Flannery O’Connor: A Life [Repost May 2003]

(Written in 2003 for amazon.com)

Flannery O’Connor is arguably one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. She was passionately Southern and passionately Catholic, dedicated to her craft and a consummate professional.

This is why I think she would have scorned her recent biography, written by Jean Cash.

Cash’s work is merely competent. She has all the facts straight. The book is well-researched, and well documented. Cash has flipped over every O’Connor stone, but there are so few unpublished gems at this point, that the project seems to be simply one of repetition.

What makes Cash’s biography especially defective is that she seems afraid to make qualitative judgments regarding O’Connor or her work. I suppose this can be good in other biographies of lesser-known literary figures. The biography falls short, in other words, precisely because of its attention to detail, and its lack of synthesis. There are times when it reads like a shopping list of O’Connor things, places, friends and relatives. Cash’s prose falls lifeless into the annals of poorly-written biographies.

I only recall Cash voicing her opinion three times. She defends O’Connor’s relationship with Maryat Lee as a perfectly heterosexual one. On another occasion, she defends O’Connor, who, throughout her life and private letters, made a few controversial statements regarding the Civil Rights movement: these have since tagged her as racist to some scholars. Cash also frequently asserts that O’Connor was not a reclusive person, a kind of 1950s Emily Dickenson. Of these assertions, only the second seems to have any direct bearing on her writing. It seems that her focus should have been directed to other facets of O’Connor’s life.

Cash’s thoughts often read like terse journal articles that have been assembled into a book as an afterthought. It is sometimes difficult to read her rather fibrous prose, which fails to synthesize multiple tellings of any particular O’Connor account into a single cohesive narrative.

Robert Fitzgerald’s introduction to Everything That Rises Must Converge accomplishes in about 25 pages what took Cash over 300. Besides, Fitzgerald’s introduction was written by somebody who knew O’Connor, and who considered her family. But the best part about buying Everything that Rises… is that instead of being forced to read a synthesis of quotes, the reader can actually look at 9 pieces of O’Connor’s short fiction.


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