Before her untimely death in 1964, novelist Flannery O'Connor wrote, "As for biographies, there won't be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy."
Fortunately, she was mistaken.
Forty-five years after O'Connor died, the interest in her make-believe world remains intense. Both the plots and the prose in her two novels and 32 short stories are difficult to forget because of their haunting themes and vivid descriptions.
Yet O'Connor herself has rarely seemed like more than a stereotype through the decades, with that stereotype styled something like "Southern writer filled with weirdness and Gothic tendencies who wrote mostly from her head instead of from real experience and who died young."
Most lives, however, cannot be fairly summarized in so few words. O'Connor's life is no exception. Brad Gooch is not the first biographer to chronicle the years O'Connor lived (1925-1964), but he is arguably the best because he rarely falls into the pit of reductionism. He understood early in his research that O'Connor represented far more than an eccentric recluse.
Granted, not even Gooch can answer all the questions about O'Connor's sources of inspiration, about how a woman who lived most of her years sheltered and ill in Milledgeville, Ga., could produce such dark, memorable sagas. But Gooch does his best to address the questions without resorting to pat psychoanalytic theories.
An only child of observant Catholic parents, O'Connor was reared first in Savannah and then in the more rural Milledgeville, a racially segregated Southern town that hosted a women's college, a prison and an insane asylum. Mary Flannery O'Connor transcended that milieu briefly by attending the renowned writers' workshop at the University of Iowa. Still in her early 20s, she immediately impressed fellow students and professional writing instructors with her polished paragraphs. She did not shy away from depressing content, nor did she shy away from controversial racial and sexual allusions.
Her extended travels away from Georgia did not last long, as the awful disease of lupus invaded her body. O'Connor had no choice but to become increasingly dependent on her widowed mother as they shared the family farm on the outskirts of Milledgeville. When not writing, O'Connor raised peacocks and entertained visitors.
Perhaps O'Connor intuited that she would live long after her physical death through her words in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," "Wise Blood," "Everything That Rises Must Converge," "Good Country People" and other 20th-century classics.
Throughout the biography, Gooch explicates potential real-life sources for the fictional characters. Sometimes his proof seems unassailable; other times, he cannot achieve anything more than speculation. But no matter. O'Connor's fictional world on paper will never lose interest, no matter the sources of her inspiration.
Steve Weinberg is a biographer based in Columbia, Mo.