Impaired as she was by lupus, O’Connor may not have been able to barrel ahead with the same level of prolific productivity as some of her contemporaries—such as James Baldwin for example-- but neither did she let it bring her career to a screeching halt between the time of her diagnosis and her death on August 3, 1964.
She followed the novel Wise Blood with a collection of short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find, in 1955; the novel The Violent Bear it Away in 1960; and the short story collection Everything That Rises Must Converge ––a book on which she worked virtually right up until her death–– published posthumously in 1965. In between the writing and the publishing, she marshaled her strength to travel (aided by crutches) and lecture, write articles for popular magazines (for which she was generally well paid), and write numerous letters to friends, supporters, and critics.
(To read part 1 of this story please click here. For part 2 click this link.)
The O’Connor readers and scholars now know would not have been possible without a tightly woven network of friends and family members who supported her work through belief in, and out of love for, her. After illness derailed her plans to live the life of a postmodern New York author, she famously surrounded herself with peacocks at Andalusia, her family’s farm, and allowed the world to come to her just as much as she continued to embrace it on the page and through speaking engagements. Fellow authors, theologians, aspiring writers, general admirers, and would-be lovers in the form of men as well as women often made their way to her front door.
Her editor, Robert Giroux, believed enough in the corpus of her work that in 1971 he published The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. A compilation of all her short fiction, The Complete Stories went on to win the National Book Award for Fiction in 1972, and in 2009—shortly after Brad Gooch’s biography was published–– was voted “The Best of the National Book Awards Fiction.”
Mother and Daughter Together
Of all those who shared their life’s energies to help endow Flannery O’Connor’s with enduring meaning possibly none were more crucial than her mother, Regina Cline O’Connor. The relationship between mother and daughter could alternate between a sensitive symbiosis and a barely-restrained combativeness. But: the fact is that despite her great intellectual prowess Flannery O’Connor was made an invalid by her disease and it could not have been any easier for her mother to watch her daughter’s slow agonizing physical decline any more than it had been to watch her husband’s. She nevertheless bore the “cross” of the affliction which defined so much of her own life’s story.
As such, she did the kinds of things caregivers tend to do when committed to ensuring as high a quality of life as they can for someone they love: setting aside a thermos of hot coffee at night to share with Flannery in the morning, running a farm to secure an income, tolerating the droppings and cries of beautiful but annoying peacocks, traveling abroad with her daughter even when she herself was ill, and standing guard at her hospital room door to ensure a chance at rest and possible recovery.
Regina Cline is very much present in the pages of Flannery but a section or two presented within the context of her struggles to assist her daughter might have made this powerful biography even more compelling. She outlived the writer by almost thirty-one years, dying on May 8, 1995, at the age of ninety-nine.
In Praise of Those Who Wait
In the acknowledgments section of his biography on the author, Brad Gooch informs readers that he “first stepped into the world of Flannery O’Connor in the late 1970s.” Thoroughly smitten by what he found in that world, he respectfully wrote her close friend Sally Fitzgerald, editor of The Habit of Being, Letters of Flannery O’Connor, to obtain her blessings for his hope to write a biography. Fitzgerald advised him in 1980 against such an undertaking because she was already in the process of writing a literary biography of her friend. Consequently, Gooch held off and waited, even beyond Fitzgerald’s death in 2000, for a book that never appeared.
Then, approached by an editor in 2003 about a biography on O’Connor, it clearly was not an offer he could refuse. A dream which had been deferred for more than two decades finally saw the light of day in 2009 and by most accounts it was very much worth the wait.
Aberjhani is the author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah and the forthcoming (spring 2020) Greeting Flannery O'Connor at the Back Door of My Mind.
Yang Jisheng's Tombstone, the Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962, is not the kind of book I could rate based on nothing more than how much I did or did not like it. The subject matter is much too deep for that and the dangers the author endured to write this phenomenal work far too real.
Jisheng's account as presented to us in the English-language edition of Tombstone is a single-volume 629-page condensed version of the original Chinese-language 1,200-page 2-volume set first published in Hong Kong a decade ago. There's no need to question what may or may not have been lost in translation because Jisheng provided so much fact-based data with which to work in the original publication.
