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A Life of Flannery O'Connor
By Brad Gooch
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Praise for Flannery:
“Flannery O’Connor, one of the best American writers of short fiction, has found her ideal biographer in Brad Gooch. With elegance and fairness, Gooch deals with the sensitive areas of race and religion in O’Connor’s life. He also takes us back to those heady days after the war when O’Connor studied creative writing at Iowa. There is much that is new in this book, but, more important, everything is presented in a strong, clear light.”-Edmund White
“This splendid biography gives us no saint or martyr but the story of a gifted and complicated woman, bent on making the best of the difficult hand fate has dealt her, whether it is with grit and humor or with an abiding desire to make palpable to readers the terrible mystery of God’s grace.”-Frances Kiernan, author of Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy
“A good biographer is hard to find. Brad Gooch is not merely good-he is extraordinary. Blessed with the eye and ear of a novelist, he has composed the life that admirers of the fierce and hilarious Georgia genius have long been hoping for.”-Joel Conarroe, President Emeritus, John Simon Guggenheim Foundation
Copyright © 2009 by Brad Gooch
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: February 2009
Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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The author wishes to thank the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Furthermore, a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund, for their support during the writing of this book. Grateful acknowledgment is made to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for permission to reprint excerpts from Flannery O'Connor's work.
Copyright acknowledgments appear here and constitute a continuation of the copyright page.
Also by Brad Gooch
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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, almost three decades later, "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.
How a Yankee photographer wound up for a memorable half day at the bottom of the O'Connors' steep back stairs isn't entirely clear. One rumor ascribes the connections of Katie Semmes, a well-to-do dowager cousin who lived in the grander house next door, and whose tall windows looked down on the yard where the filming took place. According to a girlhood playmate of O'Connor's, "Miss Katie brought them down here to do it." O'Connor simply credits an item on her celebrity chicken in the local papers: "Her fame had spread through the press and by the time she reached the attention of Pathé News, I suppose there was nowhere left for her to go — forward or backward. Shortly after that she died, as now seems fitting."
The shoot did not go smoothly. O'Connor was certainly prepared. Whenever the cumbersome camera on its tripod began to grind, she adopted a fierce, dignified expression — the one she used if she felt she was being watched. The problem was her uncooperative tan "frizzled" chicken, with its backward-growing feathers, spending hours scratching obliviously in the yard while the cameraman fidgeted. Finally, as the afternoon wore on, the bird began to back up. O'Connor, a natural mimic, jumped next to her and began to walk backward as well. The operator stuck his head under his tent. A few seconds later, the hen hit a bush and abruptly sat down. Exasperated, "the Pathé man" gathered his equipment and made a quick exit, refusing even to enjoy a dish of ice cream.
O'Connor's screen debut exists in all its fragility in a Pathe film archive. The brief stretch of scratchy footage opens with a title card announcing in italic script: "Odd fowl walks backward to go forward so she can look back to see where she went." For all of four seconds, O'Connor, a self-possessed little girl, is glimpsed in glaring afternoon light, a wisp of curls peeking from beneath her cap, calmly coping with three chickens fluttering in her face. In close-up, the biggest of her bantams then jerks backward a half-dozen times on a short stretch of pavement, supporting the skeptical theory of one relative that it was merely suffering from a cognitive skip. Some obvious gimmickry aids the brief stunt: with the help of a reverse-feed technique, the chicken as well as lines of barnyard cows, mares, and ducks comically parade backward. The End.
O'Connor never had the pleasure of seeing the tandem performance on-screen. The short never came to a Savannah movie theater, though "Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse" was released as a one-minute, twenty-seven-second, vignette in March 1932, a week shy of her seventh birthday. Its cute subject matter was the sort that appealed to Depression-era audiences in other lighthearted spoofs that played on seven-to-eight-minute reels along with current events and sports news before the main feature. Among other whimsical topics treated by Pathe that year in its animal "gag reels" were Florida sportsmen feeding crackers to turtles; Boston kids showing off their pet tabby cats; a girl at the Westminster Kennel Club Exhibition in New York City producing a tiny dog out of her satchel.
