Dwight Macdonald coined the term “scholar-squirrel” to describe a certain kind of biographer who excels at piling up immense quantities of details and anecdotes about his subject while allowing the spirit — the very reason he wanted to write the biography in the first place — to slip away as he runs down yet another acorn of info. Judging from this review of Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, biographer Brad Gooch had trouble telling the forest from all the hollow trees he wanted to fill:
The most useful fact Gooch has uncovered is that O’Connor, as a child, loved reading the volume called Humorous Tales in her family’s edition of Edgar Allan Poe. It sounds at first like a satiric joke or at any rate an oxymoron: Who even knew Poe wrote humorous tales? But if they didn’t exist, O’Connor would have had to make them up, for precisely this combination of horror and humor lies at the heart of her enterprise. She was funny before she was anything else; and if she learned to use her biting wit in the service of her complicated theological and psychological vision, that is only because, as she explained to one reader of Wise Blood, “I just unfortunately have Haze’s vision and Enoch’s disposition.” That the churchless preacher Haze should end up blind, while we last encounter his sometime-companion Enoch wandering forlornly around the countryside in a gorilla suit, gives an extra little Poe-like twist to the words vision and disposition.
The reviewer, Wendy Lesser, has a good take on what I like best about O’Connor’s work:
What Poe had, and what O’Connor either inherited or, more likely, invented, was the courage to confront the horrifying without flinching. In Poe, this seems unallied to any belief system: Cruelty alone (his characters’ cruelty toward one another, his toward them) prevails, and madness is the ordinary state. O’Connor has taken on these extreme conditions, but she does so with the word of God ringing in the background. It is never a word we can take at face value; often it comes to us from the mouths of corrupt preachers, congenital morons, cruel parents, hate-wielding provincials, and madmen of all stripes and colors. But it keeps sounding nonetheless and refuses to be ignored. You could read all of O’Connor’s work and conclude that she hated God, with an amused and bitter hatred; you could, with somewhat less support, imagine that she loved God and all his creation; but you could not emerge from a thorough reading and conclude that she was indifferent to God. If her God seems unfamiliar, it’s because he’s not one we’ve seen much of in the centuries since he left off torturing his saints with arrows, flames, and boiling oil.
I previously posted some of my own thoughts on this subject. I’m not sure I agree that Wise Blood is a better novel than The Violent Bear It Away, but it’s certainly populated with some of the most memorable grotesques in American literature. Lesser’s right about O’Connor’s humor: it’s one of the things that threw off John Huston when he tried to adapt Wise Blood as a film. He had the sense to cast young Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes, but he couldn’t quite grasp the bitter wit that O’Connor, a devout Catholic in the Protestant South, brought to bear on her subject, and the film comes off as an episode of Green Acres directed by David Lynch.