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.
Literary style and form play important supporting roles almost as captivatingly heroic as those of the title characters in Mark Morneweg's highly-innovative novel: Penthe & Alphonse. A reader casually thumbing through the book's pages might do a double-take over the word "novel" on the front cover and wonder if it should be poems instead. Yet a second quick run through the book's 99 pages would reveal it is in fact comprised of 135 brief chapters anywhere from two single lines to three or four pages long.
Having explored fusions of poetry and prose in works of my own with varying levels of success, I wondered how well Morneweg had met this challenge he issued to himself. Once I began reading in earnest, the chapters seemed to alternate like sequences in a film. They moved back and forth between flickering flashes of moments and extended scenes from the characters' private lives and America's public tragedy, also known as the Civil War. It soon became apparent the author has struck a masterful balance of historical detail, lyrical rhythm, and finely-nuanced emotional intensity.
The book begins with Alphonse's older sisters looking from a window down on him and Penthe, two former childhood playmates now entering adulthood, in a New Orleans courtyard reading poetry by Francois Villon. The delicate intimacy between them is apparent and alluring. But because he is categorized racially as white and she, in the language of 1800s American south, as a biracial "octoroon" (meaning "three quarters French and one black") their intense intimacy is also dangerous. In addition, despite racial categorizations, they are second cousins.
The kind of relationship Penthe and Alphonse had during childhood was not uncommon for the time, but most children were expected to "grow out of it" as they matured and retreat to their respective black and white demographic niches. Alphonse's and Pense's relationship, however, continues to develop through a series of circumstances along a more sensuous, humane, and uncompromising trajectory.
Distance Making Hearts Grow Fonder
When Penthe is sent off to a girl's school in Paris, we witness through an exchange of letters how their attachment to each other intensifies rather than diminishes. Most are from Penthe to Alphonse and a couple give us some of the longer passages in the entire book. This is an excerpt from one of Penthe's:
One letter comes from Alphonse after Penthe writes him to confess she may allow herself to be seduced by a "knucklehead...strapling youth" with a reputation for introducing willing young women to sex. It is not the response either Pense or the reader might have expected:
Exchanging letters becomes a practice on which they depend during several trials of separation. It is to the author's credit that he fashions this technique as deftly as he does into an already impressive collage of linguistic versatility.
Complications of Love, War, and Race
If Morneweg had relied on nothing more than Penthe & Alphonse's ever-increasing passion for each other to give shape and substance to his story he likely would have ended up with just a cleverly-styled romance novel (a noble enough genre in its own right). But like certain masters of epic works before him--consider Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in The Time of Cholera, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, or Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God--he establishes a series of contexts which threaten love's chances of survival.
Racism directed against Penthe is something Alphonse makes clear he will not tolerate. When another man calls her "a part-nigger whore," he challenges him to a dual and manages to shoot him without killing him. At the same time, he suffers through moral ambivalence when it comes to fighting in the Civil War, demonstrating how complex the issues behind it truly were: "If the Yankees invade, I will fight them. I will fight, but I am not too thrilled. I will not be morbid in front of Penthe Anne." Such reasoning brings to mind the song by Sade: Love Is Stronger Than Pride.
From one minimalist chapter to the next, they love their way through war, two epidemics of Yellow Fever, race riots, the demands of grandchildren, and old age. Looking at a printed copy of Penthe & Alphonse, or even just the cover on a screen after reading the book, gives the feeling of staring at an optical illusion because Morneweg has managed, somehow, to deliver much more than what appearance promises. The range of time covered, scope and depth of emotions engaged, and intricacy of styles employed seem too much for the pages containing them.
What Geek Bookaholics Often Do
Morneweg, who died almost three years ago, was apparently of the class of authors whose relationship with literature was so unabashedly personal and organic that whether he dressed his text in hard blocks of layered prose or shimmering veils of poetry, it revealed meanings both hauntingly familiar and astonishingly new. What came burning through more clearly than anything else was an authentic original vision of literary possibilities and human values.
In the course of reading Penthe & Alphonse, I began to do what geek bookaholics often do when sensing that within their hands is not just a good book but a rare and beautiful kind of priceless mind. I began attempting to discern who the author's strongest literary influences had been. I could hear William Faulkner's spirit wandering between lines while meditating on the nature and traumas comprising the identity (or should we now say identities?) of the American south. But who were the others?
The answer came one day when I was discussing the title with a friend and she loaned me a copy of a booklet about one Mark Louis Morneweg published by El Portal Press. In it, he noted his passion for "Miss Emily [Dickinson]"along with deep appreciation for others who had also helped stir to action my own pen. Among them: Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, James Joyce, Shakespeare, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Albert Camus.
He shared these words in regard to his approach to writing fiction: "Unplanned adventures in literature. An idea pops into your head and you go from there. Nothing structured or laid out beforehand. Just one word comes and you have an entire chapter to write and that is great..." (The only time I had ever allowed myself that kind of compositional freedom was while writing Christmas When Music Saved the World, later titled Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player.)
Maybe even more importantly for the purposes of this essay, he told us this: "...I am a prose stylist with some amazingly short chapters. Some chapters that are poems. Prose poems." And added: "Penthe is about taking risks. Artistic risks. Passion..." The risk was one that paid off extremely well because ultimately Penthe & Alphonse succeeds as both an epic poem and an amazing novel.
Moreover, in addition to taking risks, it is also about what Lady Gaga refers to as the right to curate one's life as one sees fit. Along those same lines, Morneweg chose not to douse the flames of his startling creative literary inventiveness. He chose instead to feed the fire with boldness sufficient enough to increase its light and heat so others could gather around and savor the prize of unexpected beauty.