While O'Connor's star turn is brief, its afterimage still flickered in her mind years later. Even though she was not a woman, or author, overly given to delving into childhood memories to unlock her identity, something about that afternoon's performance stayed with her. Certainly the obdurate refusal of her bird to be easily seduced by the ambassador from klieg-lit culture kept her giggling. But so did its pratfall, and, by association, hers. O'Connor loved to make fun of her own diminutive stature in popular culture. When a friend accused her of "celebrity" after the publication of her first book of stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, she gleefully wrote back that her fame was "a comic distinction shared with Roy Rogers's horse and Miss Watermelon of 1955."
She also enjoyed the attention. O'Connor dates her lifelong passion for raising exotic birds to the rush she at least pretended to have gotten from the noisy movie camera. "From that day with the Pathé man I began to collect chickens," she writes in "The King of the Birds," her Holiday magazine article. As a Catholic schoolgirl trying to re-create her winning formula, she began to collect other birds with freakish traits: one green eye and one orange, an overly long neck, a comb askew. She searched in vain for a one of a kind with three legs or three wings, and pondered a picture in Robert Ripley's Believe It or Not! of a rooster that survived thirty days without its head. "Apparently Pathé News never heard of any of these other chickens of mine," O'Connor writes, with a stage sigh. "It never sent another photographer."
Yet the memory did not stop there. In the fall of 1948, O'Connor was a guest at the Yaddo artists' colony in upstate New York. Now a young woman of twenty-three, a budding writer, she had settled on fiction as her vocation after several years preparing for a career as a cartoonist by designing linoleum-cut cartoons for her women's college in Milledgeville, Georgia. Her artistic signature: the initials of her name arranged to resemble a bird with beak, though she eventually dropped the "M" for Mary, simply becoming "Flannery." At the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she went for an MFA, her professors helped her win a residency in the prestigious colony for a few months. Another guest that fall was Robert Lowell, a thirty-one-year-old poet who had won a Pulitzer Prize the year before for his first book, Lord Weary's Castle.
Lowell needed no introduction, because she already knew his work. The two quickly developed a friendship based on mutual admiration; he would remain one of the rare souls for whom she felt a lifelong affection. But in her first walk-on appearance in his consciousness, in a letter Lowell writes to the poet Elizabeth Bishop on October 1, 1948, cataloging the crew he had met at dinner, O'Connor can be caught using the backward chicken as her comic calling card: "Now there are an introverted and an extroverted colored man; a boy of 23 who experiments with dope; a student of a former Kenyon class-mate of mine, who at the age of six was in a Pathe News Reel for having a chicken that walked backwards; and Malcolm Cowley, nice but a little slow."
That fall and winter at Yaddo, O'Connor was mostly holed up from breakfast until dinner in her tiny room in West House, a smaller version of the unheated main Mansion, closed to guests at the end of summer. There she worked on drafts of her first novel, Wise Blood. Lowell read and commented on the work in progress, begun in Iowa City two years earlier. The challenge of the novel was its protagonist, Haze Motes. Once she hit on his tone and stature, the novel began to cohere. In earlier drafts, he was a homesick Southern boy. By the time she finished, he was a more extreme character, a high-contrast and highly contrary prophet. The phrase O'Connor used to nail his essence is put in his landlady's head in the novel's last few pages: "She saw him going backwards to Bethlehem and she had to laugh."
It's tempting to read Haze Motes as O'Connor's backward-walking hen, baptized by fire. "Backward" is surely the word for him. "Time goes forward, it don't go backward," his landlady warns him. He's the template for a number of memorable O'Connor creations who decide to operate their souls in reverse: The Misfit, snarling about a world thrown off balance, or O. E. Parker, who gets an image of God tattooed on his back. Maybe this first instinct to draw a line connecting Motes back to her stubborn Cochin bantam, which fittingly died, struck O'Connor as right. This time around the performance would be humorous, entertaining, weird, but religious as well. Maybe she snickered as she realized what she'd done, or maybe not. Perhaps their kinship was accidental rather than planned.