Moreover, Tombstone is much more than just a triumph of historical writing. It represents in many ways the triumph of a movement to shed light on "the worst famine in human history." As an integral part of that movement: "Yang got people who experienced the famine to describe it in their own words. He found local journalists who'd witnessed and reported on murders and starvation and got them to write their memoirs. He located and interviewed local implementers of the fatal policies. He got surviving resisters to recount their experiences" (pp. X-XI).
Magnitude of the Horror
It took a while for me to adjust my brain to magnitude of the fact that the horror described actually occurred less than 70 years ago. In that hellish avoidable atrocity an estimated 30 to 45 million people died within a four-year period basically because of authoritarian arrogance and a total disregard for the freedom of individuals. Yet my shocked incredulity as a reader is nothing compared to the painful awakening Jisheng experienced as a member of the Communist Youth League proudly committed to promoting the policies of Mao Zedong's "Great Leap Forward" initiative only to discover those very policies in 1959 caused his father's death.
Ironically, it was while working in the late 1960s as an official journalist that he learned "how 'news' was manufactured, and how news organs served as the mouthpiece of political power." (Very different dynamics from what U.S. President Donald Trump's so often proclaims as "fake news.") However, it was not until the late 1970s that the awful deadly scope of the great famine became apparent:
"Now we knew that it was a man-made disaster that had caused tens of millions of people to starve to death... In my effort to shake off deception, I came to understand the social background of my father's death and to reflect more profoundly on his life..." (pp. 11-12).
That "deception" has remained hard for a lot of Chinese to shake off in part because of many official's refusal to acknowledge the famine for what it was and insist on referring to it in such euphemistic terms as "the three years of natural disaster," or "the years of difficulties." Another seems to be to avoid the appearance of discrediting the legacy of People's Republic of China founder Zedong.
Tombstone is not easy reading by any means. Where Jisheng narrates the actions leading up to the abuses of power, and fear of the same, which led up to the famine, he is straightforward and factually dense. That is a quality hardcore historians relish but average readers might find less entertaining. And in a way that is the point.
Jisheng's objective as a journalist is to share awareness of an event which it would seem impossible for the entire world not to know about already, but which it appears relatively few actually do. As a human being and the son of foster-parents who gave all they had to raise him and support his education goals, he is determined to honor those parents and the dozens of millions who lost their lives to the famine. Therefore, the title selected for the book: "A tombstone is a memory made concrete." (p. 3)
The result his investigative labors is indispensible documentation of officials' motives for allowing the tragedy to occur; and, how many hypocritically gorged themselves on the good life while entire villages literally starved to death. Yet such documentation is balanced with reports difficult to read for a very different reason. In short, Jisheng does not censor the stories of people describing acts of cannibalism which they either witnessed or committed themselves.
We learn about: people in villages who wait for strangers to come along so they can kill and eat them, an adolescent sister who kills and eats her younger brother after their parents have died, people who wait a few hours after funerals so they can dig up corpses and consume them. These and other actions seem too extreme to believe they really occurred in a civilized nation. But we are aware now that they did. Some people even describe which parts of the human body they found most delectable.
If you're a fan of the movie Bone Tomahawk, starring Kurt Russell, Lili Simmons, and Patrick Wilson, and you did not flinch watching the scene where "Troglodytes" split a man in half to eat him, then the above accounts of cannibalism might not bother you too much. Anyone who did flinch, throw up, scream, or faint, can empathize to some meaningful degree with those who survived the horror of the Great Famine and with Jisheng's determination to tell their collective story.
The Record of This Particular Memory
The importance of the history provided in Tombstone is evident enough in its own right, or at least it should be. "Human memory," the author tells us, "is the ladder on which a country and a people advance. We must remember not only the good things, but also the bad; the bright spots, but also the darkness" (p. 3).
The record of this particular memory is a significant indicator of the dangers that can befall populations which opt for authoritarian rule by a single individual, or small group of individuals, versus government by a robust engaged citizenry exercising some form of democracy. Even more than pitting one political ideology against another, it is about accepting some share of communal responsibility that automatically comes with living in any society hoping to make great strides forward, or just to maintain for its citizens peace, security, and decently-stocked refrigerators.
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance