Writers in general like to keep their lives private, or so I've been told, and when often asked about their personal lives, I've heard it said, You want to know me? Then know my books, and all your inquires will be answered; it's a blunt way of sidestepping the questions of the curious. Readers know authors indirectly through their works, perhaps their politics, their literary influences and also the thinly disguised episodes that happen to their literary characters. Actions as depicted in novels are so out there and in-your-face and yet simultaneously secret, too. It's difficult sometimes to discern the imagination from the reality, because they are so tightly married together. That is why Brad Gooch's biography Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor is so good and uncompromising, because it offers new insights into the person via the context of her life experience. And in her short life, Flannery O'Connor had many interesting experiences.
Gooch's biography really brings into sharp focus the parallels of Flannery O'Connor's life and her fiction; he connects the chosen titles of Wise Blood and The Violent bear It Away to her own life and belief system. There was an aloofness to Flannery O'Connor primarily (I believe) because I don't think people really "got" her, with the exception of a select few, especially in respects to her Catholic faith. It wasn't simply a philosophy with her rather than it was an unspoken way of life. Catholic theology made her writing inspirational in a very Old Testament kind of way. Yet there was a redemptive quality to it as well, i.e. the New Testament; how she brought elements of those two books of the Bible along with Catholic theology into her fiction only illustrates her literary and artistic genius. However, she was often frowned upon by those closest to her, many of whom thought that her books and stories were unladylike and inappropriate. If she were a man she probably would have been more widely applauded. I don't think that's a far fetched statement.
Flanney: A Life offers insights into O'Connor's upbringing, her Catholicism and the ever present ghosts of the South, from the depression down to the deplorable racism of the Jim Crow laws. Additionally, faith versus her culture and the influences contained therein are brought to light. Yet, love is also explored from her first kiss all the way down to her father, whom she had much in common with, including the dreaded disease Lupus, which would ultimately claim her young life. Her writing practices are covered more so than any literary analysis of her works are. But the biography offers good insights into the day-to-day living arrangements and strong work ethic that she adhered to with regards to her faith and writing, for the latter was her vocation, as she saw it, assigned to her by the Divine. What was also interestingly explored were the vast friendships that O'Connor had in her life: The Fitzgeralds, Caroline Gordon, Katherine Anne Porter, Robert Lowell, et cetera. Her home in Andalusia was an open house for writers and people who simply wanted to meet her, an evocation, to me, of genuine southern charm and hospitality. But I was moved mostly by her friendship with Betty Hester, the troubled intellectual given the name of "A" in the collection of letters by Flannery O'Connor titled, The Habit of Being. Their relationship was like a tight sisterhood of two wounded individuals who compensated their hurt through intellectual pursuits and the arts. However, Flannery O'Connor looked at her loneliness, spinsterhood and bondage to her overbearing mother, Regina, as a Divine cross whereas Betty Hester struggled to see her failings and hardships in a similar light. O'Connor was rooted in her faith whereas Hester was struggling to keep herself simply planted.
Brad Gooch's biography may not offer an overwhelming abundance of new information on the life of Flannery O'Connor, but new information is unearthed regardless, and it does shed new light on this woman of faith and her writing. Even though I would never call Flanney O'Conner a pure Catholic writer (unlike J.F. Powers), per se, for I believe she transcended even that, this work does show that Catholicism played an integral part in her life and unique literary output. Brad Gooch contributed something valuable to O'Connor scholarship; he is a fine literary archeologist and writer.