A Room of Her Own

Joseph O’Neill‘s fine piece on Flannery O’Connor in the June issue of The Atlantic—ostensibly a review of Brad Gooch’s biography but more an appreciation of its subject—stresses the idea that O’Connor was a deeply lucky writer. This isn’t a notion that’s immediately clear reading either O’Connor’s fiction, stuffed as it is with strange, sometimes menacing people, or Gooch’s book, where the shadow of her too-soon death hovers over nearly page. (Gooch is too dignified to make a big noise about that and he doesn’t have to; it’s simply clear that as O’Connor grows more successful, there are fewer and fewer pages left in the biography.) Her life had its struggles, O’Neill acknowledges, not least the lupus that eventually killed her. But the stuff that tends to make aspiring writers neurotic? It was hardly an issue:

She was famous and revered by her early 30s. (“How we did adore and envy them, the idols of our college years—Hemingway and Faulkner, Frost and Eliot, Mary McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty!” wrote John Updike. He was seven years younger than O’Connor.) She never lacked for a prestigious mentor (Robert Lowell, Philip Rahv, Robert Penn Warren) or for helpful friends. She never had to take a job. From 1951, she lived at Andalusia, the Georgia property (500 acres of fields and 1,000 acres of woods) co-owned and farmed by her mother, Regina, which turned out to be the perfect habitat for her imagination. Her personal needs were few: she seemingly never wanted, and therefore was never distracted by, children or by her lack thereof. Ditto, pretty much, lovers.

O’Neill overromanticizes things a bit; Regina, at least in Gooch’s description, could be smothering, and on more than a couple of occasions Andalusia seems prison-like. But there’s no question that most of the roadblocks that fiction writers confront weren’t there for O’Connor; indeed, she didn’t seem to pay a whole lot of attention to the them, as if ignoring them magically made them disappear. There may be a lesson in that for writers—something about how concentrating on the work and not the career ladder is the most sensible way to go. But that makes it sound easy, assuming that a writer today can casually access O’Connor’s cool, smirking temperament, let alone her talent.

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