Where O'Connor literally went with the backward-walking chicken is spelled out in "The King of the Birds," first published under the title "Living with a Peacock": "My quest, whatever it was actually for, ended with peacocks." As a woman living with her mother on a farm in central Georgia for the rest of her adult writing life, after being diagnosed with lupus when she was twenty-six, O'Connor reverted to her childhood passion for collecting unusual birds — a one-eyed swan, a tribe of mallard ducks, three Japanese silkie bantams, two Polish crested bantams, a pen of pheasants, and a pen of quail. Yet the high-profile birds she first ordered from an ad in a Florida Market Bulletin, at sixty-five dollars a pair, were peacocks, or as she usually called them, "peafowl."
These fantastic creatures, with tails that resembled maps of the solar system, are the birds most often associated with O'Connor. After she became a well-known author, many photographers visited, or wished to visit, her farm, Andalusia. As much as she cast her younger self as pixilated by the attention of the Pathe cameraman, as a woman she dreaded his kind. When she did allow Time magazine or one of the Atlanta papers to send a photographer, the results invariably featured her exotic birds. She wanted them to upstage her. In the most famous of these photographs, taken by Joe McTyre for the Atlanta Journal in 1962 and later used on the back cover of her collected letters, The Habit of Being, O'Connor is posed on aluminum crutches before a screen door, seemingly in dialogue with a peacock preening on the brick steps beside her.
O'Connor loved to play with patterns in her stories. The jalopy that Tom T. Shiftlet drives in "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" looks a lot like that of Haze Motes, last seen pushed over a cliff in Wise Blood. The big black valise the Bible salesman lugs in "Good Country People" might be the same one that the three little arsonists carry in "A Circle in the Fire." Most poignantly, "Judgment Day," a story O'Connor was working on during the last weeks of her life, was a retelling of her first published story, "The Geranium," remarkably closing her fictional circle. The separation between her life and her art was porous: a peacock comes walking off Andalusia onto the farm of "The Displaced Person." In "The King of the Birds," she reveals an eye for such patterns in her life as well. The emphasis is hers when she notes a line of pedigree from the unique chicken of her childhood to its artistic descendant, her unfurled peacock that will "dance forward and backward."
The girl with the expression she recalled as exhibiting "dignified ferocity," recorded in the archival footage in "Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse," is instantly recognizable to us. Her features are clearly those discerned in anecdotes about her childhood in Savannah — contrary, a prankster, determined, funny, creative, and focused. And just as her Cochin bantam morphed into a peacock — a bird observed by the old priest in "The Displaced Person" as "taking minute steps backward, his head against the spread tail" — so this clever child performer grew into the one-of-a-kind woman writer, "going backwards to Bethlehem," who freighted her acidly comic tales with moral and religious messages, running counter to so much trendy literary culture.
In the fall of 1963 Flannery O'Connor delivered her final public lecture. The occasion was the 175th anniversary celebration of Georgetown University, in Washington, DC, where she read prepared remarks through her prominent eyeglasses for about forty-five minutes from the proscenium stage of the ornate Gaston auditorium in historic Healy Hall. "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South" was the last of more than sixty such talks and readings she had given in the decade since the publication of her first novel, Wise Blood, enough for her to have confided about her "element of ham" to a friend: "I have a secret desire to rival Charles Dickens upon the stage."
Early in her speech that evening, she cast back to the beginnings of her creative life. "The things we see, hear, smell and touch affect us long before we believe anything at all," she said softly, in a flat, dry Georgia accent, while leaning on crutches. "The South impresses its image on the Southern writer from the moment he is able to distinguish one sound from another. He takes it in through his ears and hears it again in his own voice, and, by the time he is able to use his imagination for fiction, he finds that his senses respond irrevocably to a certain reality, and particularly to the sound of a certain reality. The Southern writer's greatest tie with the South is through his ear."
