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At best, Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor delivers a mixed cargo of goods. Gooch’s portrait of this major American writer, with its entertaining wealth of “Flannery” anecdotes from people who knew her in various capacities”family, neighbors, literary associates, spiritual advisors, admirers”depicts the kind of character for whom the phrase “an interesting person in her own right” was coined.

And yet it’s a fragmented portrait, with a sour aftertaste. Admittedly, any portrait of Flannery O’Connor is apt to leave an aftertaste: As her letters and drawings reveal, she indulged no sweet view of herself. Certain of her correspondence, particularly a series of letters to her friend Maryat Lee withheld from publication until 1994, exposes a disturbing facet of her identity as a mid-century white Southerner: a taste for racial jokes and a visceral distaste for the very blackness of black people which seems irreparably out of joint with her identity as a believing Roman Catholic and a writer of theology-driven fiction. All this makes her a problematic study for a biographer determined to deliver her as a “personality.”

Gooch traces O’Connor’s Southern Catholic pedigree and upbringing: her conception “in the shadow of the cathedral” of Savannah, Georgia, her over-nurturing at the hands of her socially-ambitious mother Regina, her prickly relationship with the nuns at her convent school, her now-famous attempts to “dirty the feathers” of her guardian angel. He notes as well the racially stratified society which was her lifelong context, the ubiquitous presence of black maids and farmhands, the people who came and went by back doors, or who did not enter the house at all, by unwritten law. He describes, in one striking instance, a party attended by the teenage “Mary Flannery,” at which the choir of the Ebenezer Baptist Church of Atlanta, directed by Martin Luther King, Sr. and including the ten-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. performed costumed as slaves.

It is as easy, and perhaps as perversely entertaining, to chronicle the eccentricities and extremes of the Jim Crow South as it is to observe certain eccentricities and extremes of Catholic practice. O’Connor’s contrariness regarding conventional, perhaps-sentimental Catholic piety”she described herself as “a long standing avoider of May processions and such-like nun-inspired doings,” and spoke dismissively of “the novena-rosary tradition””is a position clearly more comfortable and comprehensible to her biographer than is her adult devoutness. Gooch quotes, for example, Father James McCown, a Jesuit who “gradually became a spiritual advisor to Flannery, “on the subject of her “issues.” Whether to eat ham broth on a fast day, for example, manifests a spirituality “of the scope and seriousness of a convent-bred schoolgirl.’”

An O’Connor biographer who fails to take seriously this kind of vision, in which religious order is evident on every level of human existence, from the macrocosm of an entire society to the microcosm of the lunch table, will inevitably fail to make sense of her as a writer or as a person. To ignore the implications of her daily religious practice is to leave her exposed to a reading public as entertaining, but morally”and unredeemedly”reprehensible as an unregenerate white Southerner. Prominent reviewers, including Edmund White and Joyce Carol Oates, have lauded Gooch’s “sensitive handling of the race issue.”

Reviewing Flannery for the New York Review of Books , Oates confesses that O’Connor’s own favorite story, “The Artificial Nigger,” has become “virtually unteachable as a consequence” of its title alone. If it is true, as Oates asserts that “[n]ot the shimmering multidimensionality of modernism but the two-dimensionality of cartoon art is at the heart of the work of O’Connor,” with her “unshakable absolutist faith” which nevertheless left room for the uncharity of racism, why would anyone be persuaded to read her? If indeed she was, as Gooch variously puts it, both a “cultural” and an “artistic” racist, why would anyone, on any level, personal or artistic, be interested in her at all?

In ignoring her fiction, beyond the level of speculation about its “real-life” origins and some Freud-speak about sublimated sexuality, Gooch forecloses on the possibility of answering this difficult question. Only in the light of her writing, as it is informed by her Catholicism, can she be recognized, as Ralph C. Wood puts it, to offer “a real antidote to racism.” In a 1994 essay, “Flannery O’Connor’s Racial Morals and Manners,” Wood confronts both O’Connor’s private distaste for black people and the ways in which her fictional vision overrides the purely personal, implicating her own sin in the sin she excoriates in her characters. Of that “unteachable” story, “The Artificial Nigger,” Wood writes,

[I]t fictionally incarnates her firmest convictions about both race and religion . . . It enabled her to turn a racist icon into an ironic testament to the mystery of charity . . . This “artificial nigger” not only illumines the evident evils of slavery and discrimination but discloses the subtle grace inherent in suffering that can be redemptively borne because God in Christ has borne it himself.

Reviewing Flannery last fall for National Review , he reiterates O’Connor’s ultimate artistic intent: “to render the dreadful disorders of our age, while also . . . revealing their potential to be reordered to the appalling love of God.” To miss the vision of order, to miss the “appalling love” which rescues it from ruin, and to miss the writer’s conviction of her own continual need for redemption is to misunderstand why we should read Flannery O’Connor.

Sally Thomas, a contributing writer for First Things , is a poet and homeschooling mother in North Carolina.

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