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.
If you missed part 1 of this post and want to check it out please click here. Part 2 begins now:
McNaughton's nods to the late "Imaginary Man of Las Cruces," poet Nicanor Parra, in the poems "¿ENTONCES QUÉ?" and "(COLIN CHRISTOPHER" (open parentheses per original) should not surprise anyone. Given the company his pen has kept over the decades, it would be too much of a stretch to say he and Parra share the same antipoetic approach to their craft. There nevertheless are similarities which reveal a kinship between their aesthetic instincts. The humor employed by both poets at times oscillates between comic hilarity and nightmare darkness. It can assume the form of thinly-disguised self-deprecation or more overtly-poised social and political satire.
If Parra's is a poetry of anguished laughter and mournful tears as some have suggested, then it may be McNaughton's is an equally intense but more restrained verse of amused hopeful smiles and astonished frowns. Both employ a minimum of embellishments to achieve maximum provocation. Both balance ironic incongruities with subtle personal resolve in a manner similar to the way jazz musicians utilize highly-charged counter-rhythms to produce captivating performances. Both, as Parra put it, incorporate "the hideousness and the beauty of the world" (Marie-Lise Gazarian Gautier, Interviews with Latin American Writers, 1989). Therefore, naked pain and uncertain joy play crucial roles in rendering disturbing truths aimed at disrupting, or reclaiming, different kinds of power.
The narrator of "CHILDHOOD + YOUTH" laments, via "figures of speech," wars of different kinds which have never ended, and, numerous bridges burned while waging them. He finds his understanding of these interior and exterior traumas challenged by doubt, but then reaffirmed by an authoritative witness who knows what it means to survive unnerving cycles of destruction and rebirth. Taking a trip "to David Highsmith's furniture store," he buys a copy of Hector France's Musk, Hashish and Blood:
"...Then I went to my place
Such healing, empowering, and time-bending solidarity can only come with dedicated practices of remembrance and recognition, among the hallmarks of McNaughton's extensive oeuvre. As the late writer Benjamin Hollander put it in "The Pants of Time," his definitive review of TINY WINDOWS, "McNaughton’s work achieves a testament of personal observation embedded in a trans-historical tendance of the imagination." Moreover: "He discovers history for himself anew..." (Boston Review, June 5, 2015).
He also increases its capacity for simultaneously preserving autobiographical identity and expanding notions of community to accommodate kindred spirits occupying physical and non-physical forms. Thus the poem "AS EFFECT AN ECHO" is less an elegy in which McNaughton bids farewell to Hollander than it is the written continuation of a relationship:
"The back door hammer clubbed my friend, the Jew,
The stars in the heart comprise the sweet substance of enduring friendships, or alliances, and even less-binding associations, which take on a kind of sacredness for the way they inform and sustain each other’s' personalities. They reject the insanity proposed by stars as symbols of genocide sewn onto the clothes of Hollander's ancestors in Nazi concentration camps as they do all restrictions placed on basic human freedoms and civility.