About two-thirds of the way through Brad Gooch’s highly acclaimed new book, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, I got the gnawing feeling that something was missing — even as I admired Gooch’s storytelling about a brilliant writer of fiction who had once said, “…there won’t be any biographies of me because…lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” That sense of the real absence hung with me until the end, at which point I looked into the index for The Habit Of Being (the collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters published in 1979), which contains page after page of her most effective apologetics on behalf of Catholicism. It wasn’t there.
Gooch certainly knows The Habit of Being, for he mines O’Connor’s correspondence to paint interesting portraits of her friendships with, among others, Betty Hester (known in Habit as “A”) and Maryat Lee. But of O’Connor’s efforts to explain Catholicism and its unique optic on reality and contemporary culture, he gives us very little. True, Gooch argues that critics who think Flannery O’Connor was a terrific writer despite her Catholicism are off base. But he does seem to me to miss the passion of O’Connor’s belief, as well as the keen theological insight of this self-described “hillbilly Thomist.”
For Flannery O’Connor, Catholicism was a way of seeing the world straight-on, without sentimentality. “There is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism,” she once wrote, for at the heart of Christianity is God’s merciful love, the unsentimental but cleansing love of the father who restores to his wayward, prodigal son the dignity of his sonship. Christian realism taught that good and evil are objective realities, not “opinions.” Thus Christian realism applied to fiction required a painstaking description of both good and evil, especially as they interact in typically messy human lives.
This approach to the short story and the novel did not go down well everywhere. Flannery O’Connor understood why. Once, responding to a “moronic” New Yorker review of her now-famous story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” she wrote Betty Hester that the review neatly demonstrated how “the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off certain chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.”
Modern culture’s insecure grasp on good and evil created a situation, O’Connor believed, in which people couldn’t get a grip on the truly horrible, which is sin and its effects in our lives. As she wrote to Betty Hester, “when I see [my] stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.” And the reviewer usually got “hold of the wrong horror” because the reviewer was the product of a culture in which “evil” had been psychologized away and the Evil One was, at best, a medieval fiction.
Flannery O’Connor’s relentless, faith-driven unsentimentality extended to the Church as well as to the world: “I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it…” And this, mind you, was written in 1955 — to certain Catholic minds, the high water mark of Catholic life in these United States. One can only imagine what Flannery O’Connor would say today.
O’Connor’s fiction is not to everyone’s taste. But her letters, and essays like “The Church and the Fiction Writer” and “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South” (both available in the Library of America edition of her collected works), display her talents as an apologist of honesty and genius. Gooch’s Flannery would have been a better book had he grappled with that facet of a remarkable life and a singular talent.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.