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Photo: Jay:Leviton-Atlanta

I have had a long fascination with Flannery O’Connor, the quirky, brilliant, lupus-suffering author who died way too young. She attended the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa even though she “didn’t know a short story from an ad in the newspaper,” and went on to be a star who “scared the boys to death by her irony.”

Everything about her reads peculiar by today’s sensibilities. “She liked to drink Coca-Cola mixed with coffee. She gave her mother, Regina, a mule for Mother’s Day. She went to bed at 9 and said she was always glad to get there. After ­Kennedy’s ­assassination she said: “I am sad about the president. But I like the new one.” As a child she sewed outfits for her chickens and wanted to be a ­cartoonist.” She was described by fello Yaddo resident Elizabeth Hardwick as “a plain sort of young, unmarried girl, a little bit sickly. She had a small-town Southern accent . . . whiny. She whined.”

But oh what a gift. As Brad Gooch points out in his new biography, Flannery, O’Connor has become a “one-woman academic industry.” This, from a writer whose sole output was two novels totally less than 500 pages and 19 stories. She was 39 when she died in 1964.

The Gooch biography was reviewed in the Times Book Review this Sunday. Here are a few excerpts from that review by Joy Williams:

Strangely innocent indeed. Also, forbidding, doctrinaire, witty, obsessed and almost inhumanly brave as her illness ground her along on her long passage to death. In the hospital the spring before she died, she worked between blood transfusions — she joked that she was hearing a celestial chorus but the song, over and over, was “Clementine” — correcting the galleys of the marvelous short story “Revelation” and completing another, “Parker’s Back,” which she had been working on and revising for years. Always, always in her work, she struggled to find the delivering image, the delivering word that would offer “experienced meaning.”

Flannery was peculiar, her work even more so, but Gooch strives to make it all quite normal, under the circumstances, of course. She entertained visitors. She liked fried shrimp and peppermint chiffon pie. She got away with what her friend Maryat Lee called “murder” in likening many of her smug fictional matriarchs to her mother, Regina, her “cross,” and killing them off in viciously creative ways. (“She don’t read any of it,” Flannery assured Maryat.) As biographers do, Gooch seeks the complete circle of a life, its stern fulfillment. He is puzzlingly enchanted with a bit of film shot when Flannery was 5, displaying a chicken she had “taught” to walk backward. He ends the book by referring again to this odd bird, though now the addled chick of childhood has become O’Connor’s “literary chickens walking backward” — against the grain, comic, tragic, queer, unnatural.

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When asked why she wrote, she replied, “Because I’m good at it.” She found sickness “more instructive than a long trip to Europe.” She was buried the day after she died. Robert Giroux sent a copy of “Wise Blood” to Evelyn Waugh hoping for a blurb, and Waugh replied, “The best I can say is: ‘If this really is the unaided work of a young lady, it is a remarkable product.’ ” One should pretty much ignore her own pronouncements on her art, though in her last years she increasingly endeavored to explain her intentions. She was an anagogical writer, of that there is no doubt. The civil rights movement interested her not at all. When she received a request to stage one of her stories, she wrote, “The only thing I would positively object to would be somebody turning one of my colored idiots into a hero.” Her kinship, she believed, was with Hawthorne. She also described herself as being “13th-century.” She is reported to have had beautiful blue eyes.

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Photo: Jay:Leviton-Atlanta

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