For O'Connor these sights and sounds had their origins in Savannah, where she was born Mary Flannery O'Connor on March 25, 1925, at St. Joseph's Hospital, and lived her first thirteen years, nearly a third of her life. The Savannah into which she was born was a classic Southern city, pungent in spring with blooming jasmine, though more sophisticated than other insular Georgia towns like Macon or Valdosta. No longer a booming nineteenth-century port, teeming with cotton brokers and shipping agents, the cosmopolitan center, with seventy-five thousand residents, still hosted a dozen or more foreign consulates; strangers with accents did not draw stares on the streets; and a cavalcade of steamers embarked daily from its harbor to ports in Germany, Britain, and Japan.
On the blustery spring day of her birth, the one-word weather forecast in the Savannah Morning News was dramatic enough: "unsettled." Savannahians awoke that morning to word of President Calvin Coolidge calling for a naval conference on the readiness of the American fleet. Most of the local talk concerned a girl evangelist from Fresno, California, packing crowds into the Municipal Auditorium with her message, "Sinner Must Be Reborn in Christ." Most auspicious for O'Connor's Irish Catholic parents, Edward and Regina, was the the date in the Roman Catholic calendar: it was the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the visit of the angel Gabriel to the infant's spiritual namesake, Mary, to announce her motherhood of Jesus.
O'Connor was born into a special corner of the life of Savannah simply by being born at St. Joseph's Hospital. The homey redbrick building, with big porches on its first and second floors, took up an entire city block at the corner of Habersham and East Taylor, just a few blocks south of the O'Connors' home. Known in the community as "old St. Joseph's," this intimate hospital, much trusted by Irish Catholics, was founded by Irish nuns, the Sisters of Mercy, who became local heroes in the summer of 1876 while caring for yellow fever victims crowded into the corridors of what was then Old Medical College. As their legacy, the founding sisters left behind, in the main entrance, a tall, stately statue of St. Joseph on a low pedestal that O'Connor's parents walked by often.
St. Joseph's was not only the hospital for the Irish Catholic community, but it was the O'Connors' family hospital, the one Cousin Katie Semmes presided over as prime benefactress. Her father, Captain John Flannery, a Confederate officer in the Jasper Greens, Savannah's Irish military corps, had parlayed his war record into success as a rich banker and a broker in the Savannah Cotton Exchange. When he died in 1910 he left all of his money, nearly a million dollars, to his only daughter, Katie, who used her inheritance to fund construction of a new adjoining east building, Flannery Memorial, in honor of Captain John and his wife, Mary Ellen Flannery. If O'Connor's parents wished to give thanks in prayer for the birth of their daughter — her name itself a memorial to Cousin Katie's mother — they stepped into the Flannery Memorial Chapel.
Named after the wife of a Civil War hero, the infant O'Connor was initiated at once into a social set haunted by the war still referred to in Savannah in the twenties and thirties as the "War Between the States" — a living memory for some, a single generation removed for others. The Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Savannah, Benjamin J. Keiley, retiring only two years before O'Connor's birth, served in the war as a Confederate drummer boy. Katie Semmes's deceased husband, Raphael Semmes, was the nephew of a famous Confederate admiral of the same name. Though O'Connor later swore, "I never was one to go over the Civil War in a big way," she grew up among a set of older women who were forever slipping on white gloves, and putting on big hats, to go off to chapter meetings of the Daughters of the Confederacy.
The Irish families using St. Joseph's Hospital had a double loyalty — to Confederate Memorial Day, and to St. Patrick's Day, with St. Patrick winning by a nose. The Irish pride parade in March just managed to overshadow the annual Confederate Day parade held each April 26. As O'Connor later wrote to a friend, "I was brought up in Savannah where there was a colony of the Over-Irish. They have the biggest St. Patrick's Day parade anywhere around and generally go nutty on the subject." She went on to exclaim incredulously that she had even heard her hometown compared to Dublin. Making up most Catholics in Savannah, the Irish were certainly a presence. In the year of her birth, two of the six city aldermen were Irish Catholics and so was the city attorney.
