor liked racist jokes--he calls them “racial”--but some of her best stories are versions of these, as when the white Mr. Head and his grandson gaze at a dark-skinned lawn-jockey, “as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another’s victory that brought them together in their common defeat,” in an upscale white neighborhood in Atlanta. Mr. Head is surprised to hear himself say, by way of explanation, “They ain’t got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one.”

As often as not, in O’Connor, the joke is on the respectable white people anyway, as in Mrs. Turpin’s great pigsty vision in “Revelation,” that the people who “had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior” would enter Heaven last, after “whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.”

Flannery O’Connor’s most astute friends knew that her writing would last not because it was intentionally Catholic or unintentionally lesbian, New South or Old, experimental or thirteenth-century, but because she wrote so well, so distinctively, so unmistakably. She admired Hawthorne for his ability to steer a story “in the direction of poetry.” Elizabeth Bishop rightly admired O’Connor for the same thing, the way she could “cram a whole poem-idea into a sentence.” Randall Jarrell had his aspiring student-poets study these gorgeous sentences, reminiscent of Van Gogh in their confident animism amid ordinary things, from the first paragraph of “The Artificial Nigger”:

The straight chair against the wall looked stiff and attentive as if it were awaiting an order and Mr. Head’s trousers, hanging to the back of it, had an almost noble air, like the garment some great man had just flung to his servant; but the face on the moon was a grave one. It gazed across the room and out the window where it floated over the horse stall and appeared to contemplate itself with the look of a young man who sees his old age before him.

Bishop confessed that she was “green with envy” reading such things. “The writing is so damned good compared to almost anything else one reads: economical, clear, horrifying, real.”