Mystery of Flannery O'Connor begins to unravel

Flannery O'Connor once predicted that she would inspire no biographies because "lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy."

The claim was artful self-deprecation, but for close to 40 years after her death it looked like O'Connor's prediction would come true: Against all odds, the great Georgia writer remained unchronicled.

The absence was at least partly due to one of O'Connor's most ardent followers, Emory University scholar Sally Fitzgerald, who worked on a biography for decades but died in 2000 with her project unfinished — and apparently unfinishable.

Things are changing. Little Brown has just published "Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor" ($30) by Manhattan writer Brad Gooch, who speaks in Atlanta on Monday night. Later this year, retired Georgia State University professor and O'Connor friend William Sessions plans to be finished with an "authorized biography."

And the number of scholars studying O'Connor's darkly humorous stories continues to grow.

"Her star is still on the rise," said Hank Edmondson, professor of political science at Georgia College & State University (O'Connor's alma mater) in Milledgeville and co-director of an international conference on O'Connor that will take place in Rome, Italy, next month. Speaking just before departing for Spain and another O'Connor event, he added, "I don't know when it's going to reach the top of its trajectory."

Speculation, mystery

 While Fitzgerald discouraged competing biographers when she was alive, her work is aiding scholars today. She collected O'Connor's letters in 1979's "A Habit of Being," including letters to one of the writer's most significant correspondents, the late Betty Hester, an Atlanta file clerk.

In January, Emory announced the acquisition of Fitzgerald's papers. These, along with previously unpublished letters to Hester, which Emory unsealed in 2007, have helped spur O'Connor scholarship.

"Those letters are fascinating to read," Gooch said. "There is the hot moment of [Hester] coming out to Flannery and Flannery's noble response. Other than that, I loved reading those letters because I knew the life so well."

Speculation about O'Connor's sexuality will probably help swell the new wave of Flanneriana, though Gooch's biography puts some discussion to rest. In Gooch's account, O'Connor attracted unrequited crushes from female admirers, including Hester, but otherwise lived a mostly monastic life, her libido channeled into her work.

A chaste kiss with 20-something textbook salesman Erik Langkjaer, a transplanted Dane who became a regular visitor in 1953, after O'Connor had moved back to her mother's Milledgeville farm, seems the acme of O'Connor's romantic life. Characteristically, O'Connor mines the moment for her short story "Good Country People" about a Bible salesman who steals a wooden leg from an unsuspecting, overeducated homebody named Hulga. (The parallels were obvious enough that O'Connor had to deny them to Langkjaer.)

What that means is the "mystery" surrounding O'Connor may prove less than scandalous.

Much still to be told

 Her mother, Regina O'Connor, kept a tight grip on Flannery's legacy, and, according to other O'Connor scholars, that role of protector was adopted by Fitzgerald and by O'Connor's cousin Louise Florencourt, who still controls much O'Connor material.

They stymied O'Connor's first biographer, Jean Cash, author of "Flannery O'Connor: A Life" (2002), denying her permission to quote from unpublished letters and discouraging family members from speaking with her.

"Because the family was so uncooperative with me, there's so much of her story that still remains to be told," Cash said.

That story is coming out now.

Gooch interviewed key sources such as O'Connor's original editor, Robert Giroux, and writer Elizabeth Hardwick in the nick of time. Both recently died.

Sessions has even better sources, including Hester and O'Connor herself. He says the Fitzgerald papers at Emory will spur even more inquiry.

"They'll have a big impact."

BRAD GOOCH: 'IT'S NOT LIKE THERE'S A FINAL LIFE OF SOMEONE'

Brad Gooch first thought of writing about Flannery O'Connor in 1980 when he was a wet-behind-the-ears grad student at Columbia University. O'Connor scholar Sally Fitzgerald told him, "very nicely," that she was already hard at work on a biography.

"Then I kind of waited."

After Fitzgerald died, 20 years later, without producing a book, Gooch thought about O'Connor again. He was told that Fitzgerald's children would finish her book, and that yet another biography was also in the works, but, finally, he decided to listen to his own muse and stop taking no for an answer.

"I was so frustrated that I decided I was going to keep going forward. I'd heard this for 20 years, or some version of this," said Gooch, who speaks at the Margaret Mitchell House on Monday. "Finally you write a good book or you don't write a good book."

The author of "Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor" spoke recently about his enduring fascination with the Georgia writer.

Q: Whose O'Connor biography will be definitive?

A: In all these things, at the end of the day, it's a committee. It's not like there's a final life of someone. People want there to be a definitive and authoritative book, but it's always an ongoing project. A biography is always trying to figure out the narrative that makes sense.

Q: How did a boy from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., become a Flannery O'Connor fan?

A: She once said that "Southern" was just a dialect. She was making the argument that her stories were universal. They certainly [rang true] in northeast Pennsylvania. Milledgeville reminded me of my childhood.

Q: In her life, it was hard to tell whether she was putting people on, wasn't it?

A: You can never quite get at where she was coming from, whether she was being straight, whether she was kidding. ... Her whole demeanor was this act, and those acts can be compelling.

Q: Her infatuation with [younger textbook salesman] Erik Langkjaer seems central.

A: Flannery is so in control of her fiction, it is the most controlled fiction in the canon. She controls readers' responses, she rewrites things a hundred times. But with Erik she is like this 14-year-old, she really doesn't have a lot of experience. The whole thing is so tragic.

Q: Why Flannery, why now?

A: In journalism it's people with contradictions that make the best articles. Flannery O'Connor is always contradictory. She puts together these wires that shouldn't be crossed. She was a completely sincere believer, she had faith, and yet she was acid and mean about the people around her. Her favorite word later in life was mystery. Finally there will always by something mysterious about her.

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