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Flannery O'Connor: A Life
Jean W. Cash
Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2002.
$30.00, 364 pages, ISBN 1-57233-192-5.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Jean W. Cash is professor of English at James Madison University. She has taught the works of Flannery O'Connor for many years, and published various articles on Flannery O'Connor, notably in the invaluable Flannery O'Connor Bulletin. I met her at a conference in Albuquerque and could tell she was a woman with a passion. But unlike some academics who sometimes let themselves be carried away, she puts her passion in the service of her rigorous research, disciplining it so as to retain its stamina without allowing it to diminish her scientific thoroughness.

Flannery O'Connor: A Life is quite simply one of the best literary biographies I have ever read—and I have read many. The book consists of 364 pages packed with information, with a few well-chosen photographs and a lovely cover with peacocks—of course. It deals with the life, but also of course the writing, and the cartoon work (O'Connor as talented satirical artist). The information has been very carefully selected by Cash, checked and double-checked and triple-checked. What facts are available are presented as such, but the multitude of impressions that O'Connor left on people who crossed her path are impressively treated. I know that Cash got little cooperation from O'Connor's reluctant relatives and heirs, but she compensated for this rather well (what's happened to the late Sally Fitzgerald's project?). In other words, the work is of the kind any self-respecting academic biographer should undertake and would in an ideal world. Cash has spoken to and read the work or letters of tons of contemporaries, and when recollections diverge she presents them side by side, as it were, helping the reader contrast them and form an opinion. As far as the childhood years are concerned Cash has used the memories of friends and neighbors, and as far as the university years are concerned she has used the memories of both faculty and students, including the occasional roommate. Roommate Martha Bell Spreiser remembers O'Connor "as a quiet, unassuming girl, very much introverted, with deep religious convictions and a delightful sense of humor." (92) Crucially, Cash has used the letters contained in The Habit of Being (1979), like everybody else, but she has also used several other letters, equally if not more revealing.

Mary Flannery O'Connor the child in Savannah comes alive without the least cheap semi-novelization effect nor the least element of sentimentalism, complete with peacocks and celebrated Pathé News filmed backward-walking chicken. Cash also spares the reader the tacky Freudianism of many a would-be literary biography. There is just the right amount of data about the novelist's ancestors, the Catholicism and the matriarchal aspects of her upbringing. Mary Flannery O'Connor the anti-teenager teenager in Milledgeville, "partly deprived of a normal girlhood," is just as efficiently portrayed, with her distant figure of a father and her precocious interest in reading and writing. Milledgeville itself is interestingly researched, and gender problematics are occasionally called upon.

[In] "Mistaken Identity", [a] piece of juvenilia, [Mary Flannery] writes of a duck named Herman who becomes Henrietta after presenting its owner with an egg. [The story] stimulates fascinating speculations about Mary Flannery's questioning of her own sexual identity. Alienated by her superior intelligence and talent from other young Georgia women of her era, she experienced great difficulty conforming to the conventional roles offered them. When she has her goose tell three eligible females, "You gals can go to Hades," she is no doubt expressing her own disdain for boys and dating. Decidedly not a Southern belle, she probably would have preferred to be a male like Herman: in the early 1940s men were the thinkers, questioners, and writers—what she herself wanted to become. (40)

Flannery O'Connor the student—who always knew she was going to be a writer—is presented with neither complacency nor sensationalism: the reader does feel that here is talent blooming, but that like some plants it needs a lot of sun and watering and occasional replanting. It is fascinating to read about the way O'Connor as a novelist and short story writer evolved, taking into account or not the opinions of her teachers and peers, sometimes changing a line or two in her fiction and acknowledging her debt to this or that commentator, sometimes not. The young O'Connor is shown as the oddball she was, perceived as "different" by everyone who came across her, but she is not stigmatized as a caricatured Southern freak as she has been elsewhere, although her physical awkwardness and "afflicted" appearance, unique personality and superior intelligence are not downplayed in the least. Of course, the temptation is strong, as it is when one deals with Carson McCullers, to establish rapprochements between the author and her creation and see in the fictional freaks the reflection of the freakish author. But Cash resists it well. Yes, O'Connor often sat quietly in her corner, did not quite participate in campus social life the same way other women her age did and sometimes came up with pronouncements that sounded odd. Yes, she dressed a bit differently in her trademark O'Connor style. Yes she was a Southerner speaking a Southern language in Iowa during creative writing workshops, but she was not a freak. Unless being capable of writing such literary jewels as Wise Blood (1952) and having strong religious convictions at an early age makes you one. While I am on the subject of McCullers, I have always found it interesting that "those writers who troubled [O'Connor] most were people like Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams, whose works were so mired (she felt) in the secular world that they displayed no transcendent vision." (xvi) I myself moved quite naturally from the teaching of—precisely—McCullers, Capote and Williams to the teaching of O'Connor, feeling that after years of Southern freakishness, Gothic, gender and sex, it would make a nice (small) change to undertake Southern freakishness, Gothic, gender and religion.

Cash speaks of O'Connor's "deliberate rejection of sexuality," (43) and quotes many contemporaries who all seem to remember that O'Connor "never seemed interested in the opposite sex," (57) but never makes too much of that aspect of the author. She is not one of those researchers who persistently strive to read O'Connor as a more or less repressed lesbian. She also describes her church-going habits and shows that O'Connor never lost faith, which is evidently paramount to the understanding of the novels and short stories. She writes about all the geographical moves, the family links (especially O'Connor's relationship with her domineering mother), the friendships, the lectures, the travels, the book reviewing, and finally the illness, in a short but strong final chapter entitled "Illness, Death, and Legacy."

Although she never overemphasized her suffering, Flannery O'Connor clearly had to accommodate to the illness that dramatically changed her life after 1951. When she returned to Milledgeville, O'Connor had to accept chronic illness as an indisputable fact of her existence, particularly after she realized that lupus erythematosus was the disease from which she was suffering. (311)

Her father, of course, had died of lupus. To conclude, Cash mentions O'Connor's influence on today's culture, notably the amusing fact that "she has become something of an icon to pop musicians and movie stars." (320) She also influences painters. But what would she make of what many see as the lack of spirituality of the early twenty-first century, or of New Age pursuits? And what would she make of today's Southern novelists?

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