Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review of Flannery and Return to Good & Evil: Two Books on Flannery O’Connor

The highest recommendations I can give for any book on Flannery O’Connor are reserved for those she wrote. Her novels and stories deal with humanity injured in the nihilistic culture found, ironically, in the Bible belt. The images presented are an answer to the loss of reason and ultimately the loss of our own humanity that arises from this environment. In this short essay I wish to review two recent works that consider the life and scholarship of Flannery O’Connor. Brad Gooch is a literature professor at William Patterson University who authored Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (isbn 0316000663). Henry Edmonson III is a professor at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia and he wrote Return to Good and Evil: Flannery O’Connor’s Response to Nihilism (isbn 0739111051).

For the most part, Flannery’s reviewers have completely misunderstood her work and the writings on her novels negatively evaluate her stories while failing to see the main point. Brad Gooch is a poet and writer whose other books include City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara, Finding the Boyfriend Within, Dating the Greek Gods, and The Golden Age of Promiscuity. Although educated at Columbia, he is a poor candidate for writing a biography on Flannery O’Connor. After reading Flannery, I must conclude that Gooch is unfamiliar with the literature that O’Connor read daily and is intellectually unprepared to approach her life and thought.

His biography examines the childhood and high school years of Flannery’s life and this section is the strongest Gooch presents. It is hard to misrepresent stories of a child and this portrayal is accurate and good. If the book had ended after chapter three, this would have been an entirely different review. Unfortunately, Gooch continues and attempts to examine Flannery’s works and thought.

It is difficult to imagine a poorer account of Flannery O’Connor’s adult life than the one presented by Gooch. Although he has read The Habit of Being, it is clear that Flannery’s own explanation of her work is irrelevant to his understanding. The problem is that he completely misses the deeper aspects of Flannery’s stories and attempts to create his own deontological interpretation, which ultimately is worthless. There is a section where he describes Flannery as an agent that supported the forced social change on the South. The irony is that Flannery specifically contradicts this in a passage in The Habit of Being and again in the short-story “The Enduring Chill” and she considered the forced imposition over-simplistic and ill-conceived. Yet, this does not stop Gooch from reporting the Georgian author as a social reformer. O’Connor wrote metaphysically and used the events in her life as a tool to illustrate the consequences and ends of our nihilistic culture. Gooch reduces her works to mere self-introspection and fails to grasp their meaning. If you want to read a book describing a person that the author knows nothing about, this is the book for you. Little, Brown, and Company brought this book into print because it addressed a gap in the literature concerning Flannery O’Connor. There is an honest need for a good biography. The problem is that Brad Gooch does not present a fair account and the gap this work sought to address still remains. If you have already read all of Flannery’s work, then read this book but do not expect much. Gooch’s work is simply a disappointment.

The second work was written in 2005 by a political theory professor at the college in Milledgeville that houses the archives of Flannery O’Connor. Henry Edmondson III is able to critically assess her writing through the use of her own handwritten commentaries on the books she read on a daily basis. As a political theory professor, he should not be equipped to examine Flannery’s response to nihilism. His works include John Dewey & Decline of American Education: How the Patron Saint of Schools Has Corrupted Teaching & Learning and The Moral of the Story. He has also published extensively on Flannery O’Connor and the Return to Good and Evil is simply a collection of these essays. This book is more difficult to read because it is not a sequential essay but rather a collection of separate pieces. There is also an intellectual affinity between Flannery and Edmonson III if one considers their almost identical interpretation of John Dewey. In the Habit of Being Flannery wrote, “… anything Wm. Heard Kilpatrick & Jhn. Dewey say do, don’t do … [p 29]” Edmonson’s philosophical dispositions correspond nicely with O’Connor’s and this allows him to provide insightful commentary on her work.

Within this book, Edmonson offers two essays that examine Wise Blood and consider Hazel Motes’ rejection of God and how the character’s journey ultimately leads him to embrace what he had rejected. Nihilism is the cultural context for modern man and the story symbolizes the voyage taken by rejecting God. Flannery’s Catholicism is an important element in the novels and Wise Blood is impossible to understand if it is removed from its religious context. Also, Edmonson III presents the ideas of Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Guardini, Gilson, St. John of the Cross, St. Thomas Aquinas, Copleston, Arendt, and Voegelin in the text to show how they fit within O’Connor’s novel. Return to Good and Evil is a good source for individuals that do not grasp the deeper elements within O’Connor’s work. While it does not compare to the Flannery’s own stories or original works, Edmonson III presents a thoughtful and faithful introduction.


Mary said...

This is what Gooch's books are about: a biography of a bohemian writer who, among other things, posed nude while employed at MOMA; a novel about a homosexual pornographic film maker in NYC; a self-help book for gay men; a "spiritual" guide on dating for homosexuals. Obviously he is NOT the right person to write a biography of Flannery O'Connor (did he possibly think she was a lesbian?). I would not even waste my money on his book.

Rick said...

A thoughtful review.