Yet the Irish Catholics of Savannah were given to a bunker mentality, with some justification. Catholics were expressly banned, along with rum, lawyers, and blacks, under the original Georgia Trust in 1733. While that law had long ago been overwritten, and waves of Irish immigrants arrived during the potato famines of the 1840s, an anti-Catholic law was still on the books at the time of O'Connor's birth: the Convent Inspection Bill became Georgia law in 1916. Under this weird legislation, grand juries were charged with inspecting Catholic convents, monasteries, and orphanages, to search for evidence of sexual immorality and to question all the "inmates," ensuring that they were not held involuntarily. Tom Watson, elected U.S. senator from Georgia in 1920, went so far as to accuse the bishop of Savannah of keeping "white slave pens" of missing girls.
With their ambiguous status, subdivided further into middle-class "lace curtain" and lower-class "shanty," the Irish could at least take comfort that legal segregation didn't apply to them as it did to the city's blacks. Jim Crow laws kept Savannah strictly divided by race. St. Joseph's Hospital was listed in the "White Department" rather than the "Colored" section of the Savannah City Directory. The Catholic diocese ran seven churches — four for whites, three for blacks. Growing up, O'Connor saw blacks mainly in menial roles, usually maids slipping through the back doors of distressed antebellum homes. Her cousin Patricia Persse, who remembers her own family's electricity being turned off because of unpaid bills during the Depression, recalls, as well, "We had a black cook and nursemaid who came every day for fifty years, though she didn't live with us."
Edward and Regina O'Connor brought their newborn daughter home from the hospital to Lafayette Square, the epicenter of Roman Catholic life in Savannah, socially situated in the better half of the Irish ghetto, and one of twenty-one original squares put in place on a two-and-a-half-square-mile grid in an enlightened display of city planning. Settling the town in 1733, the English governor James Edward Oglethorpe had used as his model the design of a Roman military camp. A checkerboard of squares with allusive names such as Monterey, Chippewa, and Troup, Savannah was built from an inventory of architectural styles — Federal, Edwardian, Regency, Colonial, and Victorian — its tabby and cobblestone streets lined by live oaks hung with Spanish moss; chinaberry, Japanese maple, and Southern magnolia trees; and azalea and camellia bushes.
Each of the town's squares, many a bit worn by 1925, filled with dirt, or cut by streetcar tracks, had a distinctive neighborhood feel. Lafayette Square reflected the self-sufficiency of the Irish Catholics. Opposite the O'Connors' home, on the other side of the square, was the massive white-stucco French Gothic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, occupying a full city block. Between the cathedral and their house was St. Vincent's Grammar School for Girls and, diagonally opposite St. Vincent's, its companion, Marist Brothers School for Boys. "I remember the square as a barren, sandy pile crawling with boys playing sports," says an ex-Marist pupil, Dan O'Leary. A Presbyterian girl who lived across the street from the O'Connors has remarked, "It was so Catholic that I felt a bit like a fish out of water." During the school year, hundreds of Catholic children (together the schools enrolled about seven hundred students) marched back and forth across the square.
Built in 1856 of Savannah gray bricks, covered in light tan stucco, the O'Connors' three-story Georgian row house, its front door topped with a ruby etched-glass transom, was still joined, in 1925, with 209 East Charlton Street. Its twin, also a twenty-footer, was not torn down until three years later when Katie Semmes moved into 211 East Charlton and wanted an elevator attached to her sidewall. Mrs. O'Connor took pride in the modest elegance of her well-kept parlor floor with its small entrance foyer; attractive, dark green double living room with two black marble fireplaces, two chandeliers, and four eight-foot bay windows; large dining room with a heavy dark oak table, where the family would gather for formal meals; small kitchen; and back sunporch, where she kept her green plants. Upstairs, the parents' front bedroom was connected by a doorway to their daughter's back bedroom, both heated in winter by coal fireplaces.
