My first encounter with Flannery O'Connor was obligatory, an assigned story in an introductory fiction workshop. After reading "Good Country People," I paced around my studio apartment, repeating, "That bastard took her leg! Her leg!" Still, I recognized the humor and savage grace of a masterful writer. At workshop the following week, my instructor mentioned that O'Connor had studied at Iowa, and then we went about discussing the work in terms of perspective, language, character — all the basic elements of craft. But my curiosity was sufficiently piqued: Who was this woman?

The epigraph of Brad Gooch's excellent new biography articulates O'Connor's viewpoint: "As for biographies, there won't be any of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy." Yet the personal mythology of O'Connor — that of a reclusive, disabled writer and devout Roman Catholic — has only served to generate more interest in her short life.

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor addresses this mythology, including details of her illness and disability. From Gooch's careful research, we learn not only of her beloved father's death from lupus when Flannery was 15, but that her mother never revealed the nature of his illness — according to a family friend, "they didn't tell children those things." By the time Flannery was in her early 20s, fresh out of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and settled at Yaddo, the artist colony in upstate New York, she suffered from undiagnosed pain and "heaviness in her 'typing arms'," which she disclosed only to a close friend. While completing her first novel, Wise Blood, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Then, visiting Georgia over the Christmas holiday, her family physician confirmed to her mother that Flannery had lupus. In a misguided attempt to protect her, both her physician and mother initially withheld the diagnosis.

At times, however, Gooch seems reluctant to fully explore the ramifications of her sickness and resulting disability. We don't know, for example, if she harbored any resentment toward her mother or doctor as a result. Nor do we come to understand her attitude toward disability. Perhaps Gooch's reluctance stems from what Flannery herself wrote, in a letter to a friend: "My lupus has no business in literary considerations." We do learn that she was particularly upset about a Time magazine review exposing her illness to the world at large, but that seems to be the extent of Gooch's consideration.

Gooch is at his best when revealing connections between events and Flannery's fiction, such as her homecoming that Christmas, by train, which closely mirrored the plot of "The Enduring Chill." The intellectual main character, the playwright Asbury, returns home on a train from Manhattan, suffering a mysterious illness. The reactions of his family to his sickly appearance, Gooch notes, were not unlike those of Flannery's family upon her homecoming. Gooch offers further interpretation: "…this snotty young artist allows a glimpse of some of [Flannery's] own fears while experiencing her reversal of fortune…the difference is that Asbury's dread disease turns out to be undulant fever, heightened by self-dramatizing and hypochondria."

Flannery later retreated to the family dairy farm in Milledgeville, experiencing lupus flares but sticking to her daily routine of morning Mass, several hours of writing, and rest in the afternoon. She traveled and lectured when able, and led a rich interior life by corresponding with fellow writers, intellectuals, and clergy, never dulling her sharp wit and often playing up the part of Southern hillbilly.

In another telling anecdote, Gooch shows Flannery's inspiration for the title of "The Lame Shall Enter First." An old woman approached Flannery in a department store elevator and blessed her. Flannery wrote, in a letter to a friend, that the woman

grabbed my arm and whispered (very loud) in my ear, "Remember what they said to John at the gate, darling!" It was not my floor but I got off and I suppose the old lady was astounded how quick I could get away on crutches. I have a one-legged friend and I asked her what they said to John at the gate. She said she reckoned they said, "The lame shall enter first." This may be because the lame will be able to knock everybody else aside with their crutches. (339)

In the story, Flannery weaves a complex tale about a liberal social worker, his son, and a delinquent teen named Rufus Johnson, born with a club foot. As always, her characters defy easy categorization, her attitudes toward them the result of her Roman Catholicism rather than any perspective on disability.

Perhaps the most remarkable passages of the biography are revealed in its final chapters. Flannery continued to write even as her health deteriorated, saving "twenty-two hours a day to resting up for writing." A consummate artist to the end, she revised "Judgment Day" after receiving last rites. She left an outstanding body of work, perhaps because she "spent much of her adult life looking down the barrel of the Misfit's shotgun." It's my sincere hope, upon perusing this definitive biography, that readers and writers will return to her marvelous fiction.

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Copyright (c) 2010 Kodi Scheer

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