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Jill Peláez Baumgaertner

Missing Person

We still need a biography of Flannery O'Connor.

At a conference luncheon some years ago, I sat next to Sally Fitzgerald, Flannery O'Connor's longtime friend and the editor of her collected works. O'Connor aficionados had been breathlessly awaiting the biography that Fitzgerald was purportedly writing, and so that day at the table we were eager for whatever revelations Fitzgerald was willing to divulge. There were none (it turns out there was probably also no biography, as we would discover later), but Fitzgerald was ready with hints for all of us. After a scathing review of various O'Connor critics, she turned to a well-known author sitting at the table and said, "I have your book with all of the corrections written in. If you'd like me to send it to you in exchange for a new copy, I would be happy to do so." I imagine the author never got around to arranging this exchange.

It is not too hard to conclude what Fitzgerald would have thought of Brad Gooch's new biography of O'Connor. Gooch indicates that in 1980, Fitzgerald discouraged him from even considering beginning such a project since she claimed it would be so similar to her own. She impertinently offered to hire him as an assistant should that need ever arise, however. And it would be safe to say that during Fitzgerald's lifetime, without her imprimatur no biography of O'Connor would ever have been authorized. The family and Fitzgerald jealously guarded letters and other primary sources, and Fitzgerald wanted to be sure that any picture that would emerge in any biography would be one thoroughly vetted by herself. She wanted absolute control.

Years passed, and it became clear that—despite her repeated claims to the contrary—no biography would emerge from Fitzgerald's mounds of research. In 2000, she died without finishing her project. In 2003, Jean W. Cash published Flannery O'Connor: A Life, the first biography of the author. Reviewers were generally disappointed in the work, calling it an overwhelming collection of facts that did not create a picture of a full human being. Cash made no attempt to connect the life with the work, and while she presented the events of O'Connor's life, she was unable to portray the truth of that life as if it made any difference to the work. Actually, up to now, the most effective story of O'Connor's life has been the one she herself tells in The Habit of Being, the collection of O'Connor's letters edited by Fitzgerald. In these letters one sees the full person, her musings on her work, her scathing sense of humor, her theological reflections and her clear identity as a Roman Catholic, her struggles with debilitating illness, and the rush to a premature end as the letters abruptly stop on July 28, 1964, several days before her death from lupus at age thirty-nine. In fact, many of the events described by Gooch can be found in this collection of letters, but Gooch, unlike Cash, attempts to connect at least some of the dots and ultimately to connect many of the facts of O'Connor's life with her writing.

Gooch interviewed hundreds of O'Connor's friends, family, and acquaintances, and delved into unpublished letters he discovered in libraries and private collections across the country. In addition, he had access to the recently unsealed letters of "A," who corresponded with O'Connor for several years and remained anonymous until her suicide, at which time her identity as Betty Hester was revealed. As a result of this painstaking research, Gooch is able to present quite a bit of new information about the various phases of O'Connor's short life. Some of the most fascinating tidbits come from roommates and friends during her years at the Iowa Writers' Workshop; her time at Yaddo, the artists' center in Saratoga Springs, New York; and her residence in New York and in Connecticut with the Fitzgeralds. Of particular interest is the fact that her own mother would not tell O'Connor about the diagnosis of her illness; instead, Fitzgerald told her during one of O'Connor's trips north.

This is not a literary biography in the full sense. Gooch does not delve deeply into the stories. But he is interested in finding echoes in the stories of events in O'Connor's life. For example, Gooch identifies what he considers the real-life prototype for the Bible salesman Manley Pointer from "Good Country People." O'Connor got to know Erik Langkjaer, a textbook salesman, in the early 1950s. Regina, O'Connor's mother, reported at one point that he was O'Connor's "boyfriend," and that she was heartbroken when he married someone else. In the story, Hulga-Joy, an atheistic 33-year-old PhD with a wooden leg, almost allows herself to be seduced by the young Bible salesman before he steals her wooden leg and runs away. Before he does that, he kisses her, and O'Connor writes, "The kiss, which had more pressure than feeling behind it, produced that extra surge of adrenalin in the girl that enables one to carry a packed trunk out of a burning house, but in her, the power went at once to the brain." Years later, Erik Langkjaer recalled what it was like to kiss O'Connor: "As our lips touched I had a feeling that her mouth lacked resilience, as if she had no real muscle tension in her mouth, a result being that my own lips touched her teeth rather than lips, and this gave me an unhappy feeling of a sort of memento mori, and so the kissing stopped …. I had kissed other girls, and there had been this firm response, which was totally lacking in Flannery. So I had a feeling of kissing a skeleton, and in that sense it was a shocking experience." Whether this was a more or less accurate recollection of Langkjaer's perception at the time goes unexplored, but it is clear that Gooch feels he has made a significant connection between the life and the work. It is a questionable connection, interesting from a certain angle if it is true, but is it particularly significant?

A biographer must make constant judgments about inclusion and exclusion of the details of a person's life. In spite of its many good qualities, this book has one glaring flaw, which will keep it from being the definitive O'Connor biography we have been waiting for, and it has to do with what Gooch omits in his quest for connections. O'Connor's work is at its core profoundly theological because the author, a pre-Vatican II Catholic, was an ardent believer. In story after story and in all of her letters and essays, O'Connor's foremost concern is communicating the truth of the gospel through remarkable works of the imagination. Setting out to write for a blind and deaf generation, she realized that in order to get their attention, she would have to "shout … and draw large and startling pictures," and in the process she created a strikingly original body of work undergirded by a profoundly Christian aesthetic. Her knowledge of Scripture was extensive, and her surviving library, filled with her own marginalia, reveals an active and lively theological mind. But this unmistakable reality—that O'Connor's faith was at the very core of her being—does not drive Gooch's reading of her life. One can only conclude that such an orientation is as alien to him as it has been to critics over the years who have omitted any consideration of that which was most important to her and, in fact, was her entire reason for writing. In her essay "The Fiction Writer and His Country," O'Connor writes, "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. I don't think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction." Of course some of these critics, invoking the intentional fallacy, contend that O'Connor's own pronouncements about her work are misleading and should be ignored or at the very least treated with hermeneutical suspicion. This might be a viable position if her own statements did not line up so exactly with the direction of her fiction.

Gooch does not completely ignore O'Connor's faith; he downplays it, and it becomes in his picture of O'Connor no more than an idiosyncrasy of an especially odd person—just what you would expect, in other words, from a woman of O'Connor's peculiar tastes, and, therefore, a part of her life to be pushed conveniently to the periphery in her biography. This is clearly not an accurate assessment, and it is reason enough to question Gooch's overall judgment. We look forward to the biography that O'Connor's friend William Sessions is now writing, and trust that the third attempt to capture her life will contain the whole person.

Jill Peláez Baumgaertner is professor of English and Dean of Humanities and Theological Studies at Wheaton College.

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