The often-repeated Savannah comment that Flannery O'Connor "was conceived in the shadow of the cathedral" is not entirely rhetorical. Looming through her parents' bedroom windows were always its pale green twin spires, topped by gold crosses — visible, indeed, for miles around. Clearly audible was the tremulous booming of the big bells every morning, noon, and evening, signaling the praying of the Angelus, in honor of Mary. Like St. Joseph's Hospital, the cathedral — named St. John the Baptist, some said, to mollify a paranoid Protestant majority — was the handiwork of Captain John Flannery. A generous benefactor of the first cathedral, destroyed by fire in 1898, Captain Flannery then became chairman of the building committee for the present cathedral, dedicated in 1900. One of its three stained-glass windows, depicting a scene from the life of John the Baptist, was donated by him, "In Memory of Mary Ellen Flannery."
So when Mary Flannery O'Connor's parents carried her across the square for baptism at a four o'clock afternoon service on Easter Sunday, April 12, she wasn't just any little girl, though she was one of many babies and their gathered parents and godparents. Far from the promise "You count now," given by the Reverend Bevel Summers after he baptizes the young Harry in O'Connor's story "The River," was the Latin blessing pronounced that morning by the rector, Father T. A. Foley, as he marked the sign of the cross in water on her forehead: "Mary Flannery, ego te baptizo in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti." Listed on her baptismal certificate, as "first sponsor," was her father's brother, John Joseph O'Connor, a dentist in town. Her "second sponsor" was Mary Cline, her mother's oldest sister, who presided over the family's mansion in Milledgeville.
Early on, her parents brought the infant girl by the home of Katie Semmes, who was still living in an imposing 1852 redbrick Greek Revival at Bull and Taylor streets on Monterey Square. As Katherine Doyle Groves has recalled: "My first memories of her, we are third cousins, our great-grandmothers were sisters, was when she was an infant and they didn't have all this kind of equipment they have now for hauling babies. I remember a basket of some sort. We were visiting with my cousin, Mrs. Semmes. . . . We would go down, my mother and father, my sister and myself, in the evening to call on my cousin, and Ed and Regina, Flannery's parents, would be there with this baby in the basket on the floor." Groves has stressed that Flannery O'Connor actually bore no Flannery blood, as Captain Flannery was merely a cousin by marriage.
At home, the baby was rolled between the two second-floor bedrooms — all the windows kept wide open for ventilation in spring and summer — and into the backyard, as well, in an elaborate crib. The contraption was common enough nursery furniture in the 1920s, especially in the South — a waist-high, flat, rectangular box, painted white, five feet in length, screened on the top and sides, and pushed on large metal wheels. Marketed as a "Kiddie-Koop Crib," with the insinuation of being a chicken coop for kids, the box doubled as a playpen, allowing a child to stand, or to be laid flat on a board through the middle, protected by its closed lid from the pesky flies and mosquitoes of coastal Georgia. As its successful 1923 ad slogan asked, "Danger or Safety — Which?"
When Mrs. O'Connor took her infant daughter for strolls around the perimeter of Lafayette Square, the child's conveyance was a bit more deluxe: a perambulator with oversized metal wheels and a padded interior lined with dark brown corduroy, given as a baby gift by Katie Semmes. Fashioned of wood, with a long swan's-neck metal handle and an adjustable protective hood of slatted wicker with portholes on either side, all painted in the same cream color, the elegant focal point was a monogram of the new baby's initials — "MFOC" — embossed in gold on the side. At rest in the hallway, the pushchair complemented the gilt picture-rail molding in the parlor, as well as Mrs. O'Connor's upholstered green brocade love seat, with gilded cabriole legs, and tea cart.
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- Feb 25, 2009
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- Little, Brown and Company